We Can't Keep Taking Liberal Democracy for Granted

Activists on both the left and the right must stop flirting with authoritarianism.

In celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday, Persuasion will not host its weekly reader happy hour this Thursday or publish a piece this Friday. Happy and meaningful Thanksgiving to those celebrating.

by Roland Merullo

I sometimes wonder if Adam and Eve’s mythical transgression was nothing more than the sin of taking a good thing for granted. They had a wonderful life—no cares, no shame, no hunger or homelessness. And yet they didn’t seem to appreciate that and had to push the boundaries of their situation, to find out what kind of trouble lay in the forbidden zone. Lately, some Americans appear to be making the same mistake, taking democracy for granted and flirting with authoritarianism, just to see how it feels.

Unlike most native-born American citizens, I’ve spent a good deal of time living in a dictatorship. Between 1977 and 1990, I worked for a total of twenty-eight months in the former USSR on traveling cultural exchange exhibitions organized by the U.S. Information Agency. Our intricately designed, 10,000-square-foot shows brought a piece of American life and wide-ranging conversation to as many as 15,000 visitors a day in places as exotic as Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Donetsk, and Tashkent, and in more familiar cities: Moscow, Kiev, and what was then called Leningrad.

During our time there, I came to see just how far the Soviet government would go to restrict the freedoms of its citizens, and the behavior of visitors, too. We were followed and harassed (especially during my first visit under the Brezhnev regime) by KGB operatives and local deputized police. An American colleague and I were interrogated in the locked back room of a Siberian train station simply because we’d taken a short trip out into the countryside; a close Soviet friend of mine was beaten nearly to death for the crime of hanging out with an American. We came to understand that membership in the Communist Party was a ticket—often the only ticket—to upward mobility, better apartments, special grocery stores, and prime weeks at the workplace vacation camp. Our Soviet friends couldn’t travel outside the country, were afraid to say certain things in public, and weren’t free to express themselves artistically in ways that might offend or threaten the authorities.

However valid our criticisms of American life, my exhibit colleagues and I always came home with a profound appreciation for our democracy, for the rule of law, for the freedom to write and say what we wanted, out loud and in public. Those freedoms weren’t accidental. They stood on a foundation of democratic and liberal principles, including the separation of church and state, a balance of power among the three branches of government, largely fair and almost universally trusted elections, and the absence of the kind of insidious government propaganda we witnessed every day in the Soviet Union. The truth was upended there. People told us with straight faces that they were completely free to do and say what they wanted, that there was no crime in the USSR, that Soviet planes never crashed, that the gulag didn’t exist. Why? Because they were battered—in newspapers, on TV and radio, even from loudspeakers in public parks—by fake news and big lies. And those lies were backed up by violence, imprisonment, demotions at work, and, perhaps worst of all, encouragement to report the transgressions—fabricated or real—of friends and neighbors.

America is not the Soviet Union. Nor is America nearing the totalitarian level of government oppression that Soviet citizens had to endure. But, for those of us who’ve seen, up close and personal, what it’s like to live in a place where the rule of law doesn’t matter, where elections and the judicial system are deeply corrupt, and where the truth is buried beneath a cascade of lies, these are particularly worrisome times. Absurd conspiracy theories fill the air like a plague of locusts. Elections, proven repeatedly to have been fair, are endlessly disputed. Religion and politics are blended. Citizens—in Texas, at least—are deputized, even paid, to report on each other. And, from the other side of the political spectrum, language is policed, and careers and reputations ruined for decades-old, often unproven accusations, or one-time “errors” in speech or behavior.

These are precisely the kinds of undemocratic and illiberal activities that tilt democracies toward authoritarianism. Many dictatorships begin with false claims of unfair elections; here, such charges are leveled daily, supported by what can only be called propaganda, and believed by millions. Dictatorships are humorless; here, we’re seeing comedians pressured to tailor their routines to group sensitivities. Dictatorships restrict artistic expression; here, we’re witnessing careless charges of “othering” and “cultural appropriation” aimed primarily at writers of fiction, and the insistence that we write only about the groups to which we belong, as if humanity isn’t one such group. 

During my time in the Soviet Union, I made friends with Soviet people from all walks of life and had thousands of conversations in Russian. I learned that most Soviets simply wanted to be left alone to live their lives. As long as they could work and eat and, as one friend put it, “have our champagne and chocolate on New Year’s,” they went along without fuss, sometimes cowed into silence, sometimes in basic agreement with the Party line, sometimes trading their moral scruples for professional advancement, and sometimes soothing their frustrations with vodka.

Most of us in America also want to be left alone to live our lives. But at the edges of our small private worlds, the foundation of our democracy is eroding. We’ve lived so long with our freedoms that we’ve come to think they’re automatic, impregnable, a birthright instead of a way of life that needs to be continually nurtured and protected. Activists on the Right need to let go of the idea that they should manipulate the vote with gerrymandering, and cry foul every time they lose. Those on the Left, motivated by compassion as they may be, need to let go of their narrow notions of how everyone else on earth should speak and write.

America isn’t a Biblical paradise. Over the centuries, freedom has not been shared equally by members of every race, class, ethnic group, and gender. But despite its many flaws and injustices, for hundreds of years this country has been an example to the rest of the world of what democracy looks like: messy, imperfect, but ultimately offering most of its citizens a guarantee against the worst excesses of dictatorship. These days, instead of giving thanks for our 245-year-old democracy, too many of us are taking it for granted. I wonder where that sin will lead us.

Roland Merullo is the author of 16 novels and writes an essay series called On the Plus Side. More of his work is available at RolandMerullo.com.