Have you ever noticed how in stories set in ultra-conservative authoritarian post-revolutionary dystopias, there is always a moment when the gravel-voiced narrator says something to the effect of, “I guess we never noticed it was even happening – a little here, a little there – small pieces of our liberty stripped away and we didn’t even realize it”? These reflections always flashback to moments when people were carrying on with their lives, without care, blissfully unaware that a totalitarian government was swiftly being installed under their very feet. Sure, there are some folks who see it coming (“We all called him crazy. Little did we know…”), and no one says anything when they are packed off to jail; but the vast majority of the population is caught completely off guard when the latest iteration of the S.S. comes marching in – the Empire (Star Wars), Gilead (Handmaid’s Tale), Big Brother (1984), Panem (Hunger Games), Abnegation (Divergent).
So lest someone write a historical fiction about our times with that same hackneyed line, let me set the record straight: We are paying attention. We do notice what is happening. And we are trying our damnedest to prevent it. The problem is, in this democratic republican government that we so admire for all of its ingenuitive failsafes that protect against threats to the integrity of the system, we are rather blatantly protecting the parts of the system that were intentionally designed to not be sustainable.
In 1776, we held certain truths to be self-evident. Two and a half centuries later, due to intentional misinformation campaigns, rampant promotion of and belief in “alternate facts”, the quagmire of social media and its content-curating algorithms that reinforce dangerous echo chambers, a glut of conspiracy theories, and manipulative special interests with major platforms, the truth is a bit more evasive.
A huge and harrowing population in this country truly believe in a reality that frankly doesn’t exist. They are afraid of a deep state threat, of space lasers, of NATO and our European allies, of immigrants, of progress, of minorities. The list goes painfully on. Half of their fears are no more than myth – Pizzagate?! Jewish space lasers?! A mastermind Q embedded deep in the government divulging precious secrets?! The other half are a warped interpretation of reality. Immigrants and refugees are and have always been the fabric of our nation; our friends across the pond help maintain democratic order in a chaotic world; BIPOC communities and individuals are taking their place as the change agents after centuries of being robbed of their agency by the country they hope to advance. The people who fear progress are the ones who “never saw it coming.” A totalitarian coup may be on the horizon, but this particular brand of fear mongering is the type that stokes the flames.
For the rest of us living in real reality – the 81.2 million Americans who voted Democrat and the countless others who support a progressive agenda – let the record show that we are paying attention to what is truly plaguing our world. We are crying out for remedies.
We know that the world is on fire. We mourn those baked to death in the Pacific Northwest heat dome, those frozen in Texas because fossil-fuel powered generators failed, those battered by hurricanes gaining greater strength every year.
We rally behind Dr. Fauci’s plea for masking and vaccination against a growing number of people who vilify him for standing firmly with science.
We are horrified that so many states are exercising White supremacist systems to restrict minority voting; that Republican legislatures across the country are looking to Arizona as an exemplary defender of election integrity in the smoke and mirror show that is their audit; that the antiquated filibuster is suffocating those lawmakers who were elected to represent the vast majority of our interests; that a self-interested Republican minority has uniformly rejected bipartisan action to investigate the attack on our Capitol, to rebuild our decaying infrastructure, or to support even the most skeletal social safety net, all while kicking out members of their own party who subscribe to the vaguest notions of reality.
We are paying attention.
Our Founders gave us freedom of speech and assembly, which we are using liberally. They pioneered an experimental democratic republic, and we are showing up to vote in record numbers. They built a system of checks and balances that helps temper our government against a swift takeover by one party (though you’ll note that the filibuster was not built into the original toolkit of checks and balances).
But our Founders also took painstaking effort to embed systems of inequality into their newly established republic (the one where “all men are created equal”). They codified injustice and branded it as justice. They built impenetrable walls around their own wealth and a virtually feudal societal arrangement that would allow their wealth to compound.
In short, the same strong foundations that have kept our country from collapsing century after century are also (ironically) the foundations that have set the stage for its current peril. A system built to protect the wealth of the few at the cost of the many cannot simultaneously be a functioning democratic republic that protects the rights and liberties of the many at the expense of the few. It’s the unsustainable paradox of history’s most stable country. But eventually, one of the forces will win out – the plutocracy or the democracy.
Like hundreds of millions of others in this country, I am cautiously optimistic that democracy will prevail. I believe the flame in the American people burns as brightly as it ever has: That “we the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
But if the “blessings of liberty” cannot be secured, if the opposite should happen – if despite our best efforts we cannot ward off the bogeyman of corruption – and our once revered government tumbles irreversibly into the hands of authoritarianism, let no one say we weren’t paying attention.