Horrifying times often bring with them a certain measure of clarity; it’s a paltry consolation prize, and rarely makes up for what’s been lost, but it does help to dispel confusion—or would if we ever used it.
Recent events have made this much clear: having done a heck of a job wrecking the nation, the goon squad calling itself the Republican Party is hard at work dismantling the apparatus with which we might rebuild it. Their goal is nothing less than to stamp out democracy itself.
Perhaps we exaggerate—but if so, not by much. They have thrown the nation’s transmission into reverse and hit the gas. They’re steering by squinting—right eye only—at the rear-view mirror. Let’s take a look at our destination: the late 18th century.
On May 6th, 1776, James Sullivan—already a sitting Justice on Massachusetts’ highest court, though born up-river from here, in Berwick, just 32 years before—wrote to Elbridge Gerry [yes, of gerrymander fame] on the need for a new state government. It was a timely issue, what with the Revolution and all.
Sullivan hoped that in the new assembly, “there will be the most full and equal representation that this Colony ever saw. This Assembly will undoubtedly suppose it to be their duty to provide for a future less unweildly (sic) and more equal representation than themselves. And how this can be done is the question. In order to do it must we not lay aside our old patched and unmeaning form of Government? The Scars and blotches of the feudal Sistem (sic), the Foot steps of Vassalage, and the paths to lawless Domination compose so great a part of it, that no friend to his Country can wish to See it ever put in exercise again.”
A man ahead of his time, was our Sullivan, in his views on ballot access and in his hair style. We know not what John Adams thought of Sullivan’s Mohawk, but he was clearly appalled by his appetite for “full and equal representation.”
“Depend upon it, sir,” he wrote, “it is dangerous to open So fruitfull a Source of Controversy and Altercation, as would be opened by attempting to alter the Qualifications of Voters. There will be no End of it. New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their Rights not enough attended to, and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of State. It tends to confound and destroy all Distinctions, and prostrate all Ranks, to one common Levell.”
This is not to say the upper crust thought that working folks were useless. They, too had their place—in the front lines. Some things never change.
The Spirit of ’76 largely consisted of land speculators and importers saying to each other, “Let’s round up the rabble to throw out the Redcoats, so we can start in on the Indians and do some real business.” *
The Spirit of ’21 is not dissimilar: “If we don’t head off democracy at the pass, we’re going to have to obey laws made by the rabble. Hell, they might even make us pay taxes, to boot.”
Today’s reactionaries share Adams’ contempt for commoners without property. Unfortunately they can no longer muster up his level of honesty. To be fair, the truth would be a mighty hard sell: “Step right up, folks, and vote Republican. You, too, can work longer hours at lower pay, with no job security and none of those annoying benefits.”
Hence we get an unending series of lies, delivered at high volume in the most stirring and patriotic tones.
Voter fraud—which is statistically non-existent—is said to somehow threaten our elections. It’s a ludicrous argument, but it provides the unscrupulous with an excuse to erect more hurdles in front of wrong-headed non-white voters.
Fair and honest elections—audited and re-audited by duly elected or appointed officials—are in doubt if a Democrat won. Only random crackpots like Jovan Hutton Pulitzer can determine the truth.
Bogus calls for audits, it now appears, are the last-ditch defense for feudalism, vassalage, and lawless dominion. Masses of ballots in bins really get some people excited. And why not? Remember the Brooks Brothers Riot?
On November 22, 2000, as Miami-Dade officials were trying to conduct a legitimate recount, Joe “Congressman Kick-Ass” Sweeney [R-N.Y.] yelled “Shut it down.” Literal hand-to-hand combat ensued. Sweeney—who, true to Republican form, called Florida election officials “thugs”—and his merry band of Congressional staffers won that battle: the recount was shut down, and the election went to the Supreme Court. Bush won, everyone else lost, Iraqis most of all.
Five months ago a certain former President could be seen on live television exhorting a mob which had assembled at his invitation on the Ellipse. He ended his harangue with a command: go to the U.S. Capitol and “stop the steal.” And off they went, thousands of them, scurrying like lemmings toward the Capitol. Hundreds then proceded to batter their way into the building—a process which cost five lives. Their intent was to prevent Congress from certifying their hero’s loss in the November election.
For the first time in history an incumbent American President tried to use a violent mob to prevent the orderly transfer of power. Though he gave it his best shot, the Republic was saved—by his extraordinary incompetence.
Sadly, good fortune won’t solve our underlying problem. Last weekend, as the rabid rallied at a QAnon conference in Dallas, General Michael Flynn was asked why “what happened in Myanmar can’t happen here?” Flynn replied, “No reason. I mean, it should happen here.”
Flynn’s call for a coup was videotaped, but that hasn’t stopped him from denying it.
What we have is systemic delusion: the Republic is going to go on needing to be saved every damn day for the forseeable future.
* If you think we exaggerate—or if you just want to read this century’s best book so far about early American history—read William Hogeland’s Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West.