American unexceptionalism

The horror of the United States federal elections. The nasty aftermath. Not feeling like Christmas. The nervous lead-up to the inauguration. And the rapidly escalating seizure of power by the regime.

I'm a well-off white Canadian woman, in Canada. How could I be more privileged? But I am also American, born in the United States, the first 40 years of my life lived there. I was a sometime activist in the early 1970s, protesting against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon and the erosion of freedoms and in favour of economic democracy and an end to nuclear power. In the 1980s I wrote punk songs about Ronald Reagan. I am steeped in the Constitution and the Enlightenment thinking for which it stands.

I care very much about the republic to the south and about liberal democracy in general.

As of this writing, there can be little doubt that there is a putsch in the works. With the executive orders so far they are only getting warmed up. Part of the strategy seems to be to start with things that many defend for a some plausible (on face) reason: security in the case of the Muslim Ban, religious freedom in the case of the delayed, but certainly not for long, "religious exemptions" to serving queer people. It seems they will likely retain this kind of deniability for a while. They're doing what they're doing for security or religious freedom or some other reason, not to seize power. But the seizure is underway nonetheless.

Those of us who care about American democracy, about the survival of the republic, about the rights and freedoms of its inhabitants are appalled, shocked, angry, and more about recent events. I am too. I'm trying to stay calm through the stress while also remaining alert and putting energy to good use and not burning out or being crushed.

But a thought occurred to me. We might claim we don't believe in American exceptionalism, a hallmark of the Right, but apparently we must. Otherwise, we wouldn't have thought it would be impossible for a putsch even to be attempted. We wouldn't have thought that the fundamentals of the American system were strong enough to withstand any attempts at abuse. We came through the Watergate crisis, and the good and decent won. We thought the movie always ended that way.

It might still end that way. We had better write the ending that way. But we should not think that this putsch, this attempted coup, is really that special. Some people live their entire lives under authoritarian rule. Many have lived through a coup d'état, or two, or more. Some have seen promising democracies slide into dictatorship.

There has never been a guarantee that any Western democracy would remain democratic and based on the rule of law. Any liberal democracy can slide into illiberal democracy and then into autocracy. Even entire civilizations can collapse.

We often see claims that love is stronger than hate. I have always held to this idea. I'm no longer confident that it's true. But the only way I can continue is by assuming it is true and acting accordingly. Failure is an option. Just not one I consider acceptable.