Organize to save democracy
I learned a new word this month while researching how democracies fail. Autogolpe is a ‘self-coup’, or a type of government takeover by a leader who came to power through legal means, but then stays in power (or attempts to do so) through illegal means. This seizure of government power happened so frequently in Latin America that it led to our use of Spanish for the term. But it has happened in countries around the world. Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, and Vladimir Putin all consolidated their power through an autogolpe. Asia and Africa have also experienced government takeover from within.
An autogolpe was something many of us thought could never happen in the United States… until January 6, 2021. We shouldn’t have been surprised.
Donald Trump and his supporters attempted to seize power following a lawful election he lost. So far, this attempted autogolpe has been unsuccessful because enough Republican officials upheld the law and refused to violate their oath to the Constitution.
As I wrote in Can we save our democracy (Nov 2021) and A republic if you can keep it (Nov 2022), efforts to suppress and disenfranchise voters through voter suppression, disinformation, empowering legislatures to override elections, and extreme gerrymandering are continuing. But there is some hope. Last month’s Supreme Court ruling in Allen v. Milligan decided that Alabama had limited Black voter representation in Congress through extreme gerrymandering. Although this surprise ruling is encouraging, there is no guarantee that the right to vote will continue to be protected by the courts.
One of the biggest threats to our democracy is that too many of us don’t realize that the threat even exists. Most Americans don’t realize how fragile our government is, or how close we are to a single party autocracy. Most of us don’t pay attention to politics. We are so busy trying to take care of ourselves, our families, and our jobs that we don’t have the time to follow what’s happening in our local, state, and federal government. We are so comfortable with the status quo that we don’t recognize the danger we are in by allowing our political norms to erode. We vote on hot button issues and soundbites. And the guardrails of political norms that have protected our democracy in the past are in jeopardy.
Our political norms are eroding.
An April 2023 survey by the University of Chicago Project on Security & Threats (CPOST) showed that one in five Americans still believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. One in twenty still think the use of force is justified to return him to the presidency. Professor Robert Pape, director of CPOST, said that “political violence is going from the fringe to the mainstream…. What you’re seeing is really disturbing levels of distrust in American democracy, support for dangerous conspiracy theories, and support for political violence itself.”
It is not surprising that the poll showed an extreme level of polarization in the United States, but more concerning is that a majority of Americans don’t believe elections will solve our most pressing political and social problems. What this indicates to me is a loss of confidence in our system of government which can lead directly to a loss of that system altogether.
In a recent interview with three Harvard political scholars, Erica Chenoweth said:
“I think it’s not an issue of polarization because it’s totally asymmetrical. What we have is radicalization on the right and fragmentation on the center and left. What is needed in that type of environment is unprecedented levels of civic cooperation among those that have up until now been pretty fragmented. We’re talking about much more sophisticated and deliberate modes of community organizing and cooperation across the pro-democratic civil society that we do have in the country but that [haven't] had to work those muscles in a really long time.”
In the same interview, Archon Fung said:
“It’s pretty hard to identify whose job it is to fight for democracy. Everybody’s fighting for their values, for their issues, whether it’s social justice, or health care, or environment, or pro-life or pro-choice. For a long time, we’ve taken the democratic structure for granted. I think the silver lining is a lot more people are not taking that structure for granted.”
Chenoweth followed with:
“Nobody’s going to ride in on a white horse, but it also is up to all of us to do what we can — organizing one’s neighborhood block to find out how people are doing, recommitting to caring for one another, developing those thick ties of social connection. That really is where democracy lives. One of the things that has been too easy for the Democratic Party in this country, and the people who vote Democratic, is to think that it’s all about the White House, it’s all about the national level. We’re going to come to a time when what we’re doing at home and in our communities and within the states is going to be really important in determining the type of lives that people are able to lead.”
And I think that is the key. It really must start locally. We’ve seen how national politics has infected our local politics here in Eastern Washington. Instead of focusing on improving our communities and providing basic services, partisanship has divided us and prevented us from working on all the non-partisan issues we all have in common.
Every major step towards a better government has come through community organizing. Abolition, suffrage, civil rights, and a more just and equitable nation were achieved by the people working against those who wanted to maintain a system benefitting the few at the expense of the many.
Let’s work on restoring local connections in our communities. Support local organizers working together to make our communities a better place.
Don’t let those who are pushing hot button social issues divide us when we really should be paying attention to restoring faith in our elections and support for our system of government.
We are the government. We have the power. Let’s organize and use it.