Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Moses and Jesus

This year, as happens occasionally, Passover, the Jewish festival, coincides with Christian Holy Week.
During Passover Jews celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt where they had been laboring making bricks and building pyramids to glorify the Pharaohs. But, so the story goes, Moses with the help of God persuaded the Pharaoh to let the Jews go after every firstborn Egyptian child died through divine intervention.
Liberation is the key word in this story about the exit from Egypt. This story is a political one about the founding of a new nation, the Jews, with the help of their divine patron.
The Christian story, as usually told, appears to have little in common with that of the Jews. In the Christian story Jesus is revealed to be, indeed, the son of God whose resurrection and later appearance to his disciples testifies to his divinity. The person who had seemed to be so very human, as he walked humbly among the poor and outcast he had chosen to be his companions, was now revealed to be not only human but also divine, clad in mystery demanding from us that we accept what we cannot understand, the mystery of the Trinity.
But from the perspective of Passover we can see a different story manifest in the Gospels--Jesus as a social revolutionary. He was harshly critical of the religious authorities that governed the Jewish people. The Gospels reproduce long sermons of condemnation of the Pharisees and other tribes of rabbis whom Jesus condemns as hypocrites, as men who take advantage of the privileges of their position to benefit themselves and lay heavy burdens on ordinary Jews.
Over and over Jesus praises the poorest and most downtrodden people in the Jewish community. He associates with prostitutes, tax collectors--widely hated because they collected taxes for the Roman occupiers--he stays in the house of a leper. Almost every move is a protest against the social and economic distinctions in the existing Jewish society. Over and over he preaches equality, that every person is of equal value, that every person deserves respect and considerate treatment. Wealth was not to determine how neighbors spoke to or regarded one. One’s position in the society was not to be determined by how one made a living and what work one did in the day to day. The chief command in Jesus's ethics was "love your neighbor like yourself."
In the political vocabulary of our day Jesus would surely be a socialist. We might even say that Jesus was the Bernie Sanders of his day.
That man fired up ordinary Jews. When he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey crowds lined the streets and cheered for him. The hard-working, the downtrodden understood his message that they too were to be treated as important persons who did their part to keep the society operating. They should not be exploited and disrespected because their hands were calloused and their backs bent.
Not surprisingly the authorities felt threatened by what seemed to be an impending revolution of some sort. They feared that Jesus would overthrow existing authorities and declare himself the new King of the Jews. The SWAT teams of Homeland security were called out to arrest Jesus.
"Are you the King of the Jews?" They kept asking him. Jesus refused to answer.
What was he going to say? He was not the King of the Jews in that he did not aspire to the power and position of the Pharisees or of the colonial governor, Pontius Pilate. But of course he was the king of the Jews in so far as the people revered him and heard in his speeches a renewal of the Jewish people and the beginning of a new era of equality.
The competing stories of Passover and of Easter illustrate for us the profound ambiguities of our histories – the histories of Jews and of Christians. Their traditions celebrate freedom and human equality. The Jews get to leave Egypt and after 40 years to find their own land and construct their own people. And later there comes the prophet Jesus who steadfastly proclaims a gospel of human equality.
But hierarchies of Jewish rabbis or Christian priests and of Roman colonial authorities continually push the message of freedom and equality into the background, concealed behind the mysticism of Christian theology and the complexities of Jewish dietary laws. Jews gave excessive authority to their rabbis and now, when they are citizens of liberal democracies, many of them support the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians and many of them support conservative and reactionary governments in their own countries. The message of freedom and equality is almost forgotten buried under hierarchical religious and political organizations. Social distinctions based on income are revered. Freedom becomes very limited.
The Catholic Church concealed the message of freedom and equality, proclaimed so eloquently by Jesus, under a hierarchy which to this day regards women as second-class citizens, which is unable to make a clean break with the abuse of children, and reluctant to give up the benefits of political power for the sake of being true to the Christian message of loving one's neighbor as one loves oneself. Instead of promoting peace, they went on Crusades, fought bloody religious conflicts and legitimated the imperial wars of kings and emperors.
The belt buckles of Nazi soldiers proclaimed “Gott mit uns. (God with us)”
The history of Passover and of Easter is a sad testimony of humanity's unwillingness to take seriously what the best of us have always insisted on, namely that human beings be equal, equally free and equally respected.
These two celebrations challenge us to remain faithful to the central values of our tradition – freedom and equality – and to keep challenging illegitimate hierarchies of political and religious power. Today that means that we support the slogan that “No Human Being is Illegal.” It means that we commit ourselves to combat the gross economic inequalities everywhere. We must be serious about our basic principle that “All Men are created Equal.”

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Crimes against the innocent

It is Passover season again. Jews everywhere remember the flight from slavery in Egypt. The Pharaoh finally let the Jews go after God killed every Egyptian firstborn. The Jews left Egypt in a great hurry but then found themselves at the shore of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army in pursuit. Once again God came to their rescue. The waves of the sea parted so that they could walk on solid land. When they reached the other side, the sea closed up again drowning the pursuing Egyptian soldiers.
During Passover we remember this history of our ancestors and rejoice about our liberation and about all the liberation struggles since then.
A short while ago we were reflecting about this history and about Passover and my partner, Lucy, observed that amid all the rejoicing we do not to pay attention to the deaths of all Egyptian firstborn children or the drowning of the Egyptian army. The liberation of the Jews came at a very high price.
You might say that the soldiers who died should have been prepared because soldiers die as a part of the life they chose as soldiers. The death of some is the price for the glory of others. But no such excuse can be provided for the death of firstborn children. They were indeed innocent victims.
As we see every day, military actions have innocent victims. The bombs that we drop in Syria in order to combat Isis quite regularly kill women and children who are not only not connected with Isis but who are not connected at all with the whole Civil War. The women just wanted it to stop. The children are too small to have a choice.
Recent reports about the massive destruction in Syria note that many schools have also been reduced to rubble. More than 1 million children have never been to school. They cannot read or write. They cannot add and subtract. What kind of future are they looking forward to? Once grown up, what work will they be able to do in these highly technological societies? The countries bombing Syria, including the US, bear responsibility for lives bound to end in poverty and utter misery.
Our leaders, throughout our history, do not understand that. Laying a wreath in Italy at the site of a Nazi massacre during World War II, the Secretary of State , Rex Tillerson, vowed that we, the United States, would "punish those who commit crimes against innocents anywhere in the world." Since our armies in Afghanistan, in Iraq and now in Syria, daily harm innocents, we would have to begin by punishing ourselves if we took this threat seriously. But it is only political propaganda.
Wars have always inflicted great suffering on civilian populations. Before there was artillery that destroyed the houses in the country and the cities, Before there were airplanes that drop bombs from high altitudes or guided missiles that come from far away, there were troops that, once victorious, pillaged and plundered and raped, and burned down houses and barns. In the ancient world conquering armies would massacre entire populations. During World War II both sides tried to win by methodically bombing each other's cities and killing civilian populations. The same tactics are still being used every day by us.
Harming innocents has always been a legitimate tactic of warfare. Promising to protect innocents is hypocritical unless the government that makes that promise suspends all military activity.
Last year the body of a drowned child washed up on the coast of Greece. His family had tried to cross the Mediterranean in an un-seaworthy boat. The picture went viral and there was a wave of sympathy for refugees from Syria, from Libya and elsewhere.
No one observed that refugees from Libya are reacting to the United States bombing a number of years ago that killed the dictator and left the country in political chaos. Instead of pitying this child, people would have done better to protest against the military actions of the United States that were the direct cause of this boy drowning. Pity that does not impel us to action is useless and insincere.
This is the deeper message of the Jewish liberation from Egyptian slavery. The price for violent liberation is often paid by those who have nothing to do with the conflict that takes their life. We should not rejoice over liberation and forget the victims who die through no fault of their own.
This is a hard lesson to learn because it is so universally ignored and because it makes clear that we can only protect the innocents by strictly adhering to a policy of nonviolence. Promising to protect the innocents through violence is to promise the impossible. Through violence some innocents will be sacrificed to protect others. Who is in a position to decide which innocent will live and which will die?
We can only protect the innocent by being nonviolent ourselves.

Monday, March 27, 2017

ICE--a Latter Day Gestapo?

Under the previous administration ICE (the immigration and customs enforcement agency of the US government) arrested undocumented immigrants if they committed serious crimes. Now ICE will arrest undocumented immigrants even if they have not committed any crimes. This expanded use of government enforcement powers has produced a great deal of criticism and protest.
This opposition to government enforcement practices is supported by stories like that of Roberto Beristain which was recently in the news. In 1998 Roberto came from Mexico to visit his aunt and decided to remain in the US, outstaying his visa and becoming an undocumented immigrant. Roberto moved to South Bend, Indiana where he married and had several children and recently bought a restaurant which he had been managing for a number of years. Roberto became a member in good standing of the local business community. He was a good citizen; he was well-liked. He did not have as much as a traffic ticket against him.
Now ICE has detained him. He is in line to be deported back to Mexico. He has not faced a court. He has not been able to defend himself. Many criminal cases are settled not by the defendant going to trial but through negotiations between the defendant's lawyers and the prosecuting attorneys. Roberto has not had an opportunity to negotiate any settlement of his case. He has not been able to present to a judge his situation as a husband and father to American citizens, as a businessman who employs 20 other Americans, as a respected member of his American community.
It is difficult to resist comparisons between ICE and the secret police in authoritarian countries which arrests people for no other reason than that the government does not want them to be free and able to live ordinary lives. What ICE does to people from Mexico or Central or South America looks a great deal like what the Russian government or the government in Egypt and in many other authoritarian countries does to political protesters. If they get a chance in court at all, they are liable to get a rigged mass trial which has but the thinnest veneer of legality.
But, of course, Roberto was undocumented. In outstaying his visa in 1998 he had broken the law. ICE is enforcing a real law; it is not arresting unpopular persons under the pretext that they are have been broken the law. On the other hand, it is difficult to forget the President's racist comments about Mexicans a few months ago, characterizing all of them as drug dealers, murderers and rapists. One cannot resist the thought that the change between the practice of the previous administration and the present one is a response to the President's racist generalizations about Mexicans. Roberto, after all, came from Mexico.
There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands cases like Roberto's. (His case attracted attention because his wife admitted to having voted for Donald Trump – a choice she now regrets bitterly.)
In addition there are the cases of somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 undocumented farmworkers whose employers are now extremely anxious. If their workers are arrested by ICE their farm will have to shut down because there is a shortage of farmworkers--American or immigrant farmworkers with visas. If these farms shut down other economic consequences will ensue. The now bankrupt farmers will spend less money than before. That will have an impact on local economies and will either result in serious poverty for some people or a rise in the cost of social services for people without jobs. The products of these farms will no longer be offered in the marketplace and that may raise the cost of milk or fruit or other farm products. It is not in anyone's interest to arrest undocumented farmworkers.
The new practices of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement people are in some faint sense legal. Undocumented immigrants are doing something the law does not permit. But enforcing immigration statutes as harshly as they are being pushed today results in breaking up American families, depriving American children of their father or mother. It proves that being a good citizen and a well-liked member of a local community, is not valued by our government. In the past, ICE made allowances for that. Undocumented immigrants like Roberto, who led exemplary lives, checked in with ICE once a year and were allowed to continue living as before if they had not run into legal troubles. But this year, when Roberto reported to ICE, expecting the visit to be a mere formality, ICE detained him instead. He has not seen his wife and children since. ICE will no longer make any allowances for his positive contributions to his adopted country. Nor will it make any allowances for undocumented farmworkers who are performing an essential economic service such as doing farm work for which no other employees are available.
Deporting undocumented Mexicans (or Jamaicans) is more important to our government than rewarding good citizenship and doing essential work. It is difficult not to see the actual application of immigration law as no more than an exercise of blind racial prejudice.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Fighting back-peacefully

These are hard times; they are angry times. Different groups feel done to, neglected and under fire from other groups. Our leaders are boastful, indifferent to truth. The terrain of politics has become a vast battlefield where everyone wants to win without caring much about how they win.
At this moment, a story of people acting as human beings rather than like robots in a shooter video-game comes to us as a reminder of our better selves.
In a quiet, middle-class and practically all white town, west of Boston, between Interstate 495 and 128, a neighborhood was disturbed when one of the houses began to fly a Confederate flag. That flag has become a symbol of white racism, representing the values of the antebellum South. The neighbors were appalled.
When they first started noticing the flag, they began talking to each other. They finally decided to write a letter to the home owner, explaining to him what the Confederate flag meant to them and wondering whether they could sit down and talk.
They received no reply. A few weeks after sending the letter, on a Sunday afternoon, a local minister and a neighbor, who was a native of the South, knocked on the door of the house with the flag. They expected to be yelled at, to be insulted and perhaps threatened with violence. The person who opened the door spoke quietly and said he did not want to talk about the flag.
One of the visitors saw a Red Sox flag and, being herself an ardent Red Sox fan, they started talking baseball. They talked some about the Confederate flag and also of all sorts of other things, that neighbors might talk about on a sunny Fall afternoon. He flew the flag, the man said, to honor his mother who was born down South and recently moved away to Florida. I suppose he missed her.
No agreement was reached and after a while the visitors left.
A few weeks later the flag disappeared and has not been flown again since last Fall.
The article in the Boston Globe that told this story also recounted similar events in a neighboring town where a calm, if not anxious, neighbor talked to a home owner flying a Confederate flag and in that house too the flag disappeared after a short interval.
The Confederate flag is a symbol of race hatred. It is often flown by persons animated by anger and sharp hostility. Protests against the flag are also often resentful. Before long everyone is shouting, insulting the other and threatening them with harm. Such confrontations are, obviously, useless if not worse. They further foreclose the possibility of calmly discussing disagreements in order to ascertain what the disagreement, in any given case, is and how serious it is. The difference becomes truly profound as soon as everybody starts shouting.
Stories like the two above are not unheard of. But they are sufficiently rare for us to notice them and to want to tell them to our friends.
These stories are also often thought to show that if only we could stop being angry at each other, and could talk to each other calmly and in the spirit of good neighbors, we could avoid most of the anger and shouting and resentment and name-calling and false accusations that masquerade as political discourse these days.
But that is unfortunately not true. The two neighbors who knocked on the door of the house with the Confederate flag, met a very quiet, very private man who did not particularly want to talk to them until the topic of baseball came up. These two brave neighbors were fortunate. They could've encountered a brutal, half drunk man who would have roundly abused them and threatened them with the police for standing on his front porch uninvited. Had that been their neighbor, their calm demeanor would only have inflamed his passion.
Being open-minded and open to good relations between neighbors is not always the best strategy for resolving political or other disagreements. Where one party is bitter and looking for someone to vent their anger on, the goodwill of the other party may not only be wasted but also inappropriate. Could Donald Trump, Steve Bannon or Secretary Sessions be induced to change their policies, or their behaviors by persons who spoke to them quietly and with good nature? Some people feel so embattled that only firm resistance can force them to alter their ways.
A neighbor who flies the Confederate flag knowing full well the pain it will cause among the surrounding homes and the families who live in them, should be spoken to calmly to see whether he is willing to hear his neighbors and to talk with them. But if he responds with anger and insult, with self-pity, imagining himself to be victimized by his "politically correct" neighbors, must we not state clearly that he is in the wrong and will not be tolerated?
Our stories of calm neighborliness, of giving neighbors who offend us the benefit of the doubt, end up confronting us with a difficult dilemma. When is it best to speak quietly, communicating a willingness to accept the others in spite of their behavior? When do we need to unambiguously identify behavior that is nothing but destructive and hateful and therefore unacceptable, and make clear that it will lead to exclusion from our society?
When will we signal our willingness to go to great lengths to keep the peace and when will we take the others’ behavior as a declaration of war which we are willing to join?
This dilemma will confront us again and again in the months and years to come. A great deal depends on us making the correct choice every time we face this conflict.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Teaching the Hungry to Fish

Many good people in America are willing to share what they have with others who are less fortunate than they. A very large number of nonprofits work to make life easier for persons in Africa and Asia as well as in South America. Others are trying to help out undocumented immigrants in the US whose persecution is even more violent today than under the previous president. There are many projects to save children—often children of color or Native American-- that are at risk of ending up as addicts or as prisoners.
The many millions of people who support these different nonprofits, often challenging and ingenious projects, deserve great praise for their dedication to the well-being of everyone on this globe.
It is a favorite cliché among members and supporters of nonprofits that it is better to teach people how to fish than to give them fish to eat. The handy sayings suggests that rather than giving suffering people direct support, we should enable them to improve their own situation by overcoming the causes of their suffering. But they must know them if they are to remove the causes of their suffering,. (They often do.) And so must we if we are going to help them.
While talk about teaching people how to fish is popular, few people who are generous in their support of people suffering around the globe are interested in the causes of that suffering. The reason for that is clear. The United States, as the most powerful country in the world, is involved in the condition of almost all people in the world and frequently contributes to their misery.
Recent newspaper stories report hundreds of Libyans drowning in their panicked flight from their country. A few years ago they were ruled by a bloodthirsty dictator. We decided to unseat him with a harsh bombing campaign. Now they have several governments; parts of the country are controlled but not really governed by militias. The standard of living is deplorable. The number of civilians killed is rising. The flights and the drownings are in part the result of our intervening in their country. The United States is complicit in the misery of Libya.
The same is true in Syria where we have meddled in situations we did not understand. We have supported different oppositional groups, not having learned our lesson in Libya that overthrowing a bloodthirsty dictator rarely improves the lives of the people. We have contributed to an unbelievably destructive Civil War and to the hundreds of thousands of refugees all over Europe. We had taken in about 10,000 of those by the time Pres. Trump closed our borders to all of them. He does not understand about complicity or taking responsibility.
Our government has always believed that one of its major foreign policy objectives should be to ease the entry of American corporations into foreign countries. For instance through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) we have opened Mexico to importation of American corn, subsidized by the US government, and produced on huge farms more cheaply than Mexican farmers could produce their corn. We put small Mexican farmers out of business and they moved to the city where life was really harsh. They came to the US, undocumented, to earn some money for their families.
Our government accuses them of breaking our immigration laws and sends them back. They don’t ask why these immigrants are trying to find their way through the hot desert, leaving their families behind. Why would anybody do that?
Washington has always supported big business, right-wing interests and authoritarian governments in Latin America. For the common people there was no hope and so they joined the long, hard and dangerous road to North America only to find as did many previous generations of immigrants that our streets are not paved with gold. (They only have a lot of potholes.)
Many children in communities of color exist under very difficult conditions. We tend to blame the black family structure or other mythologies. We – white people – do not look at ourselves in the mirror and see the people who keep perpetuating racial injustice and oppression and who are therefore complicit in the hard lives of many children. In similar ways we—white people-- are responsible for the problems of children in Native American families.
We cannot remove the causes of misery around the world and in our own cities and rural areas without taking responsibility for the damage we do to people in many different places and working hard to end our destructive policies. Giving aid, being generous in giving fish to hungry people is not good enough. We need to be aware of the damage we have done for centuries, are still doing and stop doing it.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

 A Moment of Truth for America

Racially motivated attacks have increased significantly since Donald Trump became a serious contender for the presidency and was then elected and installed as our 45th president. He has widely been blamed for this increase in racial attacks. There is no question that he bears some responsibility for encouraging white supremacist racism, blatant anti-Semitism, attacks on Muslims and recently on immigrants from India. By appointing arch racists like Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon to important policy making positions in his government, Trump has let it be known that he is not troubled by white racism. Similarly other forms of divisiveness have recently become normal and acceptable.
But, of course, the blame does not rest only with him. We may blame Trump for creating a climate in which it is acceptable to be very openly racist or anti-Semitic. It is now allowed to express racist emotions, attitudes and beliefs which before one needed to hide. Trump is in part to blame for that change. We may not hold him responsible, however, for the emotions, attitudes, and beliefs that are being expressed so openly now.
Trump is not to blame for this huge, until now underground, reservoir of racial hatred, of drawing passionate lines between "them" and "us." Many people have thought that the turmoil of the 1960s was resolved when Congress passed the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts. The official story has since been that we have taken major steps to overcome our history of racial divides. While the struggle against racism and sexism has not been completed, there is progress being made every day and things are getting better as we speak.
This cheery story, we can now see, was mere self deception and ever since white people finally learned that young black men are ready targets for police shootings, that optimistic story has lost persuasiveness. The Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s made certain racial actions illegal but it did not change the mindset of the people who thought that their white skin made them superior and allowed them to oppress persons of colour by any means necessary, including lynchings.
We need to remember that racial differences, particularly in the form of slavery, have been an unmet challenge of our American Republic from its inception. When they wrote the Constitution, the Founders disagreed sharply about slavery. They never resolved the issue.
The outcome of the Civil War was to force the South to give up its slave way of life. But very soon whites in the South and North came to various understandings which always meant increased suffering for the former slaves. Slavery was replaced by the Jim Crow system. The passage of the civil war amendments to the Constitution put an end to slavery but it did not put an end to the anti-black racism of many Americans both in the South and the North. To give just one example: the Social Security legislation that was passed during the New Deal was made acceptable to Southern senators by excluding agricultural and domestic workers – occupations largely staffed by African-Americans. No social security for them. The secret agreement remained that it was perfectly alright to exploit African Americans.
But it is futile to believe that you can force people not to be prejudiced, not to feel victimized, or under attack. Once it becomes illegal to be racist in one particular form, white supremacy and anti-Semitism and all its other variants simply take less obvious forms. The "Whites Only” signs are taken down but deeply ingrained attitudes change little.
America has never been willing to take on the divides between white and black, between native born and immigrant. Neither has it been willing to confront other basic divisions such as between classes, between professional elites and the common people. The "One Nation Indivisible" slogan we make our children repeat every morning they are in school only serves to conceal our unwillingness to confront boldly the many divisions that exist in our nation.
It is clearly important to address the more egregious manifestations of pervasive racism – discrimination in the job market, redlining in real estate, and the continued war on young black men by various police forces. But these ways of forcing various groups not to act out their racist view of the world, does not change those views. It only forces a different expression of those views.
I wrote about this problem in a recent blog. There is no question that overcoming these divisions is increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Little is to be gained by having Whites and Blacks discuss their different views of the world. But it would be important for opposing groups to find common projects. We may not be able to agree on fundamental positions. But we could learn to work together and thereby create unity in action where unity in beliefs is unattainable.
We we face two tasks, not only one. We need to resist all injustices perpetrated by private individuals and the government. But we must also be aware that victories in those efforts only displace racist attitudes. We must, therefore, also try to create a climate where there is more willingness to cooperate, more willingness to seek projects that unify and allow the different fragments of our nation, if not to agree and unify around beliefs, at least to try to work together for the common good.
One method that has a venerable history is for white people to take the side of African-Americans, to support them in what ever way they believe they need to be supported. This was the practice – not always perfect – of the abolitionists, it was the practice of the young men and women who went into the South in 1963 and 1964 to show solidarity with African-American struggles for equality. It is the goal today of groups like SURJ (“Show up for Racial Justice”) to support movements like "Black Lives Matter."
Another way is to support Muslims and immigrants and to make sure that they are safe. Speak out quietly and calmly where persons are openly racist. Support all women in their struggle for equality. Support the victims of random arrests by ICE. ( US Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
There are ways of working towards unity in America. Making shows of disunity illegal is important but will not, by itself, create unity.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Has democracy failed?

2017 is the year of the right wing. In the US, we have elected Donald Trump who has come to the presidency on a platform opposing immigrants and opposing international cooperation. The wall to be built along the Mexican border is symbolic of his stance, as is the plan of levying import duties on foreign-made products. Similar sentiments, especially hostility towards immigrants, motivated a majority of Britains to vote to leave the European Union. The same political position is giving Marie LePen a shot at the presidency in France, and is bringing far right groups closer to political power in Germany, in Italy, and in Greece. These groups are nationalist chauvinists, they cheer on leaders with explicit authoritarian leanings. They are contemptuous of the democratic process which is about to allow them to gain significant political power.
We are seeing democracy at its worst when it allows the anxious, the angry, the groups that feel left out to have their revenge by encouraging leaders that come to power on a platform of hatred, of arrogant contempt for people who are different from them, people who are not “White Aryans.” 2500 years ago the Greek philosopher Plato complained about democracy being unsteady, subject to constant change depending on the constantly changing moods of the people at large. Our experience bears out his criticism. It is hard to imagine a greater difference between the government of Barack Obama and that of Donald Trump. Democracy is prone to sudden and violent changes.
Winston Churchill remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the other ones.” The other ones are authoritarian or fascist governments. The authoritarian leader controls everything. Even if there is an elected legislature, it is a rubberstamp that simply passes the rules laid down by the Leader. The judiciary in an authoritarian government is also dominated by the Leader and his party. There is no independent judiciary. There are no checks and balances. Authoritarian rulers tend to be worried about possible opposition. No one is safe from government spies and violence.
A fascist government is authoritarian but adds to its centralized power the total control over all social organizations. Professional organizations, for instance, of teachers, lawyers, or physicians are now run ( and closely watched over) by the government. Instead of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, there are now government run youth organizations. Any workplace organizations now become branches of the government. There is little privacy left. The entire nation is unified by being organized into official groups.
The glaring defect of democracy is the ever present possibility of electing leaders who lean in the direction of authoritarianism and, perhaps, even of fascism. Adolf Hitler was elected by the German people in 1933. Recurrence of such catastrophic choices is a real possibility in democracies. But regular elections are only one aspect of democracy. Of equal importance is the effort to have a legislative and a judiciary branch that are independent of the executive. Our Constitution deliberately limits the scope of executive power. We already have seen examples of that: the courts have refused to approve of Pres. Trumps immigration executive order.
(To be sure the independence of the judiciary is limited. In our two-party state, the party that is dominant will have a serious effect on the judiciary by appointing Supreme Court justices.)
Similarly even where both the president and Congress and many state legislatures are dominated by the same party, the actions of the president may well be limited by the legislature and vice a versa. An elected leader with authoritarian leanings cannot do what he chooses as long as out constitutional protections remain in force.
Ordinary citizens play an important role in a democracy and how well will this democracy works depends on the people themselves: are they well-informed, do they participate, do their media do the job of informing everyone, is there a limit on the role money can play in the democratic processes? It matters whether citizens are alive to threats to their democracy. Do they protest loudly against the predominant power of the very rich in the electoral process? Do they rally around the targets of racially motivated exclusions? The survival of democracy depends on the constant vigilance of citizens.
When groups with authoritarian leanings gain power in elections, clearly democracy is not working well. It is a mistake however to blame this on the abstract institution of democracy. The claim rests clearly on the shoulders of all those who refused to take the authoritarians seriously and to work hard to oppose them. For a democracy to work, citizens have to be willing to pay attention, to spend the time to go to meetings and work in electoral campaigns. If they have money they should be willing to support candidates. The democratic process is not going to work well if the central component - the people - refuses to participate.
That clearly happened in this last electoral campaign. Many citizens are understanding that and joining the opposition to prevailing authoritarian inclinations. Our democracy is threatened, but it still has a fighting chance of surviving.