Do you remember where you were on Jan. 6, 2021?
I was attending a virtual memorial service — mourning one of the hundreds of thousands lost in the pandemic — when I heard an anxious cry from an adjacent room where the television was blaring.
For those of us, like me, who immigrated to the U.S. after surviving war, violent coups and state-sponsored political violence, the insurgency was a vicious reminder that no place is immune from authoritarianism, even the oldest and most developed democracy of them all.
That it could happen here was not a surprise. Donald Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election was cosmically aligned with the carefully orchestrated white supremacist narrative of “The Great Replacement” coursing through right-wing media — that Black and brown Americans are diminishing the power of white Americans.
Layer this on the prevailing notion of American exceptionalism — a fortified and virtuous “shining city on a hill” unique from the rest of the world — makes tragedies like Jan. 6 not only possible, but probable in a new era of politically fueled violence. In the absence of a real awakening and an urgent collective action against authoritarianism, we are doomed.
It is time to swap American exceptionalism for American humility ...
New research by the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats on the Jan. 6 attack highlighted a few key insights about the insurrectionists: 1) Fewer than 20% of the 193 people arrested had an affiliation with a known militant organization such as the Proud Boys, despite vast media coverage of such groups; 2) Insurrectionists were older, about 40 on average, suggesting that these were mature adults who likely faced personal and economic consequences; 3) Researchers found a strong correlation between those who participated in the insurrection and those who live in counties where there is a decrease in the white population.
Barton Gellman of The Atlantic summarized that last finding: “For every point-drop in a county’s percentage of non-Hispanic whites from 2015 to 2019, the likelihood of an insurgent hailing from the county increased by 25%. This was a strong link and held up in every state.”
The research findings illuminate how authoritarianism and political extremism, laced with white supremacy, has infiltrated mainstream America. Extremism is the new normal.
“Democracy Under Siege,” a 2020 report by the nonprofit Freedom House, found that nearly 75% of the world’s population live in a country that faces democratic decline. The U.S. is among the 25 countries that have experienced massive deterioration in freedom fueled by a range of dimensions, including political corruption and lack of government transparency. Next to the climate crisis, the biggest existential threat humanity faces is the rise of nationalist authoritarianism, diminishing the dignity, civil rights and agency of people across the globe.
While the defeat of Donald Trump provided a temporary sigh of relief in the U.S., the sense of American exceptionalism continues to plague our domestic psyche. Protecting and defending democracy lags behind other priorities, including the Biden administration’s, which has shied away from leveraging political capital for voting rights. The most recent effort to bring together global leaders failed to create an effective agenda that bridges domestic and international voices and strategies to fight authoritarianism.
Meanwhile, from Brazil to Hungary to India, the global authoritarian bloc is building a formidable coalition to fuel and sustain the power of its strong men. Just this week, Trump endorsed the right-wing Viktor Orban of Hungary with his “complete support.” And Trump’s acolytes in the U.S. have turned to more pernicious tools of legislation to restrict voting rights. In 2021, of the 275 voting laws passed in 45 states, 47 are anti-voter, suppressing voting through measures such as tougher voter ID laws and restrictions on early voting.
The demise of American democracy is consequential domestically and globally. And saving it also necessitates a reimagined domestic and global playbook.
'The old diplomatic toolbox once used to support democrats around the world is rusty and out of date. The tactics that used to work no longer do.'Anne Applebaum
America’s current efforts to champion democracy are heavily bifurcated. From Haiti to Afghanistan, we either export American ideology through military, humanitarian and/or diplomatic interventions or maintain an insular focus on the outcome of domestic elections, particularly in the wake of 2016. This is part of the outdated toolbox. We need solutions that recognize the universality of the crisis of democracy while facilitating locally-owned strategies, appropriate for each cultural context, including in our increasingly diverse country where there will no longer be a single ethnic majority. As Anne Applebaum writes in “The Bad Guys Are Winning”: “The old diplomatic toolbox once used to support democrats around the world is rusty and out of date. The tactics that used to work no longer do.”
As we look ahead to the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential election, we have to forgo our sense of American elitism and exceptionalism to build a people-driven, global, pro-democracy movement. We need coalitions, not only among heads of states but also within civil society, philanthropy and democracy organizations to avert authoritarianism.
With upcoming elections in populous multiethnic countries — Brazil, India, the United Kingdom and the U.S. — the moment to fight for democracy is now. We need to quickly transfer lessons and strategies across jurisdictions. What lessons can we learn from the farmers' movement in India, or initiatives to tackle disinformation in Germany, or the inspiring civic consciousness and activism in Belarus?
It is time to swap American exceptionalism for American humility because our very survival depends on it.