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‘Our country’: The clash in the U.S. between democracy and dictatorship

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jan. 6 capitol insurrection
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It was 1776. The U.S. was a baby nation-state. It was very proud of itself for its radical new democracy, the first, it was claimed, since the ancient Greeks. Great decision-making power was conferred to … white men who owned property, except for Jews, Catholics, and Quakers.

Ugh. Sure, some states allowed Jewish, or Catholic, or Quaker men with property the vote, but not all states. Black people, Native Americans, and women? Of course not. Indeed, in the first election just six percent of adults in the new country were allowed to vote.

Each advance in rights has been tough. Rights gained have frequently been clawed back.

We are in the middle of the greatest threats to the U.S. democracy since World War II. Are we ready to engage, to protect our country?

When I say “our country,” I mean the America we have painfully and gradually created over the past 247 years, a democracy that began small with major flaws, but which slowly matured into one with more robust aspects of true democracy–one in which all people had significant rights.

Some milestones that made the U.S. more democratic:

  • 1828: White men without property could finally vote in most states. That same year Maryland passed its “Jew bill” after eight years of debate, making it the last state to permit Jewish men to vote.
  • 1869: More than 90 years after the Declaration of Independence the first state to grant women the vote was Wyoming.
  • 1919: Women could vote in all states after 143 years into nationhood.
  • 1924: Native Americans were birthright US citizens despite their original status as inhabitants here for as much as 40,000 years before white people.
  • 1964-1965: Civil and voting rights finally extended to all peoples of all races in all 50 states, nearly 200 years since “freedom.”
  • 1978: Native Americans could practice their religion. Two centuries of “legal” suppression and just 45 years of “allowing” people actual religious freedom.
  • 1990: At long last, people with disabilities were guaranteed reasonable access and all rights.

Now come Republicans, led by Trump, with sincere efforts to render the U.S. no more democratic than, say, Turkey under the autocratic Erdogan or Russia under Putin.

Democracy is when the people make the decisions. Dictatorship is when one strongman or a small group of generals make all decisions, and penalties for disobedience are swift, with no due process, and harsh.

In a free country, citizens accept properly counted elections, the transfer of power from office holders to the winner of the new election. Trump and his allies did not.

In a free country, citizens understand that protest, resistance, and disobedience are part of the contest, but violence never is.

Trump’s troops were killers, killing a few but hunting more they did not find. January 6, 2021 was like watching a Lord of the Flies mob clamor for their sacrificial victims–Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence, both by name. Grown bodies, adolescent emotions and brains, armed and raging.

And now that a courageous African American prosecutor, Alvin Bragg, has the unmitigated temerity to actually threaten to enforce one of the many laws that Trump has broken with apparent immunity and impunity, Trump threatens “death and destruction.”

We are rapidly approaching an inflection point, a rise back to a stronger democracy, or a descent into the dark dictatorship that Trump clearly aims to achieve.

And so we either pay attention and stand up for freedom, the rule of law, and the slowly won democracy we have, or it will circle the drain imminently.

Dr. Tom H. Hastings is Coördinator of Conflict Resolution BA/BS degree programs and certificates at Portland State University, PeaceVoice Senior Editor, and on occasion an expert witness for the defense of civil resisters in court. 

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