The tag line of the Washington Post is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” I disagree. Democracy dies when it is suffocated, when it is drowned in a sea of lies. Democracy is messy. It is complicated and in many ways ungainly. It invites a mix of voices and views; it in fact depends on that very thing. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, demands obedience, suspension of independent thought, full fidelity to “the leader.” There is no deviation, no challenging, and above all, no questioning. Facts are things distributed, not things proved with evidence.
Democracy requires courage, because it asks us to take a chance on human beings, to invest in their capacity to create something that will lift up all, that will strive for greater equality, for justice, for fairness, for the impartial imposition of laws. But among us are those who are entirely too comfortable with and drawn to the ethos of bullies, of sycophants. These are the insecure people who demand to be led, not because they see virtue in a leader, but because by aligning with that leader, they see the prospect of exacting revenge upon all those whom democracy has lifted up and enabled to be part of our body politic.
Those who cheer on authoritarianism believe that beating up on others is a way for them to elevate their station in life, to become winners. By trampling others under foot–women, immigrants, the poor–they somehow gain the upper hand. They refuse–or simply choose not–to see how the authority whom they embrace like a messiah is using them. They are his shock troops, the enforcers of his new code of obedience. He cares not for them, for their future(s). He heaps disdain upon them at every turn by personally profiting from his position and manipulating every facet of government to his advantage.
But maybe they are content with rhetorical attacks on those whom they hate. Maybe it’s good enough that he’s separating mothers from their children at our southern border. Maybe that’s what evangelicals read into the teachings of Jesus, how we are commanded to punish the poor, the wanderer, the seeker of safety. Maybe it’s good enough that he shreds our alliances, consorts with our enemies, and treats the foundational documents and principles of our democracy as the rough equivalent of toilet paper. Maybe these are the folks who feel they were born at the wrong time, too late for Jim Crow and way too late for the human carnage of Roman times. He is their Nero and they somehow don’t care if Rome burns.
The problem, of course, is that when you light a match, you never quite know what the fire will consume, and whether you will in fact be caught up in it. There is a kind of breathtaking arrogance among those who seem determined to shred what others have painstakingly built, over hundreds of years, as if tossing it all onto a bonfire will somehow benefit them. But when you’ve spent your every effort undermining faith in the body politic, in our institutions and in the people sworn to defend them, why would you expect that one day, when it’s your turn to pull the fire alarm — as history shows us it surely will be — anyone will answer your call?