America is watching the erosion of its norms and standards. The undoing of the rules of acceptable behavior. No matter how shocking to watch, it is more shocking that there are no consequences. The presence of one — purposefully misinforming, blatantly undermining our institutions, threatening violence, and retaliation — and the absence of the other — consequences — has created a kind of nationwide post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD might take the form of unresolved anger; it might take the form of depression; it might take the form of feeling adrift as the old ways are unraveling.
Those who feel any of those things are lucky. Honest. If they do, it is because they remember the old ways. They remember living in a society that honored the old norms and standards. They know that those standards were the underpinnings of democracy — the behaviors and social expectations that made democracy possible. They have a touchstone — a criterion by which they can recognize and judge the erosion of our way of life.
We might wish our leaders would come to their senses, conquer their fears or their avarice and do the right thing, at least abandon their cowardly silence and lead us back to the decency and possibilities of our democracy. Truth is, for some leaders, their behavior is purposeful; it is fomentation in aid of revolution — planned behaviors to gridlock solutions and weaken the extant government in order to establish a new form of government.
But how do these destructive behaviors pave the way to a order? The revolution is now, but how? They create chaos and then promise to fix it if you put them in power. They are aided by four conditions even if they created some or all of them.
In “Four Threats: The Recurring Crisis of American Democracy,” Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman tell us any of four conditions can weaken a democracy: polarization; economic inequality; exclusion from the political community along the lines of race, religion, ethnicity or national origin; demonstration of excessive executive power. Recently, we have not one but all four.
There is an ongoing debate about whether Donald Trump was or was not an effective leader. He was ineffective only to those who mistook his intent. Those who thought his intention was to lead a democratic government for the benefit of the people in concert with other leaders of either party, believe he was utterly ineffective. Those who understood his goals were to undo the norms and standards of speech and behavior, corrupt the system and hobble the opposition in order to maintain power indefinitely know he was brilliantly effective though ultimately unsuccessful. Trump’s plan to overturn the 2020 election is now their blueprint for codifying it.
Our leaders will not save us. If we are lucky, they will undergird a public push, but it is going to be up to us; it is going to take all of us. So now what?
Do you know the course of treatment for PTSD? Talk. Tell them how it used to be. In every medium available — in print, online, in person and on video — remind them what this country was and what was meant to be. At church, synagogue, school, organizations and social gatherings, talk. Tell them what is wrong with what the opposition is doing every time they do it.
They will never tell the truth, accept the consequences or peacefully turn over the reins of power. They will twist the truth and use our rights as cudgels against us. Make no mistake, they do not offer solutions, they offer suppression. They will suppress dissent and those who disagree. It will be quiet — eerily so.
Suppressing makes the problem grow; facing it is the first step to making it manageable. Yes, we had slavery in this country, but we also fought to eradicate it. Yes, we have treated folks unjustly out of our own fear or anger at the other, but we also created a system that educated and employed folks and made them ready to right those very wrongs. In courtrooms, legislative chambers and executive offices we tried and are still trying. Better to face our problems if we also face our triumphs. This country is not as bad as it could be or as good as it should be. America is OK. Do not give into the hate-mongers.
There was a chair in the corner of my nursery. It was a barrel chair, short with a rounded back and a tufted ridge. When the lights went out, it looked as if someone were sitting in it — a body in the chair with its arms spread along the rounded back. Staring into the darkness, I realized, with a frisson of fear, that meant it was headless. I worried in daylight and feared the lights going out at night. Then one night I just got up, walked to that demon chair and ran my hand along the surfaces. There was no one there. I have kept that nursery chair with me all my life. It is with me now to remind me that the problems are not as terrible as we fear if we find courage to face them.
Stand up, speak up and face them down.