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Thomas Zimmer on Danger and Hope for Democracy

Being a resident of the United States today means having to live through a time when we are confronted daily with  new attempts by extremists to roll back civil and human rights and undo any semblance of a multicultural, democratic society. Armed right-wing groups are openly attacking schools, libraries, and public events. Republican State legislatures continue to introduce and pass laws that support only their white, cis-patriarchal ideology, and destroy the lives of anyone outside of it. At the national level, the GOP-led House is working overtime to undermine our democratic institutions and systems of accountability and bring us to the brink of disaster.

So it’s little surprise that many of us wonder, “What is the future of American democracy?” We turned to historian Thomas Zimmer, a DAAD Professor at Georgetown University, whose work focuses on anti-democratic tendencies and impulses on the American Right since the 1950s. You can find more of his work in his newsletter, Democracy Americana, and on the podcast he co-hosts, Is This Democracy.

DAME: Is America still on the precipice of authoritarianism or fascism? Or have we already passed the rubicon?  

Thomas Zimmer: The situation is undoubtedly serious, and the continuing radicalization of the Right, its increasingly open embrace of authoritarian minority rule, constitutes an acute threat to democracy. But fatalism and cynicism are not helpful. We need to accept the political conflict for what it is: a struggle over whether the U.S. should finally realize the promise of egalitarian multiracial, pluralistic democracy, or forever remain a country in which traditional hierarchies of race, gender, religion, and wealth determine an individual’s status. This conflict will dominate American politics for decades to come. And the only way forward is through it.

DAME: What can history teach us about our nation’s future?

TZ: I am actually skeptical about the idea of “learning from history”—at least if that is supposed to mean we can draw clear-cut lessons from the past. This idea is based on an understanding of history as a set of recurring constellations or situations. But that’s not how “history” works. History is not repetitive, it is accumulative. I certainly believe history has something important to offer. But probably not in the form of ready-made lessons. Studying history can help us in our analysis of the present, make us ask better questions, put things into perspective. In that sense, it can help us understand the dynamics that are shaping the present: How moments of racial and social progress—or even just perceived progress—have always been conflictual, have always led to a reactionary counter-mobilization that threatened to abolish democracy altogether rather than accepting multiracial pluralism. From there, we might be better able to navigate the political conflict.

DAME: People 30 and younger have only experienced this current iteration of American democracy. How do you imagine their experiences have shaped their worldview? Do they share the sense of urgency as older generations?

TZ: We should remember that the lives and perceptions of anyone under the age of 30 have been shaped by a series of crises: 9/11, the War on Terror both internationally as well as domestically, the global depression after 2008, far-right extremism and Trumpism taking over the Republican Party, COVID—all while it’s become widely accepted that we are dealing with a global climate emergency … These crises, and the way they have been (mis-)handled politically, have shaken the belief of a younger generation in the willingness and/or ability of the system to come up with answers that are commensurate with the challenges the country faces, have undermined their faith in the institutions. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. Preserving the status quo will not be good enough, and the younger generation understands this better than any other. Take the problem of gun violence, for instance: If we let only young people vote, we would be getting this under control. I know it’s cliché to say at this point, but I really believe it: The kids are quite alright.

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