These are oddly troubling times. It seems every week a new democratic norm is violated at too rapid a pace to sustain the requisite outrage. This past week alone it was revealed that the FBI worried the President of the United States was acting as an asset of a hostile foreign nation. President Trump routinely dismisses the free press as the “enemy of the people,” attacks law enforcement agencies for investigating him, and undermines the cause of democracy by openly castigating America’s allies.
Worst of all, the usual mechanisms of accountability fail to restrain Donald Trump.
The problem, of course, is bigger than one person. In many ways, Trump is merely a manifestation of undemocratic and eliminationist thinking that has long plagued our republic. Only now, these viruses are disseminated from the bully pulpit by the office tasked with defending against them.
This is not mere partisan hyperbole. The implications for undermining democracy are too serious to overstate, especially for vulnerable populations.
In recent decades, the arc of history has certainly bent toward justice for LGBT people. Fifty years after Stonewall, the myriad of rights achieved is encouraging, but not invincible. The beast of prejudice still nibbles at the edges of hard won victories. All around the country, challenges to LGBT rights come in the form of religious exemption laws, adoption bans and thinly veiled political condemnations.
The critical point to remember is that these threats to individual rights are not distinct from the trend of democratic erosion. They are symptomatic. Though each little battle seems petty, targeted, and distinct, retaining and even gaining ground in this political climate requires a holistic framing.
Theorists have long recognized the warning signs of an ailing democracy, but teaching them always felt remote and hypothetical. Whenever I lectured on a democracy falling apart, I referenced tinpot dictatorships and fledgling states, not my own country. But now, the same alarm bells ring perpetually in the U.S.
I’m reminded of Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ poem The Second Coming. Though less familiar than some of his other works, its words sting with an urgent pertinence for our present with lines like: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” and “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Though he died nearly a century ago, his words directly address a time such as this.
Yeats is credited for being prescient about the 20th century. He foresaw the rise of fascism, the Holocaust, and military industrial complex long before those nightmares became reality. His predictions were not the products of clairvoyance but a trenchant grasp of human nature. Our tendency to “otherize,” exclude and eliminate is universal. The targeted identities may vary from age to age, nation to nation, but the impetus to discriminate remains consistent. All that is required for the center to fail to hold is a critical mass of apathy coupled with ignorant tribalism.
It now seems as if the center is not holding. Democratic institutions such as a free press, rule of law and evidence-based consensus are slipping away. The current nominee for Attorney General has a questionable allegiance to the rule of law. Federal judges are ignored based on which president appointed them. Every bedrock institution or Northern star is too easily dismissed as a partisan agenda, so we lack a foundation on which to stand and fight.
Put bluntly, LGBT rights are undergirded by democracy. The system matters as much as the struggle. A foundational respect for the rights and equality of all individuals regardless of identity must exist for any group to flourish—but a society cannot have equal treatment under the law without a robust defense of the living law. It cannot counter unfair discrimination without respect for evidence-based evolving institutions. Democracy cannot protect against tyranny of the majority if it cannot hold its potential tyrants accountable.
What threatens full equality most now is bland consent to the nebulous slippage of democratic values. A tell-tale sign of the slide into authoritarianism is constantly attacking the very notion of ethics and evidence-based institutions such as science, academia, journalism and judicial review. That lays the groundwork for a denial of rights that always seems impossible until it’s realized.
Vigilance is paramount. Marriage equality is far from permanent. Employment discrimination is still perfectly legal at a federal level. But LGBT rights are not distinct from broader cultural trends. Neither are they separate battles from parallel attacks on immigrants, religious minorities and women. If the center does not hold, it is because it is systematically divided: democratic institutions require a resistance to division itself.
Yeats was right about human nature. But the slouching beast he predicted is not inevitable. The threat can be resisted with a fuller recognition of its dangers. Fighting for LGBT rights – all rights really – means fighting for democracy. Attacks on a free press are attacks on equality. Attacks on the judiciary are attacks on equality. Attacks on electoral legitimacy are attacks on equality.
Some may have fretted over fascism too easily in the past and cried wolf too frequently. But make no mistake—this threat is real, the wolf is at the door. To paraphrase Welsh poet Dylan Thomas—it’s up to each of us to rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light. Fight division. Fight exclusion. Fight indifference. Fight for the democratic system that makes equality possible.