From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
by Jim Shepard
I commit to vote in 2018 because I still believe that as a country we can bring forth representatives of our political will of whom we can be proud.
One of the immediate challenges facing any sentient American when confronting what our current president has done in his first year in office is how to combat overload when it comes to sorting through the various forms and targets of his destructiveness. And one way of doing that is to ask which of the changes he has wrought will be most difficult to undo once he is finally returned to the status he merits. His tax policies, for all their unjust heartlessness, stand a good chance of being rolled back, for example, as do most if not all of his pillage-the-earth environmental policies. His impact on our judiciary system, on the other hand, is much more lasting, given our lack of recourse when it comes to horrible appointments; this last year, unhappily, set a record for the most appellate judges confirmed in a president’s first year in office.
But for me it’s the drastic acceleration of the country’s slide into authoritarianism that’s the most concerning and potentially irreversible. For forty years now the Republican party has profited from a pernicious feedback loop: generating hostility in Americans toward their own government by claiming government doesn’t work, then seeming to prove their point once in power. That, combined with the opposition party’s own corruption and fecklessness, has persuaded a lot of Americans that representative democracy is a hopeless logjam and that they are therefore justified in turning away from civic life, becoming consumers rather than citizens. But our current President’s initiatives are so transparent in their radical self-interest that huge majorities of Americans are recognizing that their government is actively pursuing agendas they deplore. Which leaves, principally, two alternatives. One is the distracted and irritated sense that someone should do something — that someone not being the citizen — the result being support for the ascension of a figure who cuts through the Gordian knot and gets the trains to run on time and promises to protect us from bogeymen. The other is an understanding that the system is not going to fix itself and that if that system is the problem we can overwhelm it from below through our energy and commitment.
The bad news about that first alternative is that American society is now so profoundly tilted to the right that in many ways the stage for authoritarianism is already set. One party has figured out how to paralyze our legislative branch, and the other refuses to learn how to combat that strategy; the judiciary has over the last few decades been stuffed with conservative ideologues; our executive branch has continually gathered power unto itself, unchecked; it’s possible that our very voting system is compromised and ripe for manipulation; and the media is now so balkanized that Americans no longer share the same basic information or view of the world, on top of which it is dominated by a right-wing network dedicated to promoting disinformation. Maybe even more importantly, this new administration has normalized the notion that it’s okay for our leaders to blithely and repeatedly lie to us, and we might be about to pass our biggest Rubicon yet, in terms of our commitment to honoring the rule of law, should it transpire that our president broke the law and our Congress decides it doesn’t care.
One of the most telling indicators of where Weimar Germany was headed, according to most historians who study it, was the disparity in the state’s treatment of violence depending upon its origins: violence perpetrated by the left was brutally punished, while violence initiated by the right occasioned a slap on the wrist. If that sounds familiar, well, that’s why I brought it up.
The good news is that the democratic impulse is way more powerful in America in 2018 than it was in Germany in 1930, and there’s evidence everywhere that Americans are ready to take representative democracy into their own hands. For example, confronting an administration openly contemptuous of many issues they support, a record number of women are running for office for the first time: nearly four hundred so far planning to run for the House of Representatives, the highest number in history. These are citizens standing up to be counted from all parts of the nation, willing to engage the hard work involved to bring their ideas to the table and do their bit for the collective good, just as the Founding Fathers envisioned. So while there are good reasons for Americans to feel shame and apprehension when confronting their current political situation, there are also hundreds — thousands — even millions — of additional reasons to feel pride, and hope.
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Jim Shepard is the author of seven novels, the most recent of which is The World to Come. He teaches at Williams College.