When is democracy out of danger?

I want to return one more time to The Morning email from January 6, and one particular idea: that democrats and especially Democrats should make enormous sacrifice for now, with relief to come “Once the authoritarian threat has receded.”

A lot of people maintain some form of this premise, and for my part I have touched upon this question before. But I feel like it’s worth addressing specifically in these terms.

Setting aside the practicality of still stopping the authoritarian threat to America, at this late hour, what is the “after” condition when America moves our democracy off the endangered list? What does that look like?

This seems like a very important and obvious question, because a lot of us would have said that we entered the “after” condition a year ago, yet here we are.

I don’t think this has fully caught up to many people or institutions, though it may nag at people something like deja vu. “Didn’t we do this once already?”

I think we did this at least once already. I’m writing a book about the larger sense of futility, but let’s just focus for now on “make extra sacrifice until the authoritarian threat has receded.”

We did that. If it didn’t work—and I don’t believe that it did—what is doing it again meant to achieve? How many castles does Mario have to beat before he saves the princess democracy for real?

We have spent years now trying the idea that we can save America’s democracy within the system, via extra effort and sacrifice. If the results at this point don’t amount to “Once the authoritarian threat has receded,” what would? How, when?

I don’t want to repeat myself too much, so let’s examine the idea mooted by various experts of “a grand coalition” to save democracy from the authoritarian party. I suspect this appeals to some people for its drama as much as for its proven success in other countries facing a similar threat, but I don’t deny the practical successes. I do question how the fuck this is supposed to be applicable in America’s very unusual only-two-parties political system?

From what I can see, hand-waving is usually the proximate response to the problem that defeating Republicans in coalition with all the other parties makes no sense when, formally, there are no other parties. I myself have contended that American politics contains many parties which mostly use just two labels, so the idea that in this case you build a bigger Democratic/democratic coalition is not without relevance in theory. The problem is that at this point we have already put the idea into practice, and even if one insists it could be tried more, I don’t know what more result could follow.

I really suspect that everyone pinning their hopes on “Once the authoritarian threat has receded” is still mentally pre-2021. I can’t blame them entirely. But, hey, to recap: we did it. We fought back against an authoritarian government, we stood up and said no, we set aside differences, formed a big enough coalition to overcome (just barely!) the goalpost moving by those in power, and (just barely!) got them out of power.

Whatever was supposed to happen after that has not really happened. As I joked on Twitter the morning of January 6, there has been no “epiphany.” Not by Republicans, not by anyone really. The authoritarian threat is not receding, it’s surging. Removing the authoritarian party from power did not break a spell, unlock a door or wake us from the nightmare. The return of legitimate authorities has not resulted in the authoritarians’ crimes catching up to them at last. As I have said, I give the investigators credit for doing more than most are doing, actually, but even their best won’t be enough. The new democracy-coalition government has not after an entire year enacted reforms to proof the system against abuses. I also don’t really think that policy reforms can “handcuff” this many people into upholding democracy when they are all determined not to, any more than a wall can hold back a folk migration. Personnel is policy.

This is very, very hard to face, including for me. But we already did it. We sacrificed to assemble a coalition big enough to pry unwilling authoritarians from power. (The Democratic Party nominated an anti-immigrant, anti-youth, pro-cop old white man who won’t stop saying that Republicans are his friends and good.) Getting authoritarians back out of power next time will be even harder but the hardest part may be articulating a point to it.

I should credit Teri Kanefield for saying clearly (when she is not yelling at people to rejoice goddammit) that we will never inflict lasting defeat on the threat. (Strange that she has difficulty persuading people to rejoice.)

Otherwise I can only assume that widespread denial in one form or another is sustaining the belief in “Once the authoritarian threat has receded.” Granted, nothing is permanent, but this is not a brief little blip. Election defeats have not brought Republicans to their senses. Even if you delude yourself that Trump has led good decent Republicans astray (that isn’t what happened), Trump himself is not needed at this point; even after defeat, Republicans compete to imitate him most convincingly. That is not suddenly going to change.

I’m actually more optimistic about covid, but at this point anticipating “Once the authoritarian threat has receded” is something like demanding mass lockdowns etc. until covid… does what? I’m by no means for complete indifference to covid, as I think progress is still relatively credible, there. But the April 2020 idea that we would just all hold our breath, until covid simply suffocated completely out of existence, just no longer has the benefit of the doubt which it had then.

Neither does the 2020 idea that we can all just hold on through one temporary upheaval until the authoritarian threat suffocates out of existence.

what happened to the prince

the spell that could be broke

the once upon a time that

never came to pass

who has the magic wand that’s

gonna make this right

who broke the slipper made of glass

mama this is no fairy tale

please don’t turn out the light

mama there are dragons everywhere

so please don’t say goodnight


“fairy tale,” Jenny Bruce

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