Optimism and American Democracy 🥊 #000.8
Far right nihilism is infecting our collective psyche. It’s critical we find ways to fight back while remaining optimistic.
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We’re less than a month away from the new year which means, given the inevitable march of time, we’re closer now than ever to the 2024 presidential election. This election requires our active participation, but in our current media landscape, it can be difficult to remain engaged and optimistic about the future of American democracy.
There is a kind of American Anxiety that exists today which undermines our shared faith in the future of this country—this anxiety undermines our ability to believe the future will be better than the past. But still, I believe that over time this country is headed in the right direction. And this strong belief means working to ensure optimism remains at the heart of my work.
There is no simple solution for remaining optimistic. In fact, it’s much easier to be pessimistic or to remove yourself entirely from the conversation, and to insulate yourself from the chaos that is American politics. At times, in order to ensure self-sanity, this may even be necessary. But over time, optimism and engagement are healthier tools to drive change than pessimism and removal.
The conservative media ecosystem in America is maintained almost entirely by fear, anger, hate, and so on. This approach seeks to sow despair at the core of our national identity, which removes citizens from active participation and allows a top-heavy power vacuum to emerge, resulting in further consolidation of wealth and power. This kind of faux-nostalgic unideology can destroy the progress made by past generations of Americans who made unimaginable sacrifices to move this country forward.
But, even in the face of such far right dangers, we also must remain vigilant against liberal reassurance that certain issues we face aren’t as important as others.
Liberal leaders often selectively decide which threats are existential, like threats to democracy, and which threats are simply an overreaction by a left-leaning activist class who, they believe, don’t understand how things really work. This gatekeeping of threats is presently happening with issues like the student debt crisis and, much more urgently, violence against trans people.
Previously, liberal leaders have diminished threats to core progressive values like a women’s access to health care by way of abortion rights. President Obama, for example, campaigned on codifying Roe v. Wade but failed to do so, and when the Supreme Court overturned Roe in 2022 Obama told Pod Save America, “One of the problems with Roe was that it made a lot of voters complacent, figuring, ‘Eh, do I really have to trudge over and vote in some obscure midterm election because I know the Supreme Court is protecting me when it comes to my right to choose?’”
To my untrained ear, this sounds like an impressive case of presidential projection. It’s important to remember that Barack Obama assumed office with full control of the House and a super majority in the Senate. In April 2009, he said codifying Roe was “not the highest legislative priority.” President Obama did not take the long-term threats to Roe seriously, and instead of taking ownership for his failure to codify these essential rights into law, he blamed voters for not supporting Democrats in the midterm elections. Sad!
Young, educated voters are tired of this kind liberal lecturing from leaders who, despite their education, wealth, and power, have continuously failed to understand or take seriously the existential threat posed by far right forces in this country—a threat which permeates all aspects of American society, and threatens more than just our democracy.
Without the help of activists holding those in power accountable, the liberal ideology is not well positioned to respond to threats posed by the far right. Liberals operate with a seemingly endless amount of civil decency, both to their credit and to their detriment. In times of shared governing responsibility, this decency can be an asset. But in times of crisis and attacks on institutions, this boundless decency can result in the destruction of society. There were plenty of polite people who refused to directly confront the rise of fascism in Germany.
Optimism doesn’t require an absence of anger or fear, nor does it require blind hope or a denial of our present condition. But it does require some faith that together we will prevail against forces that are trying to destroy our democracy. We’re in a moment where we need to identify our allies, even those who we may sometimes disagree with, in order to preserve and improve the union. Those of us on the political left know that our institutions, which are presently under attack by the far right, also need to be reformed to become more inclusive and just. This is particularly urgent in our era of rapid technological advancement. But if our institutions are destroyed, reform will be impossible, and so our work continues.
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