While the Rhode Island General Assembly fusses over whether to mandate civics education and ponders whether critical race theory will be the demise of democracy I am forced to admit that I think all the signs for its demise presently exist. Perhaps because I am a white person, I think there is a glimmer of hope. I wonder if I would think it was already dead were I a person of color or a member of a disenfranchised group of Americans.
Most Americans think that democracy will perdure. Over the last decade one in six democracies has failed, Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Venezuela have had autocrats dismantle any semblance of a true democracy. These elected leaders attacked the very essence of democracy by dismantling the independence of the courts, excoriating the media, inventing facts which served their narrative, unleashed its justice department against enemies, debased universities as havens of poli-speak (those principles being taught that were inimical to the despot’s grab of power) and stonewalling reforms. Reflection would document that the global autocratic threat has arrived at our shores.
Why is this happening? It begins with the lack of education of students. It is outrageous that courses to teach students about the underpinnings of democracy are MIA. Mandating civics education should have been the first bill passed by RI’s solons. A future generation won’t even know what to fix since they don’t know what this country was.
Adult Americans now inhabit ideological and demographic bubbles. Facts are not facts but carefully constructive narratives to maintain the “bubble quo.” Donald Trump’s rise to power with 70 million voting for him vs. 74 million for Mr. Biden clearly shows the ideological camps in the United States. Congress keeps up the drumbeat by supporting false narratives, excoriating anyone in the other party, and collecting a paycheck to do next to nothing. Compromise is out the window lest the “public servant” lose an election. His/her power is more important than the good of the country. So-called constitutional checks and balances are “gamed” by appointing ideologues. Law has been weaponized to promote a social agenda often at odds with the founding principles of this country.
On the sidelines are all the cheerleaders who make a fortune by encouraging the antics of elected officials with a narrative of hate and division. Friends and families cannot talk to each other. A friend of mine who is pretty brilliant said that he uses the mantra, “We agree to disagree” when an argument seems imminent. Yet, that doesn’t solve any problem. It reinforces that we cannot work toward a common ground.
As we wipe our hands of one another and refuse to engage, there certainly is evidence of some autocrats presently sitting on the sidelines who will capitalize on the reality that there is a huge number of the American electorate who are open to a strongman style of governance. Already some Republicans like Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida and Gov. Greg Abbott are trying to out-Trump Trump.
History provides uncomfortable lessons that a system of governance is not immortal. Yes, there have been past crises but they were faced because people felt they were all in it together. Now it’s an “us” and “them” society. What’s ahead?
Violet is an attorney and former state attorney general.