Where is the Sense of Urgency?
As the US and the globe face major challenges to democracy and human survival, there's a lingering mentality that it's good enough to continue business as usual
What time is it? Check out the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and you’ll see it’s now 100 seconds to midnight. Since 1947, their Doomsday Clock has moved forward and backward, starting at seven minutes to midnight, catapulting forward to two minutes before midnight in 1953 after the Americans tested a hydrogen bomb and the Soviets followed suit, then ratcheting back in 1991 to 17 minutes after the US and Russia agreed to deep cuts in their nuclear arsenals.
Over the last two years, the combustible cocktail of perils—including nuclear war, climate change, the pandemic and disinformation—led the scientific advocacy group to move the second hand closer to midnight than ever in its history. The seconds between 100 and catastrophe offer some small consolation that the clock can still be fixed in our collective favor.
But what time is it for democracy? Or put differently, how much time do we have before democracy is inextricably stripped away by anti-democratic Republicans bent on holding power long after the majority has abandoned them? The answer to this—and the sense of urgency to address this ticking time bomb—may well decide the fate of the nation for decades.
That’s the thing: There seems to be a strong disconnect between the dangers in our midst and the sense of time and urgency to respond. As if time is bendable according to the age-old rhythms of Congress or other agencies that govern our lives. As if there really aren’t endpoints beyond which it’s too late to fix what’s broken and put it all back together. As if there’s always a solution, a new invention, a silver bullet—always another way to ensure a bright, shining future.
Yet what if that optimistic vision is wrong? What if it is a bright, shining lie that numbs us from confronting the dangers in our midst while there is still time? What if the lack of urgency is leading to a downward spiral that we cannot pull ourselves out of?
Let’s consider several examples and ask ourselves: Must we—you, me, elected officials who care, everyone who cares—accelerate our action?
The latest global report from the international Institute for Democracy and Election Assistance notes that “the number of countries moving in an authoritarian direction in 2020 outnumbered those going in a democratic direction.” The institute’s report asserts that “some of the most worrying examples of backsliding” include Brazil and India, and they lump the US with Hungary, Poland and Slovenia as countries that “have also seen concerning democratic declines.” That doesn’t exactly sound like seconds to midnight, but is their alarm too gentle for this moment?
A few facts: The former White House occupant refused to support a peaceful transfer of power after he lost. He continues to spread the Big Lie of election fraud and that he really won in 2020. A stunning 59 percent of Republicans not only believe him—they think believing him is important to being a Republican. Nearly a third of Republicans now believe political violence may be necessary to “save” the US. Nineteen states followed up the Big Lie by passing 33 increasingly restrictive voting rights laws, in some cases seeking to give GOP legislators the prerogative to deny actual voting outcomes and insert their preferred candidates. Around the country, non-partisan election officials have faced attacks and death threats.
The passage of federal voting rights legislation—once passed nearly unanimously by Congress—has stalled, undermined not just by GOP intransigence but also by Democrats refusing to align with their Democratic majority. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court further gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Meanwhile, the worn-out filibuster remains in effect as a wedge to block change, the Electoral College continues to undermine the democratic principle of one person, one vote—and in the latest attack on this principle, new gerrymandering has made it increasingly probable that Republicans can take or keep power by twisting voting districts into extremes of non-representation.
The midterm elections will be decided a year from now. Historically, the party that holds the presidency faces defeat, even a serious “shellacking,” as in the case of President Barack Obama when the Democrats lost 63 House and six Senate seats. If the Republicans take back the majority in the House or the Senate or both, do you doubt they will accelerate the democracy’s backsliding toward oblivion? Are there any signs that they will stand by the principle of free and fair elections and the right of every citizen to vote? The House and Senate have less than a year to pass federal voting rights legislation.
Are Democrats acting like they fully comprehend this clock is ticking? “It’s the greatest assault on voting rights in the history of the United States—for real—since the Civil War,” President Biden said last month. But where’s the similarly urgent and clear statement on ending the filibuster to pass federal voting rights legislation?
Then consider the House investigation into the deadly January 6 attack. Is there any doubt that a GOP majority will shut it down if they take over the House? While they methodically work through their investigation—dealing with the subpoena deniers and others (including Trump) employing court procedures to slow things down—the lack of results involving the inciters, organizers and funders who didn’t directly breach the Capitol increasingly risks demoralizing Democratic voters and decreasing midterm turnout. Of course, the investigation is not simply a political tool to influence voter turnout—this is about justice—but there’s no doubt the longer this drags out, the more it benefits Republicans determined to deny the gravity or the significance of that day’s horrors.
In another dispatch, I will dig into the sense of urgency—or the lack thereof—surrounding the climate crisis and the need to slow CO2 level increases. I take encouragement from the Biden agenda that’s focused on and invested in changes that will help Americans adapt to, if not meaningfully slow, the continued increase of carbon emissions to avoid devastation from a warming planet. The refusal of India and China to support the phase out of coal plants in the COP 26 climate agreement several weeks ago in Glasgow underscores the global dilemma facing us all.
While the climate crisis remains an existential threat that mankind has yet to fully confront, the global nature of COVID-19 has demonstrated the necessity of acting in cooperation and with greater urgency. Let’s return to atomic scientists, who have wrestled with how loudly to ring the alarm bell since the end of World War II. “The lethal and fear-inspiring COVID-19 pandemic serves as a historic ‘wake-up call,’” said Dr. Rachel Bronson, the group’s president and CEO, “a vivid illustration that national governments and international organizations are unprepared to manage the truly civilization-ending threats of nuclear weapons and climate change.”
It’s not midnight yet for democracy. But let’s not take solace in that fact. We should expect the surviving pro-democracy Americans to recognize that the clock is ticking louder and louder—and act accordingly.
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