The despair felt by climate scientists and environmentalists watching helplessly as something precious and irreplaceable is destroyed is sometimes described as “climate grief.” Those who pay close attention to the ecological calamity that civilization is inflicting upon itself frequently describe feelings of rage, anxiety and bottomless loss, all of which are amplified by the right’s willful denial. The young activist Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year, has described falling into a deep depression after grasping the ramifications of climate change and the utter refusal of people in power to rise to the occasion: “If burning fossil fuels was so bad that it threatened our very existence, how could we just continue like before?”
Lately, I think I’m experiencing democracy grief. For anyone who was, like me, born after the civil rights movement finally made democracy in America real, liberal democracy has always been part of the climate, as easy to take for granted as clean air or the changing of the seasons. When I contemplate the sort of illiberal oligarchy that would await my children should Donald Trump win another term, the scale of the loss feels so vast that I can barely process it.
After Trump’s election, a number of historians and political scientists rushed out with books explaining, as one title put it, “How Democracies Die.” In the years since, it’s breathtaking how much is dead already. Though the president will almost certainly be impeached for extorting Ukraine to aid his re-election, he is equally certain to be acquitted in the Senate, a tacit confirmation that he is, indeed, above the law. His attorney general is a shameless partisan enforcer. Professional civil servants are purged, replaced by apparatchiks. The courts are filling up with young, hard-right ideologues. One recently confirmed judge, 40-year-old Steven Menashi, has written approvingly of ethnonationalism.
In “How Democracies Die,” Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard describe how, in failing democracies, “the referees of the democratic game were brought over to the government’s side, providing the incumbent with both a shield against constitutional challenges and a powerful — and ‘legal’ — weapon with which to assault its opponents.” This is happening before our eyes.
The entire Trump presidency has been marked, for many of us who are part of the plurality that despises it, by anxiety and anger. But lately I’ve noticed, and not just in myself, a demoralizing degree of fear, even depression. You can see it online, in the self-protective cynicism of liberals announcing on Twitter that Trump is going to win re-election. In The Washington Post, Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and a Never Trump conservative, described his spiritual struggle against feelings of political desperation: “Sustaining this type of distressed uncertainty for long periods, I can attest, is like putting arsenic in your saltshaker.”
I don’t think Joe Biden understands any of this. (Yes yes he’s a million times better than Trump and we will all vote for him and work for him in the general if it comes to that. Let’s hope it doesn’t).