American democracy is in peril and nearly everyone paying attention is trying to find the best way to say so. Should we in the intellectual classes position our warnings in satire, in jeremiads, in social scientific data, in historical analogy, in philosophical wisdom we glean from so many who have instructed us about the violence and authoritarianism of the 20th century? Or should we just scream after our holiday naps?
Some of us pick up our pens and do what we can. We quote wise scribes such as George Orwell on how there may be a latent fascist waiting to emerge in all humans, or Hannah Arendt on how democracies are inherently unstable and susceptible to ruin by aggressive, skilled demagogues. We turn to Alexis de Tocqueville for his stunning insights into American individualism while we love to believe his claims that democracy would create greater equality. And oh! how we love Walt Whitman’s fabulously open, infinite democratic spirit. We inhale Whitman’s verses and are captured by the hypnotic power of democracy. “O Democracy, for you, for you I am trilling these songs,” wrote our most exuberant democrat.
Read enough of the right Whitman and you can believe again that American democracy may yet be “the continent indissoluble … with the life-long love of comrades”. But just now we cannot rely on the genius alone of our wise forbears. We have to face our own mess, engage the fight before us, and prepare for the worst.
Our democracy allows a twice-impeached, criminally inclined ex-president, who publicly fomented an attempted coup against his own government, and still operates as a gangster leader of his political party, to peacefully reside in our midst while under investigation for his misdeeds. We believe in rule of law, and therefore await verdicts of our judicial system and legislative inquiry.
Yet Trumpism unleashed on 6 January, and every day before and since over a five-year period, a crusade to slowly poison the American democratic experiment with a movement to overturn decades of pluralism, increased racial and gender equality, and scientific knowledge. To what end? Establishing a hopeless white utopia for the rich and the aggrieved.
On this 6 January anniversary is it time to sing anew with Whitmanesque fervor, or is the only rational response to scream? First the scream.