Last month, The Atlantic ran an article titled “How to Save Democracy.” This was just one of hundreds of similar articles from the past two years, all variations on a central question: how do we make things “normal” again? Insofar as these articles are prescriptive, they mostly prescribe simplistic but sweeping changes in the way we do everything. No more gerrymandering! Stop the spread of misinformation! Learn to get along with the fascists who want to erase you! In other articles, bailouts are blatantly oversold. Call your representatives! Check your voter registration status! To plant a tree!
These pieces do not answer the original question. It is because there is no answer.
This is not just a commentary on the current state of electoral politics. I’m writing this column the weekend before Election Day, and I don’t know if the Democrats retained the House or the Senate, or who won the Governor’s races, or the Secretary of State races that will determine the short-term future of fair elections. I won’t know until after this issue goes to press. It’s not entirely fair to say “I don’t care” about the outcome of midterm reviews (in fact, I care a lot). What I mean is: the cookie of democracy is collapsing and it is unlikely that we can stop the process.
Let’s think about that. Even though the Democrats have wiped the slate clean this year, they will become an easy punching bag for the GOP. If they can’t avoid the lure of right-wing populism by closing the wealth gap (spoiler: they can’t), they lose the presidency in 2024. But let’s say the Democrats fix everything in the next two years – they pass a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, raise the minimum wage, wipe out student debt, the whole progressive package. The courts will erase all of that, even if they allow red state legislatures to do whatever they want. And Republicans will always take the White House by consensus, executive order, insurrection or otherwise.
In short, anti-democratic forces are poised to make their mark for the foreseeable future, and at this point there is not much we can do about it. Academics and knowledgeable experts have been saying this for years. We were left in awe as we watched the comet destined to strike America travel millions of miles through space, and now it’s finally close enough to hit.
It’s strange, then, that of all the energy spent by authors thinking about how they’d like to take a quantum leap in the 1990s, almost no ink has been devoted to what is surely a bigger question now: What are we doing to prepare for the inevitable death of American democracy?
Maybe it’s because it’s so hard to see what the Empire looks like after it burns down. Lots of bad things are likely to happen, but it’s not inevitable that we’ll end up in a world of totalitarian hell, our every emoji monitored by morality bots, an fMRI machine installed in our heads to detect dissent , our neighborhoods separated by barbed wire . It’s not your grandparents’ fascism, after all. Examination of our strongest curators reveals a cabal of barely functioning chess whose mothers never embraced them. These people don’t care about governance. They seem barely aware of the existence of other humans. There is no coordinated master plan to wipe out one race or another, no grand ideology that could be said to be driving it all. So far, it’s mostly been a directionless cash grab at the expense of the ill-defined enemies of the hour. End-of-democracy engineers will loot and loot what they can, leaving us to fight for what’s left.
Assuming the artifices of the state collapse, how long should we mourn? “Normal”, for us Xers and Millennials was not so pretty. An orderly and coordinated America has started hundreds of wars, installed dictators, imprisoned millions, erected torture chambers, poisoned waterways, segregated, overloaded, displaced, bulldozed, killed and killed and killed more . We could do without all that.
Also consider that there have always been humans without governance, without hierarchy, without leadership of any kind. This way of life is not confined to early hunter-gatherer societies, but has been a lived reality for people around the world at various times, and remains so today. Historian Peter Marshall writes: “In Africa, most people managed their communal life outside or in spite of their corrupt and dictatorial governments. All of Catalonia was ruled by labor unions for a few years in the 1930s. During an economic crisis in 2001, activists in Argentina set up their own trading systems. And in the state of Chiapas, indigenous activists kicked out the Mexican military in the 1990s so they could do what the government wouldn’t: provide clean water, pave roads and build hospitals and functioning schools. The army never came back.
The philosopher Colin Ward wrote: “A society which organizes itself without authority always exists, like a seed under the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, of capitalism and its waste, of privilege and its injustices, nationalism and suicidal ideas. loyalties, religious differences with their superstitious separatism. On every continent, people still cook meals, read to their children, and dance at weddings with little thought about who’s running things, or if things are being run at all. Maybe we’ll be fine on our own. Maybe even better.
The question remains: how do we prepare for the end? How can we, when there are so many unknowns? Should we pack all our things in backpacks and find a new place to call home? Should we fortify our homes to protect them from marauders, tape pots and pans to windows? Storing shotguns and canned beans? Build catapults to fight drones? Should we buy medical textbooks and loot imaging machines so we can play doctor to our aging parents? Should we disappear into our screens, become Sims in a virtual world that we can transform into anything we want? Or should we learn to avoid weapons, computers and all other tools, wishing instead to feel the dirt and grass sift through our fingers as we plant seeds and dig for grubs?
These are difficult and unpleasant considerations. But it seems to me that we can be better served by asking ourselves how we can consciously shape the kind of society we want in the future rather than asking ourselves repeatedly how we could save the old one. •
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