There are so many reasons to be pessimistic about our democracy these days—and there’s no shortage of examples of what’s wrong.
Congress can’t elect a speaker in a time of great international peril, while the country is so polarized it’s almost impossible to have civil discourse on any topic of importance. There seems to be another mass shooting every time you check the news, yet we do nothing to minimize the carnage. And the extreme weather created by a warming planet affects us all.
In Nevada, our governor has decided to make the adverse ruling from the Ethics Commission his hill to die on, instead of focusing his attention and considerable resources on any of the myriad issues that plague our state. Out in Douglas County, the school board is breaking its budget paying the legal bills submitted by failed political candidate Joey Gilbert, whom it hired despite his obvious lack of qualifications in education law. And our Reno City Council continues to allow so-called developers to buy up downtown property and raze the housing that provides shelter to those with few alternatives, leaving yet another vacant lot as a daily reminder of what isn’t working. None of it makes sense.
I was reminded of another time of unbridled madness in our country when I was reading Timothy Egan’s new book set in the 1920s, A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them. I’m not sure the meteoric second rise of the KKK across middle America was ever brought to my attention in history class, or if I’d just forgotten that ugly part of America’s past. Egan’s nonfiction book is a fascinating tale of a fraudulent leader, D.W. Stephenson, who preyed upon the fears of Americans with banners proclaiming, “America is for Americans,” encouraging membership in the KKK as a way to defend women from Irish immigrants, Blacks, Catholics and Jews. Meanwhile, he secretly siphoned off the movement’s coffers for his own use, told lie after lie, and sexually assaulted young women with impunity.
When members of the KKK marched openly in the streets of the Midwest, few opposed them, inspiring scores of Americans from the heartland to abandon their morals and common sense and join the parade. Only a handful had the courage to speak up against the movement, and they endured a vicious backlash from their neighbors. Stephenson’s house of cards finally collapsed when he kidnapped and brutally assaulted a young woman, and the courts—and then the country—turned against the con man responsible for her death.
A century later, the U.S. is still largely under the influence of another con man whose followers refuse to see him as the liar and charlatan that he is. Much of the populace in the rural heartland of Nevada, good solid people, have somehow lost their ability to discern truth from fiction and apparently still believe our elections are rigged—even when their candidate wins—and there is a deep state responsible for the political chaos, instead of their flawed leader.
Republican office-holders, who presumably know better, refuse to denounce the lies and actions of their party’s de facto leader, afraid of drawing his condemnation and the ire of his disciples.
The rest of us impatiently wait for that turning point when Republicans awaken from their fever dream and realize how far they’ve strayed from their own conservative values. It still boggles the mind that Trump’s misogyny and racism haven’t been enough to turn the tide, nor have the lies about a stolen election, or the Jan. 6 rampage at the Capitol and the shocking attacks on law enforcement.
Progressives who have Republican friends and family members still under the Trumpian spell must keep trying to calmly talk to them and encourage a rational evaluation of the actions of Trump and his acolytes, like Nevada’s party leaders who insist on having a “pay to play” rigged caucus instead of participating in a presidential primary.
Egan’s book reminds us that our democracy is always subject to movements that are perceived to give “meaning, shape and purpose to the days.” In our current dangerous climate of authoritarianism, book banning and denials of reproductive freedom, we can’t afford to be complacent and sit this next election out.