American democracy and its Russian counterpart
Cold War sensibilities resonate in light of the Jan. 6 riots and primary results
Recent events remind us of the value of American democracy. (Photo by Tetiana SHYSHKINA on Unsplash)
During the Cold War, movies and TV shows that featured Russian characters mostly portrayed them as either malevolent bullies or ignorant dupes – that is, enemies to be feared or fools to pity. My developing awareness of world events was struck back then by the question of how Soviet leaders could justify their wicked ways. You know, they parroted lies and manipulated supposedly free elections to hold power. How could they live with themselves? And why was their behavior tolerated by the Russian people?
Maybe you see where this is going, and why these questions have come back to me as we have watched the hearings of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot, and recent primary election results.
But back to those Cold War days: Eventually, drawing on my church upbringing, I concluded that the Soviet suppression of religion had probably wiped out Russian politicians’ conscience and restraint. And then I read a simplified version of Russian history suggesting that four centuries of czarist rule had accustomed Russians to authoritarianism. So I got it: Oppressed people might turn to strongmen, as we used to call them, to gain reassurance about their place in the world. Ah, those poor, weak Russians!
Of course, the notion of the U.S.S.R. as an “Evil Empire,” as Ronald Reagan labeled it in 1983, was a characterization that made Americans feel better about themselves and our own government. Mirror images often help us define ourselves by clarifying who we are not. We were the world’s do-gooders; Russian lies could be no match for American truth and the march of all the world’s citizens toward freedom. We were free Americans, fortunate inheritors of history’s greatest democracy, proud citizens whose superior government empowered us to choose our own future after weighing competing views. That made us strong, we figured, and assured righteous America’s ultimate success in any competition for the world’s allegiance.
That surely seemed so when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, allowing democracy to take hold in some countries that lay behind what Winston Churchill had labeled “the iron curtain,” and even bringing a semblance of political freedom for a while in Russia itself. The American political scientist Frances Fukuyama famously declared “the end of history,” in that we had reached “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” The world was tilting America’s way for good, and the future was bright, indeed.
But maybe not. Democratic reforms didn’t stick everywhere. Repression re-emerged, tentative democracies collapsed, demagogic autocrats regained strength. Indeed, today’s Russian government of Vladimir Putin seems only marginally less authoritarian than that of Nikita Khrushchev or Leonid Brezhnev in the 20th century.
And as to America – well, that situation is a bit more complex.
We remain a free people – just look at how vigorously we debate issues among ourselves, how divergent the views are among competing news sites – and the marshaling of Western forces to defend against the brutal invasion of Ukraine underscores America’s role as the global guarantor of basic rights. Our economy is proving resilient and our military remains a strong deterrent to mischief-makers worldwide.
Yet it's hard to be smug about our democracy when most elected officials in one of our two major political parties tout a flat-out lie that the last presidential election was rigged, and cheer the defeated ruler who mounted an insurrection aimed at overturning the vote by attacking the seat of government.
Nor can you be too cocky about that democracy’s effectiveness when the legislative branch’s dysfunction has forced the federal government to shut down, wholly or in part, 21 times over the last half-century, and when the honest dialogue essential to progress in any legislature has all but disappeared.
Nor does our democracy seem responsive to its citizens when a radical faction on the nation’s highest court, appointed by a president who took office despite losing the popular vote, imposes rulings diminishing citizens’ rights, disregarding the will of a strong majority of voters and their elected representatives.
It makes you wonder about the future of that democracy, doesn’t it? It could lead you to despair at the prospect of ever recovering the confidence Americans felt not so long ago, when our government seemed so much better than any other in the world, and our security, then – and that of the world at large – seemed so much more assured. Maybe our grouchy second president, John Adams, was prescient in observing, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
We are wielding weapons nowadays that are causing us, the stewards of this precious democracy, real self-harm. Consider how the filibuster, a tradition intended to protect the voice of a minority, is being deployed as a partisan bludgeon to foil progress that most Americans support. Note that independent election overseers are being supplanted by party loyalists. Don’t forget that judges have been selected for their rigid ideology rather than their record of respect for the law.
As the primary season has unfolded, we’ve seen advocates for Donald Trump’s lie that he was robbed of re-election by criminal fraud win countless races – as Republican nominees for governor, attorney general, secretary of state and Congress. Most Republican members of Congress are firmly on the side of the Big Lie, and are eager to cover up the rot that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Unsurprisingly, as John Adams seems to have predicted, the freedom that is our nation’s greatest asset has proven to be the most destructive tool in our kit – because it gives the malicious among us license to lie with impunity, or least to distort without penalty. That’s how Fox News has turned so many Americans into political cult disciples. Except for the technology that beams images into homes, Fox is a throwback to the yellow journalism of the early 20th century, when facts mattered less than storytelling that might elicit outrage or anger, the better to draw attention and make money.
It’s not only on Fox, of course, but the network’s audience is so big and so wedded to Fox’s fantasies that its disrespect for truth is more harmful than any platform in our history. Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity are only by bare degrees of amorality separated from Alex Jones, the radio con artist who this week was ordered by a jury to pay millions of dollars to the parents of a child slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, for Jones’ claim that it was a staged event. Incredibly some people still listen to Jones, just as some folks – a lot of them, actually – also faithfully watch Carlson and Hannity.
Of course it would be overstatement to suggest that America’s democratic system, battered as it is just now, isn’t superior to the world’s oligarchies and autocracies, including Russia’s. But it’s precisely because the world needs America that the threat to our democracy is so serious. If we are to confront climate change and challenges to freedom – whether from Russia or China or any other quarter – the world needs a strong America. That’s why we should worry that millions of Americans in the 21st century have become pawns of the autocracy enablers, just as Russians were a half-century and more ago.
It is possible that just as Russians grew comfortable with tyranny under the czars, Americans have gotten accustomed to dysfunctional government and manipulative leaders that they only barely believe. Who can blame us, then, if we lay aside the exhausting work of citizenship and buy into simplistic sloganeering?
Yet the questions of my youth, as I considered our Russian foes, seem resonant now in view of those truth deniers in our midst: How can they justify their behavior, even in their own minds? Why is their behavior tolerated by their political supporters?
Maybe my youthful sensibility about the Russian people wasn’t entirely wrong; perhaps we’re at risk partly because we’ve lost the moral sensibility that religion used to provide American society. Even as recently as 2000, about seven in 10 Americans said they were members of a church, synagogue or mosque; now that’s down to 47 percent, a number that still sounds to me like an exaggeration. Organized religion isn’t necessarily the key to democracy, but laws originate in community, and our society’s stability surely depends upon people acting with good will and moral intent. John Adams, again, may have been prescient. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” he wrote. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Yes, we are still the lucky ones – we who live in a free society where we’re not subject to censorship, seizure or even murder by government agents. We’re the lucky ones, who still have a two-party system that gives each side a chance, at least, to make good on their promises. Beyond our own borders, we can clearly see what happens when dispirited citizens fail to demand a democratic government based on reason. The outcome of the Russian revolution wasn’t as fortunate as the American revolution; one yielded a dictatorship, the other a democracy. As the grateful heirs of our founders’ sensibility, we need to do a better job than we have lately of standing up for the America of our imagination, with its treasured place on earth.
Thank you for reading The UPSTATE AMERICAN. Given the length of this essay — sorry, folks! — we’ll forego the reports from around the country this week. We’re grateful for your time, and hope you have a fine summer week.
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