I often hear from people who say they feel helpless to do anything about the crisis threatening our democracy. They’re just hoping it will end soon.
The trouble is, if they don’t do something, the crisis won’t end. It will get worse.
Luckily, they’re wrong about being helpless. Each of us has the power, and the duty, to defend democracy simply by standing within its circle.
In a healthy democracy, political disagreements should not be moral, but that doesn’t mean morality doesn’t matter. A healthy democracy operates within a circle of moral values.
Within that circle, no matter what our individual religions or secular philosophies, all of us must agree about fundamental beliefs. These include belief in equality, freedom, the rule of law, and support for democracy itself.
It’s not possible to betray any or all of those beliefs and remain within the circle of democracy.
People who continue to support Trump — and an armed attack on democracy based on the lies of this corrupt autocrat — are outside the circle: they have made themselves exiles.
They need to know that.
Few of us have access to the centers of power. But all of us can talk to family members, friends, neighbors, or colleagues. You don’t have to debate them. This isn’t a time for debate. It’s one of those rare times in history when we must simply choose. And it won’t help to berate them, which will probably just push them further away.
But they do need to know where you stand, so that, hopefully, sooner or later they’ll realize where they’re standing, and what it means, and will seek a way back into the circle.
That’s how each of us can — and must — defend democracy. The circle only exists because of each individual who stands within it. You can’t do that invisibly and silently. If no one knows where each of us stands, the circle might as well not exist — and sooner or later, it won’t.
In Occupied France, the people who chose to just wait and see were called attentistes. Their silence — justified as it may have been given the mortal threat they faced — enabled the Occupation every bit as much as active collaboration did. The silence was followed by guilt and shame, which the French public didn’t begin to confront fully until decades after the Liberation. They were liberated from occupation, but not from “The Sorrow and the Pity,” that Marcel Ophuls described in his quietly harrowing documentary of wartime complicity.*
What, really, justifies silence by Americans?
So far, almost none of us faces violence for having an opinion — although, because of silence so far, more of us are threatened than were four years ago. If we don’t all speak up, more and more of us will be.
Democracy is the only good alternative to political violence.
The only real safety is within its circle.
And each of us only needs to do a little to mark out and maintain that circle: the mightiest defense we can have.
*I wrote more about lessons from Occupied France here.