Pessimism and Hope for Democracy

Liz Watson

Progressive Democratic Candidate Liz Watson. (Credit: Liz for Indiana on Facebook)

Just before the midterm elections and immediately thereafter, I found myself feeling pessimistic and saying so to anyone within earshot. That was an unwelcome downer for friends and fellow progressives wishing to celebrate an election that gave the Democratic Party control of the U.S. House of Representatives. The “blue wave” may not have been as big as many expected (or at least hoped for), but one-party rule in the nation’s capital had been defeated at the polls.

The Democrats also made gains in governorships and other state offices. Even in deep-red Arizona, Democrats won a U.S. Senate seat and took a 5-4 advantage in the state’s nine Congressional districts.

The Arizona victory underscored my pessimism. Why could that red state, where my Hunt the Devil friend Oscar lives, show blue when Indiana, the state in which I reside, deepened its already dark shade of red? Maybe we progressive Hoosiers will never overcome Republican gerrymandering. Maybe Republicans do not even need to gerrymander to dominate in Indiana. It just seems hopeless.

Hopelessness and pessimism-bordering-on-cynicism do not constitute a healthy state of mind. Indeed, as I was reminded by an article written by Tom McCarthy for The Guardian on November 18, demoralization is a sure path to democracy’s demise.

The operative question in McCarthy’s article is whether Donald Trump is an authoritarian. McCarthy calls on an historian, a philosopher, and a correspondent for the Southern Poverty Law Center to answer that question.

The deeper question, I believe, encompasses Trump without reducing to him. What is the pattern of authoritarianism that overwhelms a democracy? That pattern seems to be manifested, at least partially, in Trump’s presidency.

Pessimists like me should take note that authoritarian rulers want us to feel they are unstoppable and that their triumph is irreversible. This is the point made by historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who specializes in fascism. This façade of inevitability is largely rhetorically constructed in a style of leadership that relies on fear and intimidation and by a discourse that undermines the credibility of an independent press. Villainizing critics privileges loyalty and power over reason and argument. Cultivating chaos and turmoil breeds uncertainty and ultimately dependency on the autocratic ruler.

“Authoritarians want us to be hopeless,” Ben-Ghiat observes, “to be depoliticized and to feel it’s not worth our while to even try.”

Perhaps the limited but important achievement of the midterm election is, as Ben-Ghiat maintains, a counterargument to the assertion that authoritarian power is incontestable. If so, so much the better, especially if she is right in believing that voting in free and fair elections is “the biggest index of democracy.”

Certainly, free and fair elections and voting are important to the health and welfare of representative democracy. We’ve reason to worry about the integrity of our elections these days. We are a deeply polarized and increasingly radicalized people. Our electoral institutions are showing the strain. In the present atmosphere, neither side seems to believe it can lose a fair election.

Maybe winning an election—even one deemed free and fair—is not the best measure of democracy prevailing over authoritarianism. The way we contest our political differences may go more directly to the question of democracy’s viability. Authoritarianism is largely a rhetorical practice contrary to the rhetorical practice of a democratic people. A democratic rhetorical practice is not tame civility any more than it is demonizing and polarizing.

A smart friend of mine, Jeffrey Isaac, who happens also to be a political scientist and public scholar living in the same gerrymandered Congressional district as I, makes a telling point about the meaning of winning and losing elections. Even losing progressive campaigns, he writes in a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, can be a source of hope. It depends on how the campaign is conducted.

When Democratic candidates, such as Indiana’s incumbent U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly, try to get elected (unsuccessfully, in his case) by running against their own party’s liberalism, Isaac observes, they display a “cynical calculation” that compromises their integrity. Other losses, like that of Democrat Liz Watson running for election in Indiana’s 9th Congressional district, “can be seen as ethical and even political victories.” Why? Unlike Donnelly, Watson did not try to out Republican a Republican opponent. She tried to expand her own base as a progressive. “While Donnelly inspired widespread disillusionment among liberal Democrats, Watson inspired hope in the promise of citizen activism, and in the possibility of a better Democratic party.”

As Isaac puts the matter, “democratic politics is a long game.” Watson’s campaign was a start for progressive causes. She conducted a campaign of integrity, not a vicious campaign of hate, fear, or disregard for principle, but a campaign to inspire in the spirit of an inclusive democracy.

Inspiration is another word for hope, hope that the democratic experiment itself will survive the temptation of authoritarianism.  As Oscar tells me from his vantage point in Arizona, “Those of us who pay attention to Latin America know that it is always at the moment when fascism seems strongest that it begins to fail. What is amazing about democracy is not that it can never be achieved, but that the ideal of it keeps returning.”


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