I have long assumed that democracy would survive in the United States and far outlast my lifetime. Yet, here I am going about my daily routine, engaged in various mundane pursuits that would otherwise bring me some measure of enjoyment or satisfaction in my retirement, all the while shadowed by real concern that our democracy is fragile, its future is not assured, and a small but noisy number of Americans would destroy it and replace it with a sinister new order.

Our system of government depends on the collective will of people who vote. Candidates who by one strategy or another win popular or electoral vote majorities come to power. The future of the nation depends on elections that are fair, not gerrymandered, and open, not riddled with partisan barriers designed to make it more difficult to vote.

Apparently, the Founding Fathers did not imagine a future in which the American Experiment would be tested by a disagreement about what the facts are. The Constitution lacks a remedy for groundless claims of fraud by candidates who, without evidence, refuse to concede the truth of their defeat.

But the threat to our democracy is not a mere “disagreement.” The threat is the willingness of so many people to believe things that cannot be true. It is the very idea that you can construct truth out of thin air and that evidence of truth is unnecessary. At this point, I would welcome disagreement. Implied in disagreement is some shared baseline of truth made evident by the facts.

Truth has the advantage of consistency with the available evidence. There is no evidence that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen.” All the evidence supports the truth about who won and won fairly. Although reasonable people can disagree about whether the outcome of the election was a good thing for the country, a rejection of the truth of that outcome goes well beyond simple disagreement. Some people seem to think that the truth is negotiable.

I am still looking for an explanation to account for the fervent belief, held by half the population, that the 2020 outcome was a fraud, despite the non-existence of evidence for that belief.

You might call it delusional, but how could so many people be delusional? How did that happen?

It could be a case of mass hypnosis spun up by the loser, but that would give him a lot more credit than he deserves, albeit credit as a mesmerist.

Whatever explains it, at the core is an inability to accept defeat. Some might view that as strength, something positive and admirable. What it amounts to is a willful ignorance of the truth–not a strength but false bravado.

My armchair diagnosis of the threat finds the problem rooted in the populace. There may be any number of reasons for this rejection of truth, including poor education, economic and social disadvantages, generalized anger toward authority, deeply engrained attitudes of supremacy, unreasonable fear of strangers or marginalized groups, and more. I have neither an adequate diagnosis nor a prescription for cure.

President Biden in a speech last month voiced this perspective: “The lives of billions of people, from antiquity till now, have been shaped by the battle between these competing forces, between the aspirations of the many and the greed and power of the few, between the people’s right for self-determination and the self-seeking autocrat, between the dreams of a democracy and the appetites of an autocracy.”

Biden sees the threat to democracy as the manifestation of an epic struggle to thwart autocracy in all its forms. The ability of nations to prevail in this struggle is not assured, and in today’s world there are examples of nations that have succumbed to autocrats.

For the United States to prevail as a democracy—and one that will outlast my lifetime—its people must exercise common sense and good will, acknowledge truth, and be generous in victory, gracious in defeat.

President Biden is optimistic about our future: “It’s within our power, each and every one of us, to preserve our democracy. And I believe we will. I think I know this country.  I know we will. You have the power. It’s your choice. It’s your decision. The fate of the nation, the fate of the soul of America lies where it always does: with the people — in your hands, in your heart, and your ballot.” 

His optimism may be justified, and it is comforting to hear it. I hope he is right. In my heart though, I don’t feel it. When I look up, I still see shadows.

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