Democracy Dies in Despair
Democracy needs hope and grace to survive and our society is short on both.
I’m not looking forward to election night 2022.
I think a number of candidates that are not ready for primetime, who built their campaigns on division and lies will win Tuesday. I think the upcoming Congress will be an endless of stream of crap and not focused on, you know governing.
I’m not optimistic about our future as a nation. But I am hopeful.
That said, many people are fearful that democracy in America will be dead as of November 9, 2022. Democracy is on the ballot, they say.
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Take a few minutes and listen to this depressing monologue by Bill Maher about the midterms. I don’t think I’m wrong in seeing this as a eulogy to American democracy:
For those who didn’t want to watch the video here is a quote:
“This really is the crossing the Rubicon moment when the election deniers are elected, which is often how countries slide into authoritarianism, not with tanks in the streets, but by electing the people who then have no intention of ever giving it back,” he said. “The Republican up for Wisconsin governor just said if he’s elected, Republicans will never lose another election. This is how it happens. Hitler was elected, so was Mussolini, Putin, Erdogan, Viktor Orban. This is the ‘it can’t happen to us’ moment that’s happening to us right now. We just don’t feel it yet.”
I get Maher’s dread of the upcoming election. The Republican Party has gone off the rails, and we are going to see a lot of people who have no business being in public office winning. The next two years in Washington and in many state capitals will be hellish and chaotic.
You also have to take note that many of us didn’t think something like January 6 was going to happen and yet it did and it was way worse than we could have imagined. So, we shouldn’t be sanguine if election deniers and the like end up in office. But is November 8, 2022 democracy’s swan song? No, I don’t think so.
We are not in optimistic times. It isn’t morning in America. But I do think these are hopeful times and hope is vital to a thriving democracy. Without hope, democracy truly is lost.
Methodist pastor Jason Micheli notes that we live in a time of extreme partisan pathos, meaning politics has become the ultimate in our lives. “The lesson is that we should not give to our party politics the passion they seek; that is, we should not invest them with eternal importance,” he warns. “Once given the ultimate pathos it seeks, political ideology has the power to extract from us all sorts of self-justifications that lead us in directions contrary to the good.” This is a good word not just for the MAGA cultural warrior, but for the NeverTrumper or Resistance Progressive who is also caught in this doom loop that our is our modern politics.
Micheli adds that what is needed in our politics is grace. “Any healthy politics must be grace in practice, for it requires a humility which is only made possible by the recognition that all participants involved are not only finite but inescapably sinful creatures.”
I think one of the defining characteristics of the NeverTrump movement (of which I am a part of) as well as the progressive “Resistance” is how devoid of hope they are. They’ve told themselves the other side is beyond any hope. They are beyond salvation. Persuasion with the other side is a lost cause. Even worse, we’ve told ourselves that Donald Trump and his minions are unbeatable and that the average American is too dumb to care about issues like democracy instead focusing on frivolous things like inflation.
The other problem with those opposed to Trump is not just the lack of hope, but the abject cynicism. They have convinced themselves that the only way to save democracy is to vote for the Democrats regardless of their record and regardless of their work in several races to knock off more moderate Republicans like Michigan Representative Peter Meijer in favor of MAGA candidates that they believe were easier to beat.
Is this about saving democracy or Democrats?
In his most recent essays, Jonah Goldberg talks about how despair is a poison that harms democracy. Wallowing in self-pity, and refusing to engage the other side is harmful to democracy, just like having a bunch of crazed people storm the Capitol:
In Christian teaching, despair is among the gravest of sins because it is the willful rejection of the idea that personal redemption is possible. The politics of despair promotes the idea that national redemption is impossible if we lose the next election. What I said to the right in 2016 is as true for the left in 2022 (and for both in 2024): If we’re one election away from America being over, then America is already over.
And that’s why Flight 93-ism is so dangerous: There’s a chance people will believe it. The January 6 riot proves the point. Most of those goons and buffoons storming the Capitol committed the blunder of believing Donald Trump’s lies about the election being stolen. That’s the weird irony lost on so many people rightly appalled by that day: Most of those in the mob thought they were fighting for democracy. Some were more villainous than that-particularly the ringleaders like Roger Stone and Steve Bannon who knew it was all a lie-and some were just thugs looking for an excuse to riot. But a lot of those fools were fools for democracy.
The core problem with American politics today is that a large number of people have become convinced that elections aren’t for eliminating problems, they’re for eliminating our “enemies.”
If despair is the sin of losing hope for the possibility of personal redemption, the politics of despair is the sin of losing hope that democracy is up to the task of righting itself. And once you believe that, you give yourself permission to do terrible things and to be a terrible person-so long as you are terrible toward your enemies. (Emphasis mine)
The politics of despair is what we saw on January 6- a sense that if Trump supporters couldn’t “stop the steal” the country was going to become Venezuela on steroids. As Nishelle Gonzales, a business owner in Idaho, wrote in her local paper,”The real enemy of our free democracy isn’t socialism, communism, oligarchies or theocracy — it’s despair, hopelessness and disgust toward each other. It’s holding onto the belief that your fellow Americans who may be on a different political spectrum than you are not worthy of your breath. It is in the dehumanization of the “others” that you feel are your political enemy. “
What is needed now more than ever is a politics of hope. It’s a politics where we don’t see every election as somehow the last election before the Reichstag burns down. It’s a politics where we give each other the benefit of the doubt and look at each other with contempt. A politics of hope believes in the ideals written by our founders centuries ago and believe they still speak to us today. We can look back at our history and see dark times, especially on the issue of slavery and later Jim Crow. But there were people who believed in the ideals of our nation, such as Rev. Martin Luther King.
In 1944 at the age of 15, he won an oratory contest sponsored by the Black Elks. Mixing recent history, current events, his faith, and our constitutional values he gave a speech that was a hint of what was to come. It was also a message brimming with hope. He ends his speech thusly:
The spirit of Lincoln still lives; that spirit born of the teachings of the Nazarene, who promised mercy to the merciful, who lifted the lowly, strengthened the weak, ate with publicans, and made the captives free. In the light of this divine example, the doctrines of demagogues shiver in their chaff. Already closer understanding links Saxon and Freedman in mutual sympathy.
America experiences a new birth of freedom in her sons and daughters; she incarnates the spirit of her martyred chief. Their loyalty is repledged; their devotion renewed to the work He left unfinished. My heart throbs anew in the hope that inspired by the example of Lincoln, imbued with the spirit of Christ, they will cast down the last barrier to perfect freedom. And I with my brother of blackest hue possessing at last my rightful heritage and holding my head erect, may stand beside the Saxon-a Negro-and yet a man!
Think for a moment about the context of his speech. He lived in the American South, where African Americans couldn’t vote. African Americans were fighting the Axis Powers in World War II in segregated troops. There is even a story that on the bus ride to the event, he and his teacher had to give up their seat to white passengers. And yet, the young King didn’t wish to conquer his white neighbors but stand side by side with them as an equal.
That’s hope. If King could do that in the midst of so much that was wrong with America, then maybe America still has a chance. I believe it because I have hope in America, no matter what we learn come November 9.
As Christians, we must be a people of grace and hope in these challenging times and reject the sirens of despair. So while I’m concerned, I’m not joining Maher in his eulogy. I will not give into despair. We have to be hopeful, not that people will vote the right way, but that justice will prevail.
In times like these, hope is all we have- and all we need.
Wonderful post, Dennis. Really puts this all in perspective.