Decades ago, a few politicians made a choice to run political campaigns based on opposition to “government.” It would have been impossible at that time to foresee how that rhetoric would consume one political party, or how social media and economic trends would radicalize and polarize Americans.
Now we live at a juncture in history where we will choose whether to save democracy. Thousands of years of human history suggest that democracy is exceptional, and we have to fight for it today just as previous generations fought for democracy during World Wars, the abolition of slavery, and the Independence movement. For authoritarianism to prevail, reasonable people can sit back and be passive while a ruthless minority seizes control. For democracy to prevail, reasonable people must be assertive, and set aside partisanship, policy disagreements, and other matters that are secondary to the foundational issue of democratic government.
In “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats wrote:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
This brief excerpt of a poem is the story of our country right now. It is our responsibility to have more conviction, courage, and tenacity than those who would shred the fabric of our democracy.
This struggle will not play out as a single incident, but as a series of struggles and decision points. We’ve seen it already—Would secretaries of state honor votes cast? Would the Vice President block certification of electoral votes? Would members of Congress attempt to overturn an election? Would Governors dispatch the National Guard to put down an insurrection?
Decisions that may seem clear for a Vice President, a Secretary of State, are far less clear for citizens. How do you defend American democracy from your home in Anchorage, Bethel, Golovin? One element of our responsibility is clear: Demand that elected officials support democracy, and vote, contribute to, publicly defend, and volunteer for those elected officials who support democracy and put their careers on the line to defend it—regardless of party affiliation. Yes, Democrats have an obligation to recognize and thank Congressman Young and Senator Murkowski for recognizing presidential election results as soon as they were final and urging the public to do so as well. You may not agree with these Republicans on policy, but democracy is paramount, and they did their duty to the Constitution.
Our responsibility as citizens doesn’t stop there. If there’s a mob that is attempting to break or interfere with democratic levels of government at any level, we have a responsibility to stand up and show up in defense of democracy. The recent Anchorage Assembly meetings are an example, and thank you to the citizens who braved COVID exposure to show up and demonstrate and testify in support of the Anchorage Assembly.
History is clear: An organized and militant minority can seize power and turn a democratic government into an authoritarian government. This happened in Iran in 1954, Germany in 1933. Those of us who care about democracy have a responsibility to be effective, to deploy the power of democracy in defense of democracy itself.
When we reflect on the power of democracy, we find ourselves at an intersection with those who criticize “government.” Upon examination, there is no distinction between “democracy” and “government.” I don’t think anyone can argue that we lack a representative democracy. My neighbors, my constituents, have my cell phone number, see me at the store and the park, and freely share their views. They know exactly how I vote and work, and will replace me if they find a better representative. In Alaska, we even run into our Senators and Congressman at Costco and community events. Even our federal representatives know many of us personally, and in my experience are incredibly responsive to individual voters. Without a doubt, whether you agree or disagree with them, our local government officials are extremely accessible. In Alaska, democracy works.
These words can seem abstract: Democracy. Representation. Authoritarianism.
Yet democracy is not abstract: Democracy is our neighbors, our friends, our family. It is the entire premise of democracy that they have a voice, and a very direct voice in the process. Those who argue against “government” are arguing against a democratic system of government, and they are arguing against the inviolate personhood of you, your family, your neighbors. Those of us who care about democracy have a responsibility to do everything in our power to protect government by the people.
Zack Fields represents Downtown Anchorage in the Alaska House of Representatives.