Alan Zendell, December 6, 2021
Imagine if you will that you’re sitting at home one evening. It’s been hot, and there’s a huge storm forecast. Leaves and twigs are already blowing everywhere, and there have been tornado watches all day. You look out your window at the 150-foot hickory and maple trees swaying and moaning in the wind, and you notice that a neighbor’s house is on fire. You see flames dancing in the top floor master bedroom – the fire must have started up there, and the family are all down in their finished basement, three levels lower. They have no idea the house is afire.
I experienced something like that a few years ago. We tried calling the neighbor’s land line and mobile phones to no avail. We would have run through our yard to their back door a hundred yards away, but it was very dangerous out there. After wasting valuable time trying to get their attention, we finally just dialed 911. It turned out we weren’t the only ones who saw the fire. Three other neighbors did exactly what we did, but we each thought we were the only ones. One, who lived next door, actually ran over and rang the doorbell of the burning house, but with the wind howling, no one heard it. Would it have helped if we’d been able to work together? (No one was hurt, but it was damned frustrating.)
What are we, who can clearly see our own house on fire, to do to get the attention of those who either can’t see it themselves, don’t care, or think burning it down is a good idea? Good question. Some Americans are old enough to remember the twelve-year run of the original version of this play in Europe eight decades ago. There were many who shouted warnings, but only fifteen years after the end of the Great War, and in the clutches of a world-wide economic Depression, it’s understandable that leaders who might have reacted had other problems to deal with.
What’s our excuse? We’re emerging from the COVID pandemic, our economy is booming, and we’re not presently involved in armed warfare (except on our own streets.) Why can’t people see it, and if they do, why don’t they care enough to fight back? Why are millions of Americans not enraged by the attempts of a soulless, angry minority to sabotage our elections and assure that right-wing extremists gain control of our government and keep it? Why are we all not enraged by the re-emergence and public acceptance of xenophobia and racism? Why are we not angry and terrified about corrupt political and religious leaders who undermine science, who ignore the effects of climate change, and invent lies about protecting ourselves from disease? What has to happen before we come to our senses?
Last Saturday, speaking in Athens, Greece, the birthplace of democracy, Pope Francis, the same one who described Donald Trump as un-Christian in 2016, addressed our burning house. He warned that “democracy has deteriorated dangerously as discontented people are lured by the ‘siren songs’ of populist politicians who promise easy but unrealistic solutions.” Will that help? Previous Popes have spoken out against heinous crimes and impending disasters. In the 1933 version of this play, then Pope Pius XII was accused by many of supporting Adolf Hitler and the rise of Nazism, and ignoring the Holocaust. Had Francis been Pope then, would it have changed anything?
We’ll never know, but it’s clear that if we repeat the mistakes of our great-grandparents, America will be the next empire to be the subject of ‘Rise and Fall” documentaries. With hyper-partisanism gridlocking our Congress, a rogue ex-President continuing to feed the cause of insurrection with lies, and with two of our largest states acting as if federal authority no longer exists, it’s hard to see a path forward on which democracy is intact for the next generation.
But here’s the thing. The trend toward authoritarianism is not some giant unstoppable monolith. It’s just a bunch of noise being made by a few well-funded politicians, political activists, and media executives whose influence on national policy far outstrips the size of the minority they represent.
I was struck by a recent statement by Laura Thornton, director and senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. Reacting to Wisconsin Republicans’ attempt to enact a law that would allow political control of future elections, she said, “it is up to us, the people. No party or leader will save us here. No foreign savior will shake us out of our stupor. Americans need to start caring about democracy enough to act on it…. Apathy is how democracies die. I’ve seen it.”
Ms. Thornton is right.