People are on the move this weekend, eager to celebrate what the pandemic prevented last year. Friends and families gather, grateful that they have survived, much as popular history recounts how the Pilgrims survived their first winter (though that story usually leaves out the decimation of the Native American population.) But we do use the occasion to ponder what we’re grateful for: family, health, home, and more.
That “more,” I would suggest, should go beyond the local and personal, important though those are. I’d like to think that more of us would also be thankful for the democracy in which we are lucky to live, and perhaps even do more to preserve it.
We know that democratic norms and practices have been under assault worldwide. For the fifth year in a row, the United States has slipped further down the global “Democracy Index” and is now categorized as a “flawed” not “full” democracy. We received our worst score since the index was first produced in 2006, and in other international democratic rankings. Why? Because of the collapse in social cohesion necessary for a “full democracy,” and widespread distrust in the political process, political parties, elected representatives, and political institutions. Failure to accept the results of free and fair elections and opposition to the peaceful transition of power highlight the erosion.
In the decade following the Cold War, many countries believed our promotional materials that we were a “global champion for democracy.” More recently the world has thought less about America as a model worth emulating, and, worse, many have embraced tenets of illiberal democracy and authoritarianism.
I can’t say it any better than brilliant writer Anne Applebaum, in her powerful piece in the upcoming December issue of The Atlantic entitled “The Bad Guys Are Winning.”
Her basic idea is that, after a century of progress toward the victory of liberal democracies, autocrats the world over are winning – from Russia to Belarus, Syria to Venezuela, Iran, Burma, China, Turkey, even Myanmar – as many as 100 autocracies. Applebaum lays out the chilling playbook by which autocracies undermine complacent democracies, and that’s where we come in.
We look the other way when human rights abuses in such countries threaten religious minorities, jail and torture journalists, spy on their citizens and vaporize their political enemies within their own borders. Elsewhere, they pursue and abduct dissidents who have fled their abuses, use cyber attacks to interfere with elections, maintain disinformation campaigns to sow discord that undermines the rule of law. And they do all this and more not to support an ideology but to protect their own power and wealth. (Some of them stow the proceeds of their corrupt behavior in tax havens in Delaware, Nevada, or launder their riches by acquiring real estate in New York and Florida. )
Some of the biggest American corporations doing business with autocratic countries look the other way to pursue their own economic agendas. Applebaum calls upon the U.S. to “shut down tax havens, enforce money-laundering laws, stop selling security and surveillance technology to autocracies, and divest from the most vicious regimes altogether.”
So what does this have to do with Thanksgiving? Of course I’m profoundly grateful for family and friends, my home and my garden, stolen hours for quiet reading, sunshine coming through the bedroom shutters in the morning, my classes, symphony and theater, the blessings of my life. But I want to go beyond that, being grateful for our democracy – despite its founding flaws and the dramatic erosion of its norms over the past five years.
Yes, we can – and must -face up to our unheroic history, slavery and our enduring racial divide, our exploitation of marginalized people, but simultaneously embrace with gratitude the articulated principles on which this nation was founded. We need to recommit to fact-based journalism, ever grateful for where it now exists, and support skilled, independent news gathering worldwide. Notwithstanding ugly headwinds, we must restore civility to civic discourse, and avoid the seduction of demonizing all opponents as enemies.
As Applebaum wrote, the decline of democracy as an essential component in American foreign policy has contributed to the decline of democracy in America itself, which in turn has been exploited by Donald Trump and his minions, who embrace the worst of “Autocracy, Inc.” At the same time, she criticized that part of the American left so certain that there’s little more to our history than “genocide, slavery, exploitation, and not much else” that they would have us not make common cause with pro-democracy dissidents elsewhere because they “no longer believe America has anything to offer the rest of the world.” America is far from perfect, but it should not be wrong to be “patriotic” (as opposed to “nationalistic”), feel proud about our homeland, and believe it’s worth fighting to protect.
These are just some of the challenges facing us on Thanksgiving Day and beyond, but we can be ever-grateful that we live in a country founded on democratic principles and that, while it remains a work in progress, we still have a chance for this experiment to get stronger and even to thrive.