Saving Democracy Is Up To All of Us

How activists and citizen journalists can revive the American promise.

It is no secret that American democracy is teetering on the edge of destruction. A white nationalist authoritarian movement currently headed by Donald Trump wants to destroy majoritarian popular consent before a minority of racist whites, prudish evangelicals and overcompensating, insecure men lose their grip on both the culture and the government. Meanwhile, hyperpartisan division is making the notoriously clunky, procedurally challenging and risk-averse American system of government impossible to navigate for anyone trying to change the status quo.

But there is a silver lining to our precarious danger: we are also witnessing an increase in citizen activism, both political and social, unseen in generations. When a police officer murdered George Floyd on that fateful day in May, it reignited a public protest movement still coursing through the nation. Thousands of normally apolitical Americans have joined local clubs, citizen groups and even filed to run for public office.

There is an awareness among many Americans that if the institutions cannot save us, we must play a direct part in saving ourselves. Recording and communications technologies are helping greatly in the effort. The ability to capture police brutality and open racism on video has changed the conversation and awakened the majority of Americans to how often the officially sanitized police record of events differs from the awful reality. Ordinary citizens now have the power to hold both individual and state-sanctioned oppressors accountable in public spaces.

This phenomenon applies to Donald Trump and the federal government as much as to local police officers and bigots. Consider for a moment the recent hullabaloo over Trump’s attempts to sabotage the Postal Service. While Democratic leadership in Congress can and should use every tool at their disposal over the issue, there is realistically only so much they can do. The Administration can ignore every subpoena as long as Senate Republicans allow them to get away with it, and precipitating a Constitutional crisis by sending the Capitol police to arrest the Postmaster General could easily add to the destabilizing chaos in which Trump thrives.

The greatest power to stop Trump comes from all of us as direct activists and citizen journalists. Much of what the rightwing authoritarian movement wants to inflict on the country, depends only on quiet acquiescence from the rest of us.

For instance, it was normal people taking pictures of postal boxes being removed from city streets that caused the USPS to backtrack and halt the practice until after election day. And postal workers themselves can put up fierce resistance to any attempts to sabotage ballot delivery. On top of the National Letter Carriers Association directly endorsing Trump’s opponent Joe Biden, there are already reports that postal workers plan to deliver ballots on time come rain, sleet, snow–or Trump and DeJoy:

Whatever DeJoy’s actual motive may or may not be, true letter carriers were disturbed by the sight of mail going undelivered. “It’s frustrating for us,” Julion said. “Because we know this is not what we do.” In an organization of people sworn to get the mail delivered no matter what, DeJoy became known as “Delay.”…

What will likely have a bigger impact on the election is the avowed determination of the 300,000 letter carriers themselves to deliver the ballots this year no matter what DeJoy and his boss Trump do.

“Even more so than priority mail,” Julion said. “I’m confident, you get those ballots in our hands, we’re going to deliver them. If nothing else gets delivered, those ballots will.”

He added, “There’s a message we want to deliver, too.”

The message is that nobody is going to steal this election if they can help it, that falsehoods and sabotage are not going to stop letter carriers from doing their sworn duty and thereby enabling people to exercise their right to vote even in a pandemic.

“This is what we do,” Julion repeated, adding, “We can handle it.”

This is what will be required until at least January 20, 2021: an army of regular citizens stepping up to document wrongdoing and use whatever power they have in their work and social life to halt the destruction of democracy and move forward the cause of justice. If Trump and the Republican National Committee send a combination of private and DHS goons to intimidate voters in minority communities, it will be up to citizens to take video and use social media to organize communities to force them to back down. If they try to send squads to prevent the counting of mail-in ballots in a second Brooks Brothers Riot, it will be up to all of us to protect the vote counters by documenting it and standing in their way with overwhelming numbers. It will be crucial for young and healthy Americans not directly assisting anti-totalitarian campaigns to volunteer as poll workers to ensure that in-person voting will not be affected despite the pandemic. And so on.

The next few months will be a crucible not only for American democracy, but the health and safety of the international community and planet. Democratic leaders can do more, but there’s still only so much that they can do until Trump is gone because of the flaws inherent in the system. But if we all do our parts and put all hands on deck, we can get through this together.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.