Democracy is complicated. It often feels as involved as the maneuvering required to make NASA's James Webb Space Telescope functional: Deploying the sun shield took some 107 different actions, and to fully engage the telescope, 18 different mirrors must be focused.
Defending democracy seems at least as intricate, dependent on the rule of law with all its hearings and investigations and honoring the time-consuming rights of the accused. Critically, it's also dependent on tradition and something once known as political comity. It's also a game of numbers: gerrymandering and court-packing; population shifts, with 50 Democratic senators now representing 41.5 million more Americans than 50 Republican senators; confusing filibuster and Electoral College rules and shenanigans.
Attacking democracy, by comparison, seems to be a cinch: A high-level thug coaxes a bunch of small-time thugs to blatt up on Harleys to surround and invade a state capitol because they don't want to wear masks in a pandemic — and, Hey, let's grab the governor! Or he lures a crowd of followers to Washington and exhorts them to go to the Capitol to "fight like hell" to stop the peaceful transfer of power — and, Hey, let's hang the vice president! Lie incessantly about voter fraud, because you embody the fraud. Pay for fraudulent audits by fraudulent companies. Bray to your followers about having all the "evidence," while admitting in court after court that you have none. Send forged certifications of ascertainment with phony slates of electors to the National Archives. When you're not specifically trying to overturn a fair election, create a roiling atmosphere of confusion and mistrust, to undermine people's confidence in voting because you cannot admit defeat; you're a fanboy of authoritarians and want them to be proud of you.
How many times did Donald Trump brag that he had the tough guys on his side? He even advised people to play tough with COVID, like that's something that could even be done with a deadly airborne virus. (Actually playing tough with the virus entailed doing the boring, irritating responsible things: masking up, social distancing, getting the vaccine and then the booster.) Many men (and women) will be forever mystified about his appeal to other men as a "manly man."
It's much like that adage often misattributed to Mark Twain: "A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots." Or, as physicists might put it, all things tend toward disorder. Or, as Yeats put it in his "Second Coming," Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. Not, at least, without a whole lot of work. As Ezra Klein recently wrote, the Trumpian Party knows how to do this — to organize at every level. But even many Democrats understand this (ask Stacey Abrams what it takes, or the students and faith leaders on hunger strikes for voting rights, or many others doing good work). Donate, volunteer, organize, run. Participate in your democracy or lose it. Challenge seditionists in Congress to prove they are constitutionally eligible to run again.
Still, these days, protecting democracy feels a lot like bringing the Constitution to a bar fight — or, rather, to a medieval hand-to-hand battle of insurrection.
Earlier this month, another former president (one who has by his deeds burnished that title more and more), Jimmy Carter, published a guest essay in the New York Times in which he spelled out the steps we must take as citizens and as a country to save our democracy. We must "demand that our leaders and candidates uphold the ideals of freedom and adhere to high standards of conduct." Though we may differ, citizens "must agree on fundamental constitutional principles and norms of fairness, civility and respect for the rule of law." Carter, who spent decades after his time in the White House observing elections around the world, writes that we must make voting accessible and ensure "transparent, safe and secure electoral processes."
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And we must fight disinformation. Carter writes, "especially on social media," but I would add "Fox News" and the like. We simply must come up with laws about the purposeful promulgation of disinformation through the public airwaves day in and day out. Telling Fox and OAN and Newsmax they cannot use the word news in their titles would be nice, but they'd no doubt just become FoxRetorts or OANthem or Truthmax or some such. A democracy must require a level of honest reporting, which is not to say they cannot also be opinionated. If individuals are held liable for crying fire in a crowded theater, the time has come to not allow corporations to cry fire — with absolutely no evidence of a fire — in a crowded democracy.
The Webb Space Telescope is an expression of what we can accomplish with a democracy, when we allow the best and the brightest to do the work they are capable of and capture the imaginations of all people, bringing us together in a sense of awe and wonder. This week, the craft is reaching a gravitationally stable spot, a place called L2, where it can "park" to preserve fuel and stay cool — two things we need to do ourselves here on Earth, while we peer into our relatively immediate future, as well as (via the telescope) into the unfathomably distant past. In both realms, we have much to do and to learn.
On the other hand, the defeated president, a career flouter of law and a well-known know-nothing about almost everything that can be known, has a natural dislike for any level of expertise because he feels knowledge shows him up and thus is "hurtful" to him. Given his gift for the grift, he particularly despises experts in justice and seeks to undermine or otherwise control them. Thus, his endless attacks on the "Deep State" and, beyond self-aggrandizement, his only truly diligent and, unfortunately, successful work: to divide us from each other.
All reasonable Americans pine for a deep state — deep in knowledge, expertise, leadership, empathy. To survive, we must have a deep state with the kind of expertise that has given us the awesome mission of the Webb telescope, not this deeply wounded state that has put people like Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene anywhere near the centers of power.
Read more on the battle to save democracy — or to create it: