Here’s a 600-word introduction I wrote to open my most recent e-mail newsletter. That edition also includes a collection of things I posted here over the past week—Colombia and Border updates, selected links—plus a collection of tweets that made me laugh.
Here’s the page with past editions, and a blank to add your e-mail address if you want these more-or-less weekly missives in your inbox.
The last thing you want to read is another take on the horror that took place 1.5 miles from my house last Wednesday. I’ll make mine quick, and it may surprise you. I’m feeling optimistic.
All around the world, illiberal elected leaders—”authoritarian populists”—are dismantling democratic institutions and persuading millions to live in their alternate truth-free realities. Look around, and it’s hard to find an example of one of these leaders being defeated at the ballot box before he could consolidate his dominion over institutions. (Ecuador? The Gambia? Sort of.) As checks and balances crumble and lies proliferate, nobody seems to know what to do. Neither street protests nor recall votes nor comprehensive fact-checking dislodge or even affect the popularity of the world’s Orbans, Dutertes, Modis, Maduros, Putins, Erdogans, Bolsonaros.
In the United States, though, we’re doing it. It’s working. Our authoritarian populist is out in nine days, maybe less. Congress reconvened amid smashed glass and after 3:00AM, despite Republican dead-enders’ cynical efforts, it confirmed the truth that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won.
Getting rid of an authoritarian populist is really freaking hard. Here in America, we’re not doing it at all gracefully. It’s so ugly. Wednesday was as ugly as we’ve seen in our national politics in generations. But we’re doing it. It’s working.
Right now, the U.S. brand as “example of democracy for the world” is garbage. But if we can come back from this—if our battered institutions can peacefully break the authoritarians’ back and re-cage our historic demon, racism—then the United States will be an even stronger example than before. It will hold up a light for countries unable to break the spell of 21st century post-truth authoritarian populism.
We’re not out of the woods. The 2022 miderms and the 2024 presidential elections could go badly. There’s just a narrow window open for the majority of Americans who at least somewhat value truth and reason. By forcing everyone to stare consequences in the face, last Wednesday opened that window further. The outcome in Georgia on Tuesday—more reason for optimism!—opens it still further. But there’s a lot of work ahead in the next two to four years.
And as Wednesday made plain, a lot of that work involves our security forces.
Our legislative branch doesn’t have its own army. It just has the unexpectedly weak Capitol Police. It must depend on the executive branch for protection. We never realized before that this dependency was dangerous. Wednesday’s insurrection shows how important that norm is. There must be accountability for violating it.
The non-response to the mob attack on the Capitol shows the danger of politicized security forces. Some Capitol Police were amazingly brave, and at least one paid the ultimate price. But others appeared to be sympathetic with the rioters. Their small numbers and lack of backup sent a strong message too. The force’s management—and especially the Trump appointees at DHS and DOD who were in charge of anticipating this situation, preparing, and calling for National Guard backup—either felt affinity with the rioters’ cause or are stunningly incompetent. This is utterly inviable. It must never happen again.
Nearly everywhere in the world, security forces tend to be made up of conservative men with strong social biases. How to keep them from being instrumentalized by an authoritarian leader is a common challenge. If the United States is going to be a “democratic example” again, we need to show we’re up to that challenge. That means de-politicizing our law enforcement agencies right away, starting with the highest levels of their chain of command.