The insurrection we witnessed on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, as a mob including white supremacists stormed our nation's capital to stage a coup, was the culmination of President Trump, his enablers, and supporters slowly chipping away at our democracy. For the past several years, we've seen him downgrade our country with dangerous and radicalized rhetoric. He intentionally deepened and exacerbated division along racial, cultural, and economic lines. His continuous and unfounded assertion that the presidential election was "rigged" or "stolen" was nothing more than a ploy to provoke his base and cause an implosion of our democracy so that he can seize power. The veil on our fragile nation has been lifted at the expense of so many lives. It is more evident than ever before that democracy reform must happen, and it must happen now. ~ From, The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP.
When my father was surprised by some information or event, he would say, “Well I’ll be John [jhown] (his accent) Brown. As kids, we never knew who that was. We later learned that John Brown was a white abolitionist who gave his life fighting against slavery and injustice, mystified by those who turned a blind eye to obvious wrongs. Many of us are mystified today by fellow citizens who’ve been fed a steady diet of fear and immorality that has enabled within them a high tolerance for injustice. This tolerance is laying the groundwork for undermining our democracy.
A seemingly random memory from my childhood hit my radar this month. The anniversary of the October 16-18,1859, Harper’s Ferry Raid was led by John Brown to initiate a revolt of enslaved people. Brown held extreme anti-slavery views. The raid failed and Brown was put to death for treason in December of that same year. In his last quote before execution, he said, “…if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments--I submit; so, let it be done!”
If alive today, I imagine John Brown would be holding his breath until the completion of midterm elections to see if, yet another piece of our democracy will be sabotaged.
New York Times columnist, Jamelle Bouie channeled my thoughts as he pulled from the writings of author and scholar W.E.B. Dubois. In Dubois’ biography of John Brown, part of a series called the American Crisis Series of Biographies, he said, “John Brown loved his neighbor as himself…. He could not endure therefore to see his neighbor poor, unfortunate or oppressed.” Dubois himself warned that the tolerance of injustice will only lead to darker places and darker deeds. Throughout our history, we have seen the evidence of “darker deeds.”
Déjà vu or (This Sh…t Keeps Showing Up)
I used to be baffled by peoples’ ability to see others endure intentionally created poverty and oppression. These people also tend to vote against their own best interests and succumb to propaganda generated by greedy, power-hungry tyrants. But not anymore. I’ve looked into the tactics of those who have turned democracies into dictatorships and there are common threads. The threads manipulate the uninformed, galvanize racists and bigots, and use misinformation to camouflage truth. The tactics follow a pattern:
• Disrupt democracy with false claims of failures within the system.
• Create and define a common enemy as the source of all ills, usually people of marginalized groups.
• Plant distrust of a free press.
• Undermine faith in elections and voting.
• Stage a military coup or elect a charismatic leader who claims they can cure all the falsely stated problems.
• The leader, once elected by a democratic system, begins to do away with individual rights and civil liberties eventually creating for himself an autocracy in which voting is either discontinued or meaningless. The people no longer have a voice.
• Create and prey upon fears.
These tactics are evident in every era and aspect of our history. The shameful and disgusting enslavement of African people on this soil, came with fears that the people of African descent were dangerous, out to rape white women, and demonic. These stereotypes comforted the lazy land thieves who benefited from free labor and provided excuses for their barbaric behavior.
Japanese internment camps during World War II were another example of using fear to violate civil rights. Japanese American citizens were yanked from their homes because Americans were concerned they could be spies for the Japanese government.
McCarthyism. The ‘Red Scare’ of communism used by a rogue (or just crazy) senator to violate the rights of entertainers and other citizens, ruining their livelihoods or lives by accusing them of being practicing communists.
The Salem Witch trials capitalized on fear and used it to justify burning mostly women at the stake for allegedly practicing witchcraft.
As the playbook for authoritarianism is being used today, it is crucial to understand the role of a democracy. Democracy is more than majority rule; it makes a space for checks and balances, adherence to the rules of law, respect for human rights, and systems of self-correction or improvement.
Autocrats minimize checks on their abuses, limit human rights, and personally benefit from their positions as unchallenged leaders. Their propaganda machines convince people that democracy is failing them. Throughout history, authoritarian rulers emerged as democracies were undermined and weakened; names such as Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Chiang Kai-shek.
Historian and political commentator, Ruth Ben-Ghiat says the strategy of today’s right-wing authoritarianism is built on the Mussolini model of labeling democracies as tyrannical. They also label Democrat officials as dictators, confusing those who refuse to analyze the actions of the accusers.
As democracies are being challenged around the world today, one significant pattern stands out. The enemies of democracy create within certain individuals an abandonment of human decency, the ability to suppress empathy and respect for the rights of others, and a lack of conscience which enables the tolerance for injustice.
Ironically, this quote from slave owner, Thomas Jefferson, is relevant today: "When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” I believe that duty is in the form of voting with a passion and spreading factual truth everywhere to drown out the intentional lies.
There is freedom within, there is freedom without
Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup
There's a battle ahead, many battles are lost
But you'll never see the end of the road
While you're traveling with me
Hey now, hey now
Don't dream it's over
Hey now, hey now
When the world comes in
They come, they come
To build a wall between us
We know they won't win.
-Neil Finn, Crowded House. "Don't Dream It's Over"