How to keep the lights on in democracies

| November 5, 2020

Regardless of the outcome of the United States’ election, democracy as we know it is already imperiled. However, it is not too late to turn the tide.

Whether Donald J. Trump is a fascist, a post-fascist populist, an autocrat, or just a bumbling opportunist, the danger to democracy did not arrive with his presidency and goes well beyond November 3rd, 2020.

While democracy appeared to be flourishing everywhere in the years following the end of the Cold War, today it seems to be withering or in full-scale collapse globally. As scholars of twentieth century authoritarian populism, fascism, and political extremism, we believe that unless we take immediate action, democracy as we know it will continue in its frightening regression, irrespective of who wins the American presidency in early November.

In contrast to the hollow proclamations of economic and political liberalism’s “inevitable” triumph over authoritarianism in all its iterations, studying the past demonstrates that democracy is extremely fragile and potentially temporary, requiring vigilance and protection. Scholars of race, colonialism, and imperialism have further deepened our perspectives by reminding us of how the myths of national “greatness” were and continue to be written on the backs of largely silenced, marginalized and oftentimes enslaved or unfree, “others.”

We study the conditions that have historically accompanied the rise of authoritarian and fascistic regimes. In nearly every case, we have observed how profound social, political, and economic disruptions, including the ravages of military conflicts, depressions, and the enormous pressures caused by globalization, deeply shook people’s confidence in democracy’s ability to adequately respond to their plights, or even provide basic forms of long-term security.

We have seen all of these patterns in our study of the past, and we recognize the signs of a crisis of democracy in today’s world as well. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed profound inequalities of class and race across the globe. As the last four years have demonstrated, the temptation to take refuge in a figure of arrogant strength is now greater than ever.

To meet the challenge at hand, there are several things we must do.

We must boldly and unapologetically safeguard critical thinking based on evidence. This includes demonstrating the virtues of entertaining a wide array of positions and perspectives, and support, both in word and deed, for investigative journalism, science and the humanities, and freedom of the press.

We need swift and tangible commitments from corporate media organizations and governments to tackle the dangers of misinformation and media concentration. We must encourage coalitions organized across differences of race, class, gender, religion and caste, while respecting the perspectives and experiences of others.

We need to reveal and denounce any and all connections between those in power and those vigilante and militia forces using political violence to destabilize our democracies.

Much like the active democratic movements across the globe from Nigeria to India, Belarus to Hong Kong, we must be prepared to defend pluralism and democracy against the growing dangers of communal violence and authoritarianism at the ballot box but, if necessary, also through non-violent protest in the streets.

We must defend the integrity of the electoral process and ensure the widest possible voter turnouts, not just in this election but in every election large and small in all of our hometowns. And we must re-commit to a global conversation on support for democratic institutions, laws, and practices both within and between our respective countries.

This includes directly confronting the unfettered greed that drives global inequality, which has unleashed geopolitical rivalries over access to resources, international migrations, and collapsed state sovereignties all over the world.

We need to turn away from the rule by entrenched elites and return to the rule of law. We must replace the politics of “internal enemies” with a politics of adversaries in a healthy, democratic marketplace of ideas. And above else, we need to work together to find ways to keep the light of democracy shining in our countries and all over the world. Because if we don’t, we will indeed face dark days ahead.

This open letter was signed by over 80 academics and researchers.