I wrote the words below after the 2016 U.S. elections. This year, the issues seem completely different. But are they? True, we’ve had four years of bluster from a man who believes not so much in conservative values as in “winning.” And true, the man who’s now poised to win the presidency speaks more in terms of compassion and inclusiveness. But once the smoke of COVID-19 clears and the loose canon is set aside, will we continue on a path toward the very authoritarianism, whatever it’s label, we claim to abhor?
My country is slowly surrendering its freedom. The erosion of Constitutional principles grounded in the beliefs and values of our founders, the two-sided coin of freedom and responsibility, has left a vacuum that other ideologies are anxious to fill.
Two big-personalities entered the presidential race in 2015. On the surface they appeared to be at opposite ends of the spectrum: One, a feisty Jewish grandpa, represented the comfortable cocoon of democratic socialism, the other, a larger-than-life blusterer, represented the reactionary antithesis of protectionist nationalism. But what they had in common was that each brought with him a ready-made ideology to fill that abhorrent vacuum. The grandpa was set aside to make room for a more mainstream former president’s wife. But the blusterer shot through as the last-hope champion of the middle class, the one who would save “us” from “them.”
But the political spectrum isn’t a line that runs from left to right. It’s a wheel. And the two extremes conjoin at a spot called authoritarianism. In the new ideology-free America, the call is no longer for “someone who stands for what we believe in” but “someone who will tell us what to believe in.” It’s no longer government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” but government of, by, and for The Leader. What Leader? Any authoritarian figure who can give us what we want.
Are we like the Weimar Republic, the weak, loosely-confederated democracy that ruled Germany after World War I? Have we, like they, appointed a demagogue who will concentrate more and more power in himself, egged on by an anxious middle class? Or is he too weak and cartoonish to pull that off? Will he and the current majority fail to produce the “great” America they promised, resulting in a lurch in the opposite direction? Will some other paternalistic figure usher in a socialist-leaning version of authoritarianism that demands an equal surrender of our freedom and responsibility?
Freedom and responsibility. The two words are inseparable—the latter secures the former. And then there’s that word “secures” again. As soon as We the People allow someone other than ourselves to make us secure, we surrender our responsibility. And as soon as we surrender our responsibility…
We surrender our freedom.