Author’s Note —
This essay was originally written in July 2020 and updated in October 2020, just after early voting for the 2020 presidential election began. At that time, 200,000 Americans had died as a result of the novel coronavirus. Trump’s attempted coup, and the systemic shock of January 6, 2021, had not yet come to pass.
The events predicted in this essay are now historical fact. More than 1.1 million Americans have died of COVID-19 as of today. Trump did lose the election, and did try to remain in power regardless. This note isn’t intended as a told-you-so, however. That would be terribly hypocritical on the part of the author, since she was too much of a coward to publish it at the time it was written, and so it remained trapped as a prescient draft, while the world outside spun.
The thing is — democracy has not yet been saved. Far from it. We approach 2024 with voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the subversion of democratic norms at unprecedented levels across dozens of states. The far-right is so far gone now that one marvels they haven’t fallen off Flat Earth’s edge. Those who would preserve democracy are rapidly being legislated out of the tools with which to do so.
And so, because its relevance for the upcoming 2024 election is heartbreakingly undiminished, this author offers again this entreaty for defending the vote, and all our constitutional rights, as though our lives depend upon it. — May 22, 2023
We sat on our hands and watched and argued for months, as a biological disaster on the distant horizon galloped closer and closer, and now we are blinking in the dust and the heat, disoriented, stuttering, and shocked, shocked, that we might actually be trampled. We cannot even believe that something entirely predictable could happen to us (and that’s just those of us who aren’t still in plenary denial that it is even happening).
We stand to lose a million lives and our economic stability, because when we had the opportunity to fully commit to sacrificing some of the latter for the long-term preservation of both, we thought we would eat cake instead. Now, we will have neither.
In a letter on behalf of the Pennsylvania General Assembly to the colonial governor in 1755, Franklin wrote, “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
The posturing Facebook comments of anti-lockdown protestors and AR-toting alt-righters brandish these words about, ignorant (and proudly so) of the fact that they use them in almost exact contradiction to the meaning Franklin intended.
In Franklin’s context, “essential liberty” was the freedom to live (rather than die in frontier raids during the French and Indian War). “Temporary safety” was a comfortably small chunk of cash that the Penn family (the wealthiest in Pennsylvania) was willing to pay as a weak-sauce, one-time contribution toward border security; real “safety” took the form of the hefty, regular taxes Franklin demanded that the Penns pay instead, an amount of money that would realistically and effectively ensure border security, not just pay lip-service and pocket-change to it while farmers and blacksmiths burned to death.
Re-phrased to bring Franklin’s meaning into the modern era, we get “those who would give up life to purchase a little temporary comfort deserve neither life nor comfort.”
With more than 200,000 American lives already given, the jarring absurdity of using those words to protest pandemic mitigation efforts marches onward like a big, brass band in our single-nation parade of death — marching straight into the most important election of all of our lives.
Our society is perhaps more thoroughly distracted, scattered, and confused than we have ever been at any point before. We are pathologically self-centered. We ravenously consume propaganda, to the point that scientists can predict which facts we will accept and reject on the basis of our political affiliation.
A good portion of us think that a piece of cloth worn on the face while indoors in public constitutes a rage-inducing infringement on our personal liberty (never mind that our grandparents met military conscription and forced rationing with grace and resolve). Another portion believes that Bill Gates advocates vaccination against disease as an excuse to surreptitiously implant children with microchips for… some foggy wickedness that cannot be named, specifically.
The flabbergasting irony is that, for all our indulgent paranoia, we seem to be largely incapable of correctly assessing the clear and present threat directly in front of us. We sit mesmerized by shrill voices on streaming video, surrounded on all sides by international predators whom we once commanded, unaware that we have become the prey.
We are not so different from the fictional villains of internet conspiracy theories. They are us, perverted by the curse of getting everything they want, and the foaming, abject terror of losing it all. They don’t need to be sex-trafficking lizard-alien Satanists in order to want to control the world. Don’t we all want to control our worlds? Unless we can see how such a desire fulfilled can only destroy everything about the world that is worth loving.
It is consoling to fantasize about cabals and cults, instead of simply facing the obviousness of wealthy people who don’t want to share, and haven’t wanted to share since the days of monarchs, and who will go to great lengths to avoid any risk of it. We’d rather feel initiated into some special knowledge than actually grapple with the plain fact that all the evil around us is likely just selfishness, metastasized.
We have no control over the ends of anything. We own nothing. The ends do not belong to us, nor to selfish masters, nor to anyone alive. The ends are never assured, and all the control, contriving, and conniving on the Earth is just a desperate attempt to try to force the ends into a kind of strangled harmony with our own desires.
All we have, all we have ever had, are the means. The ends belong to time, entropy, Newton, and stars.
Means are the things we do. The means we choose create the world we experience.
A democracy is not a thing that exists — it is a process that occurs. The side-effect of the democratic process is the creation of democracy, and a democracy must be continually created, in every moment, and with every choice, by democratic actions. When democratic principles are no longer applied, and democratic acts are no longer done, democracy ceases to be.
The process, the doing of it, is the only sense in which it exists.
If we do not practice democracy, then we do not actually have democracy. (It’s a bit like love in that respect.)
Our taste for myth, our worship of the shallow and the crude, our chronic individualism bought at the expense of our ability to create common good — all of it has dangerously loosened our grip on the power to govern ourselves, and on our understanding that this practice of democracy is the only thing that creates the condition we experience of living in a democracy.
While we scroll our phones and retweet snarky political memes Photoshopped by Russian operatives, we forget that the outcome of the game is literally meaningless unless we insist upon the rules. The taste of winning at the expense of playing fair is a temptation we indulge at the expense of losing everything.
The disciplined practice of genuine democracy is the means by which every ethical end is rendered probable.
If our veneration and defense of this process falters, it won’t matter which side wins — the only end will be authoritarianism.
Our political parties, as they exist now, are merely shadows of the essential, as in Plato’s famous allegory. Out in the sunlight, there are and ever have been only two real sides — democracy and autocracy.
The disciplined practice of genuine democracy is the means by which every ethical end is rendered probable.
Every bad-faith actor in our political history, regardless of political party, has been an autocrat under his cloak, because there is no other way to ensure one’s continued power except by intentionally depriving others of theirs.
Many Americans have forgotten that what makes a democracy is the process, not the outcome. There are no specific democratic ends — only democratic means. The means are the very thing we have tragically discarded, in our myopic obsession with achieving partisan ends.
It doesn’t matter what political party wins, if our elections are manipulated and our citizens disfranchised. It doesn’t matter who controls the House and Senate, if districts are distorted to give the few an unjust advantage over the many. Specific policies matter far less than the question of whether or not the people have sufficient power to change those policies.
Many Americans have forgotten that what makes a democracy is the process, not the outcome. There are no specific democratic ends — only democratic means.
I will be voting for a party — the party that I think has the political and ethical will to preserve democracy, even when it means losing. But truthfully, we are beyond parties now.
The shattering failure in this decade of our state and federal governments to protect public health, the economy, and the rule of law, and the difficulty of obtaining adequate remedy through our mismanaged electoral process means that, if we want to avoid the wrenching of our society into dictatorship or oligarchy, we must set aside all concern for pet policy positions.
Nothing matters now, except the restoration of the democratic process.
Instead of asking if I am a liberal or a conservative… instead of asking if I am a Democrat or a Republican… ask me if I will elevate the integrity of the democratic process over my personal desires for its ends.
Ask me, do I care more about whether the game is fair, or about who wins? Ask me, do I prefer a government of frustrating consensus and compromise between authentic positions that begets only lukewarm satisfaction, or would I sell that seemingly tepid water for the amphetamine of total dominance for my particular political vision?
Ask me, do I care more about whether the game is fair, or about who wins?
If you ask me this question, you will know who I am. If you ask Americans this question, you will know whether or not we are who we say we are.
You will know if I am a person, born free and equal in dignity and rights, and endowed with reason and conscience; or a peasant, happy to live under a lord so long as the lord resembles him, relegated to cheering cannon-fodder for the usurious delight of those he serves.
Are you a person, or a peasant? Do you serve the process, or your party?
We must not lose the process. If we do not renew our vigilance, if we continue to exalt petty victories, amplify propaganda and extremism, revel in our loathing of those with whom we disagree, allow ourselves to be distracted by assaults on our particular grievances, and narrow-mindedly fixate only on our ends, we will lose everything.
The only air a democracy can breathe originates in universal enfranchisement, accessible and secure elections, transparent governing, an evidence-based and independent Fourth Estate (free press), and a broad political commitment to the primacy of rule by and for The People.
The long lines of early voters in Georgia give us all oxygen. This is American democracy. This is how we make it. But once we have exercised this fundamental right, there is more work to be done.
We may not be able to prevent what is coming. So much of the groundwork has already been laid, from the authoritarian trend in federal judiciary appointments to decades of partisan gerrymandering; from the devastation of the Citizens United decision to the shameless voter suppression of Black people and the poor; from outright electoral deceit, hacking and international interference to the despotic malice of Governor Brian Kemp and the incompetent corruption of former supervisor of elections Brenda Snipes.
I sense an enthusiasm for voting that I have never felt in America in my lifetime. It’s brilliant, and long overdue. Do not let your enthusiasm be diminished by disillusionment. Do not read this essay and feel despair. Read it and feel resolved. After we vote, we must be prepared for what may come next.
The Republican candidate, who has mocked the principles upon which democracy rests with nearly every self-aggrandizing exhalation, will likely lose our vote, and will try to ascend to power regardless. It is as certain as rain.
If we allow this to happen, the American experiment will fail. The failure of democracy is not mysterious, or cataclysmic, or unusual. Democracies fail more often than they succeed. But many of us are still so damn misty-eyed over our own exceptionalism that if we do finally fall one day at the stroke of a pen into fully explicit authoritarianism, we will have done it while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance all the way down, generally oblivious to the multitudinous warnings and signals, up until the very moment that we smack the pavement.
We can, however, refuse to place our right hands over our hearts as we’re pushed over the edge to the applause of contemptuous publicists and the intoxicating approval of rich people.
If we are going to fall, I’d rather fall with my eyes open, looking into the faces of the pushers, while I scramble for a handhold. I would more willingly drag myself up the American cliffside by my commitment to democratic principles, than sink quietly down, cushioned by vacant rhetoric, a word-salad of platitudes, insignificant political bones thrown to starving dogs, and the obsequious optimism of a few upper-middle-class retirees who think fascism is a historical footnote.
We have nothing if we do not have democracy. We need to make sure our would-be leaders know that we know this, and in order to do that, we have to know that we know this, and we have to be ready to defend it.
Means are the choices we make that create the world. We must guard them with our lives, if we wish to continue to live free.