Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
Author Thomas Charlton, 1809 (and several years later, Wendell Phillips)
As events speed up, and we race towards what will pass for the mid-term elections this Autumn, the chilling parallels between the daily news and the lessons Timothy Snyder is enumerating in his On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century simply cannot be ignored.
In his third lesson, Snyder warns in the strongest terms that democracy fails when power is consolidated by one party, to the destruction of other competition.
Speaking of the catastrophic history of Europe in the 20th Century, he writes:
The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents.
So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office.
He notes that when we think of “eternal vigilance,” we tend to imagine that our enemies are somewhere “out there,” the misguided, hostile “others.”
“We see ourselves as a city on the hill,” he admonishes us, “a stronghold of democracy, looking for threats that come from abroad. But the sense of the saying was entirely different: that human nature is such that American democracy must be defended from Americans [his emphasis] who would exploit its freedoms to bring about its end.”
The Quiet Takeover
Here in North Carolina, like in many states, a number of conservative organizations are deeply entrenched and busily re-writing our state constitution. They are using existing laws and loopholes to shut out minorities and challengers, while permanently consolidating power to one party — their party.
The one they have bought and paid for.
For example, the group ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) is “a shadowy organization [that] uses corporate contributions to sell prepackaged conservative bills — such as Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute — to legislatures across the country,” states The Atlantic in an article some years back.
One of the watchdog groups that has been studying ALEC for the last seven years is “ALEC Exposed.” ALEC Exposed was built by the Center for Media and Democracy, headed by Lisa Graves. She is a former Justice Department official from both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
In The Atlantic article, Graves characterizes ALEC as “a worrisome marriage of corporations and politicians, which seems to normalize a kind of corruption of the legislative process—of the democratic process.”
ALEC Exposed explains:
ALEC is not a lobby; it is not a front group. It is much more powerful than that. Through the secretive meetings of the American Legislative Exchange Council, corporate lobbyists and state legislators vote as equals on ‘model bills’ to change our rights that often benefit the corporations’ bottom line at public expense. ALEC is a pay-to-play operation where corporations buy a seat and a vote on ‘task forces’ to advance their legislative wish lists and can get a tax break for donations, effectively passing these lobbying costs on to taxpayers.
Along with legislators, corporations have membership in ALEC. Corporations sit on ALEC task forces and vote with legislators to approve “model” bills. They have their own corporate governing board which meets jointly with the legislative board. (ALEC says that corporations do not vote on the board.) Corporations fund almost all of ALEC’s operations.
Participating legislators, overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, then bring those proposals home and introduce them in statehouses across the land as their own brilliant ideas and important public policy innovations—without disclosing that corporations crafted and voted on the bills.
ALEC boasts that it has over 1,000 of these bills introduced by legislative members every year, with one in every five of them enacted into law. ALEC describes itself as a “unique,” “unparalleled” and “unmatched” organization. We agree. It is as if a state legislature had been reconstituted, yet corporations had pushed the people out the door.
It is thanks to ALEC Exposed that the public is now able to connect the dots: “Stand Your Ground” style bills popping up almost simultaneously in conservative states. Bills to kill renewable energy incentives and dismantle environmental protections. Bills to push voter ID legislation, along with the play-by-play strategy to turn what was, in fact, a non-issue into an inflammatory, ignorance-filled partisan drama.
All using nearly identical wording, carefully crafted by teams of legal scholars with an extreme right agenda.
Doug Clopp, deputy director of programs at Common Cause writes:
If it’s voter ID, it’s ALEC. If it’s anti-immigration bills written hand-in-glove with private prison corporations, it’s ALEC. If it’s working with the N.R.A. on ‘Shoot to Kill’ laws, it’s ALEC. When you start peeling back state efforts to opt out of the regional greenhouse gas initiative, it’s ALEC.”
Adopted first in the states, by the time these laws bubble up to the national level, they’re the conventional wisdom on policy.
In other words, they are completely managing how we think about the issues of the day, at the local, state, and national level. And if you dig a little deeper into ALEC, you will find The Heritage Foundation and the infamous Koch Brothers.
A Whole New Animal
Never mind whether you have sided in the past with the Democrats or Republicans. This is a whole new animal.
The game changer is that now, as Snyder points out, the “the less popular of the two parties controls every lever of power at the federal level, as well as the majority of statehouses.”
Unlike in similar times gone by, this new crop of officials is using its power to pass laws that do not serve the average voter, and even push very unpopular legislation. This matters because, as Snyder points out, if their legislation is not what the people actually want, they “must either fear democracy or weaken it.”
And that is precisely what is happening.
With the likes of SPN, ALEC, the dark money of the Judicial Crisis Network and the Federalist Society, and other groups, the party in power is pouring vast money and legal expertise into the disenfranchisement of unfriendly voters and the elimination of competing viewpoints.
Thus, the “checks and balances” that Americans have such blind faith in are at extreme risk.
For example, the hotly fought, but, currently, mostly stalemated battle over gerrymandering languishes in the courts, while the offenders run out the clock. After 2018, gerrymandering may not matter at all, because they are simultaneously packing the courts, with the goal of consolidating and keeping their power — power that is not on behalf of the average citizen, or even pro-democracy, no matter how slick their “Newspeak” sounds.
There is every indication that this is all about permanent control for themselves — namely, their all-American brand of oligarchy.
This Could Be the Last Time
In some ways, these huge, secretive, and incredibly sophisticated groups make the Nazis look positively naive.
But the tactics are the same.
Snyder writes, “When fascists or Nazis or communists did well in the elections in the 1930s or ’40s, what followed was some combination of spectacle, repression, and salami tactics — slicing off layers of opposition one by one.
“Most people were distracted, some were imprisoned, and others were outmatched.”
Can you think of any recent examples of “spectacle” that have upended serious focus, intelligent dissent, and thoughtful conversation? As in — happening so often that you wonder if it is some kind of permanent policy?
Yeah, me too.
Snyder also points out that you don’t know, when you make love for the last time, that you are making love for the last time.
“Voting is like that,” he writes.
“Some of the Germans who voted for the Nazi Party in 1932 no doubt understood that this might be the last meaningfully free election for some time, but most did not. Some of the Czechs and Slovaks who voted for the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1946 probably realized they were voting for the end of democracy, but most assumed they would have another chance.
“No doubt the Russians who voted in 1990 did not think that this would be the last free and fair election in their country’s history, which (thus far) it has been…”
“Will we in retrospect see the elections of 2016 much as Russians see the elections of 1990, or Czechs the elections of 1946, or Germans the elections of 1932? This, for now, depends on us.”
Resist the One-Party State – Before It’s Too Late
It is straight out of the John Birch Society playbook, as well as other totalitarian strategies, to cast fatalistic doubt on one’s system.
When we are hammered with the message that there is no substantial difference between the Republicans and Democrats, or that “they’re all corrupt,” or other cynical disengagement messages, we forfeit our power.
Instead, Snyder urges us to fight the gerrymandered system that is now hardening into place so that each human citizen (not corporations defined as citizens) has one equal vote.
He also argues that each vote should be easily counted by a fellow citizen. “We need paper ballots, because they cannot be tampered with remotely and can always be recounted.”
And finally, he reminds us that this is work that has to be done, first and foremost, at the state and local levels.
Snyder concludes, “We can be sure that the elections of 2018, assuming they take place, will be a test of American traditions. So there is much to do in the meantime.”
The jury is out as to whether this test is our final exam. But the clock is ticking.
Just finding your way here? Want to go back and read from the beginning?