Good People Doing Nothing

Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. --John Stuart Mill, 1867

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. --Winston Churchill, 1947

The system is rigged. --Donald Trump, 2016

I can't help myself. I just have to read it, listen to it, marinate in it, until I dissolve into a puddle of despair.

How did this happen? How did this republic hand over the reins of power to an authoritarian kleptocrat who, at best, will use the office of President to enrich himself and his family with the most corrupt regime this country has ever known?

There's plenty of "at worst" I could append here: mass deportations of immigrants, the return of profiteering chaos to health care, another generation of conservative control of the Supreme Court, reversal of progress for every minority in America, registration and internment of Muslims, the collapse of democracy into a racist, misogynist, nationalist dictatorship, the submersion of coastal communities as the world's climate goes on heating up, nuclear Armageddon...

See? A puddle of despair.

Actually, it's not that hard to see how this happened. The myth of the United States of America is that we've ever been completely united on anything. The very fact that we're called the United States should tell you something about how frequently we, as a nation, agree on issues. This country began its existence as a confederation of former colonies; and while the independence of those states from each other was diluted by the Constitution, this has continued to be a country defined more by diversity than unanimity.

That doesn't mean we're happy about it. We've fought internal wars, some symbolic, others literally violent, over policies: slavery, civil rights, abortion, health care. There's a dialectic to the struggles: losers rarely concede, choosing instead to nurse resentment over the perceived humiliation of having to accept that the winners do have rights, after all; and once the losing party is back in power, it does all it can to reverse any progress made by the formerly oppressed minority.

That's where we are now. There's been so much progress in the last twenty years for persons of color, for sexual minorities, for immigrants from Latin America, so many causes for celebration, that we of the left have been able to tune out the growing chorus of fury from the right. Oh, we knew they were there, hobbling health care reform with their irrational rants, insisting they had a religious right to mistreat gay people, seizing first one, then the other chamber of Congress and using the Capitol as a brake on any further advancement of this nation toward diversity and equity. So much of our democracy that we liberals had taken for granted--the idea of principled parliamentary procedure, of agreeing to disagree, of pragmatically choosing compromise over ideological purity, of making progress by big steps when possible while working for increments when necessary--all of this high-minded political quilt has been torn apart. These were ideas that worked best, it must be admitted, when power had to be shared: even as the Gingrich Congress savaged Bill Clinton with personal attacks, deals continued to be struck, policies made, bills signed. Similarly, throughout the George W. Bush administration, Democrats and Republicans continued working together across the aisle.

All that ended with the election of Barack Obama. Perhaps he was just too successful. With majorities in both chambers, he could push through an ambitious agenda. But the reaction--and that's what it was, far more than a response--from the right was brutal. The radical right had been cornered, and it was fighting back tooth and claw. There was no concession, no compromise, no willingness to even discuss issues that affected every American. The Affordable Care Act was passed with no help from Republicans, who have continued to fight it ever since, even as many of its provisions proved enormously popular.

The rage never abated, even as Republicans took first the House, then the Senate, back from the huge 2008 Democratic majorities. Republicans have stonewalled the Obama Administration's agenda, forcing the President to rely almost exclusively on executive orders his soon-to-be successor has promised to reverse. The 2008 thesis of progressive progress has run head-on into the 2016 antithesis of nationalist regress, and American history in the modern era now appears to be not so much a progression of accomplishments as a tennis match.

In Hegelian philosophy, these poles have to, through conflict, synthesize into a new thesis. This is not just happening in America: across Europe, radical conservatism is gaining parliamentary power, rejecting the open borders, free trade, and easy migration that seemed, for a time, to promise a new world order of diversity and peace. Hard-right nationalist parties are on the rise.

If this is all feeling unsettlingly familiar to you, you're not alone. Trump's rise to power shares far too many parallels with the fascist leaders of pre-World War II Europe and Asia. Like many of them, he has moved himself into this position by virtue of a system he complained was rigged against him, yet actually worked to his advantage, winning office without even achieving a plurality of votes cast, let alone anything approximating a majority of actual voters. He and his party worked this upset by manipulating the system: suppressing the votes of minorities, accusing his opponent of high crimes, lying so frequently that the media couldn't keep up, while simultaneously pandering to the most violent, reprehensible impulses of his voting base. He almost failed. If the Clinton campaign had been marginally nimbler in countering his attacks, less sure of its midwestern voters, more dedicated to getting minority voters to the polls, we wouldn't be facing the likelihood of the first unabashedly fascist American Presidency.

But that's where we are. Too many voters, both Democratic and Republican, allowing themselves to be turned off by Trump's accusations and conduct, believing his lies, decided not to exercise their franchise in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio. Winning those states, Trump won a lopsided electoral majority, even as his popular vote was hundreds of thousands behind Clinton's.

There were good people who chose not to vote. Thanks to their non-participation, this nation, this world, now face a far bleaker future. The best we can hope for in the next 2-4 years is that Democrats in the Senate can filibuster every policy and appointment that fulfills any of the most noisome planks in the Trump electoral platform.

And the rest of us? We've got to be just as steadfast. If we give up or, worse, allow ourselves to enjoy anything that comes from the Trump administration--whether it's improved infrastructure, tax cuts, or some marginal improvement in employment--we'll be joining the Republicans on their long slide into fascism. We can't let that happen to us or the nation.

Doing nothing is no longer an option, good people. There's a Congress, a White House, a nation to take back.


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