Democracy Under Fire

Twenty years ago, I spent a summer working on a log cabin in Wisconsin that was built nearly a hundred years ago. My task was to remove the old mortar from between the logs and replace that with new mortar.

In a part of one wall, I removed mortar to find old newspapers and magazines that the original owner had rolled and inserted between the logs as insulation. As someone with a lifelong interest in history, I felt I’d stumbled on a gold mine with these documents from the early 1930s.

Most of the magazines were devoted to fishing and hunting. I enjoyed seeing the old fishing tackle used in that era, but my real joy came from reading the old newspapers.

One story from a Milwaukee newspaper from the early 1930s caught my attention. It was a small article, one that many readers of the time probably overlooked. The article poked fun at a rising political figure in Germany. Reading on, I discovered that the article was describing Adolf Hitler.

What was clear from the small article was that people knew something about Hitler but did not know enough to be concerned. By the late 1930s, few people were laughing.

I have never forgotten my reaction to reading that article. I wondered then, and I continue to wonder, what ominous events in our current era we are overlooking.

I thought of that article when I heard that President Biden had hosted an online gathering of leaders of democracies. The topic was the threat facing democracies around the world. For a few days, the summit was in the news, but then the world moved on. Many people might not have taken notice that democracy is more threatened today than at any time in our lifetimes.

A common notion after the implosion of the Soviet Union in the 1980s was that democracy had defeated Communism and had won the Cold War. Eastern European countries that had been under Soviet control eagerly embraced the democratic ideal. Democracy became the dream elsewhere, as well. As recently as 14 years ago, the chance for democracy blossoming in the Middle East, during what was known as Arab Spring, looked promising.

A close look at our present world, however, demonstrates that Biden is right. Around the world, people seem to be tired of democracy and have been seduced by authoritarian leaders. From Brazil to Belarus, from Hungary to the Philippines, from India to Russia, countries are drifting away from democracy to embrace one-party rule with authoritarian rulers who control the press, arrest political opponents, target minorities, and stage corrupt elections.

How sad it is to realize that while democracy was able to defeat Communism, it might collapse under the weight of disinformation spread over the Internet by leaders who wish to destroy the best form of government that humanity has devised. Yes, it is easy to understand why Russia and China did not participate in the democracy summit. The leaders of those countries are committed to weakening democracies throughout the world.

In our own country, we have felt the reach of Vladimir Putin. He meddled in the last two presidential elections and continues to do whatever he can to create chaos and division in our country. Take as an example the results of a recent study, which found that 21 million Americans still believe, despite clear evidence, that the last presidential election was stolen. I wonder how many of those 21 million Americans who have lost faith in our democratic system know that they are contributing to Putin’s long-term plans for our country. I wonder how many of the legislators who are passing bills to restrict open and accessible elections in our country in 2022, 2024, and beyond, understand that autocrats around the world are breathing a sigh of relief.

Proponents of democracy around the world, many who have been or are currently in jail, once saw our country as a beacon of light, proof that democracy is possible. What will give hope to these courageous men and women if that light goes out?