Democratic Principles for Antidemocratic Times

January 23, 2017 -- Jamie Way

Principles for Engaging Trump, Defending Human Rights, and Preventing Authoritarianism

Partnership for Working Families has signed on to the following principles and encourages you to join us.

The bigotry and false solutions championed by President Donald Trump are not a new phenomenon in American politics. Indeed, the idea that one person’s dignity requires another’s subjugation has been a central contradiction in this country’s founding principles and practices from the beginning. An economic system that enriches the few by exploiting the many has fostered savage rivalries. President Trump’s misogyny, racism, and xenophobia serve to stoke resentment and violence, and his policies would further benefit the ultra rich. President Trump’s election also signals a dramatic break from contemporary norms. We now face a scale of threat to democratic values and institutions unseen since at least the McCarthy period, and quite probably since Redemption—the backlash against the liberation of enslaved African Americans that ushered in the prolonged and deadly Jim Crow regime in the South.

We stand at the precipice of history. On January 20th, 2017, a ruthless team of corporate profiteers, racial bigots, religious zealots, climate deniers, and anti-democracy crusaders are assuming control of the executive branch and begin to govern, advancing the agenda of a President whose party dominates all three branches of the federal government. In the states, the Republican Party holds executive as well as both legislative branches in fully half the country, and both chambers (without governorship) in seven additional states. The Supreme Court is poised to accelerate the rollback of democratic rights for at least a generation. Hawkish ex-generals are inheriting a military apparatus with unprecedented capacity both domestically and internationally. Ascendant forces within the GOP are seeking to enforce a racially and culturally exclusive vision of America while converting public services into profit-making ventures. Billionaires who have profited from fossil fuel, home foreclosure, and low-wage industries are or will soon be in charge of America’s economic, environmental, labor, education, and foreign policy.

This scale of threat to human, civil, and constitutional rights and associated potential for violence and harm goes far beyond what the country experienced under the conservative Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush administrations. The likelihood of massive transfers of wealth to the already rich, and governance by oligarchs, surpasses the harm we’ve already experienced under George W. Bush and Obama.

Many are searching for the compass we need to navigate this unfamiliar and frightening new terrain. Responses from civil society sectors have ranged from efforts to deny Mr. Trump the presidency at the Electoral College to expressions of readiness to work with him on particular issues. Social justice-minded people should agree on a set of basic principles to guide our dealings with the incoming regime. We otherwise risk yielding to authoritarianism and normalizing the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, greed, and indifference to basic human needs that brought us to this brink. We risk consenting to rivalries over those sacred things that should never be put at such risk – life, health, home, family, community, and democracy.

To reverse the momentum of fear and bigotry we must refuse the cynical politics of division and become the most powerful we can be together. To do this, the most expansive version of we the people – that most prophetic yet contested of American identities – will play a crucial role in the coming period. Who we can be together will determine whether America protects and advances the principles of democracy and pluralism or succumbs to the forces that threaten to unmake them.

Two priorities now demand our allegiance:

  1. Build and maintain unity by adopting a set of principles to guide our engagement with the Trump regime and with each other; and
  2. Prevent the rise of authoritarianism by taking affirmative steps to defend and expand democratic practices and institutions.

Why are these actions necessary? Here is what we know:

  • A man who ran as a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and anti-establishment demagogue is now President of the United States.
  • President Trump’s election is part of a global trend toward xenophobia and right-wing authoritarianism that includes the Erdogan regime in Turkey, the parliamentary coup in Brazil, and the Brexit vote in Great Britain. This trend will not stop without compelling alternatives to a broken global system of massive economic inequality and deep-seated racial divisions.
  • President Trump’s disdain for human and constitutional rights and democratic principles is a matter of public record. He has advocated torture, religious tests for immigrants and refugees, the deportation of millions of immigrants, and the criminalization of speech currently protected by the Constitution. He has intimidated the press, threatened his opponents with incarceration, incited his supporters to violence, and boasted about committing serial sexual assault. He has publicly denigrated Native, Black, Mexican, Muslim, and Asian Americans; LGBT people; disabled people; and women. He pretends to represent working class White people, which is an insult to the many working people he has defrauded throughout his business career.
  • President Trump’s public statements and appointments since the election align with his stated priorities and bombastic behavior on the campaign trail. He has brought leading apologists and strategists for racial exclusion and domination into his inner circle and has repeatedly amplified racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism.
  • GOP control of all branches of the federal government and most state governments affords President Trump extraordinary power and compromise normal checks on abuse of executive authority.
  • Those who now call for giving President Trump a chance to lead either fail to appreciate the crises before us, support his agenda in whole or in part, or are driven by fear to avoid injury to their specific community or issue by currying favor with the incoming regime.
  • President Trump failed to win the popular vote and has the lowest approval ratings for any presidential transition on record. His narrow electoral victory is not a mandate to implement the bigoted and destructive agenda on which he campaigned.
  • Many residents of the United States—regardless of ideology—correctly perceive that the political and economic systems of this country are stacked against us, often treating us as if we were disposable. None of us is disposable.
  • No one, including those who voted for President Trump, deserves the assault on our democratic principles and the expanded threat to human safety that we must now anticipate. Trump will likely betray many of the people who voted for him. We must work to expose those betrayals and show an alternative way forward from fear and misery.

For these reasons, we call on all of civil society to refuse to legitimate or normalize the Trump regime, which came to power through explicit appeals to racial and religious bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny.

We commit to the following principles for engaging with the Trump regime:

  1. If you come for any of us, you will have to go through all of us. Stand in defense of all targets of bigotry and repression with a broad principle of solidarity. Reject ideas, statements, policies, and actions rooted in racial and religious bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny. Refuse deals with public officials that would make targeted communities more vulnerable or that would buy our silence while others are harmed. Throw no one under the bus.
  2. Support freedom fighters and defend targets of political retaliation. Support those who assume personal and organizational risk to defend democratic institutions and practices against unjust laws and actions by the government, or any group or individual.
  3. Never give up on democracy. Defend against threats—regardless of ideological origin—to dismiss or weaken our democratic practices and institutions. Work tirelessly to address the failings and unfulfilled promises of our democracy. Remember that when the people give up on democratic possibilities, authoritarianism reaps the rewards.
  4. Keep our hearts open and our eyes on the prize. Expect disagreements while seeking unity in pursuit of shared goals. Know that we will need different kinds of work and a broad set of movements to weather the coming storm and build a more humane and sustainable world. Be simultaneously unyielding in defense of human rights, and open hearted toward one another, including those with whom we disagree. Create welcoming entry points for all who would join us in the fight for democracy and against the threat of authoritarianism.
  5. Demand a free press that doesn’t censor itself to maintain access to Trump. Alongside rights to voting, assembly, petition, and due process, a free press is a cornerstone of democracy. Demand that all news media prioritize the defense of democracy as a basic journalistic principle, placing this above profit margins, relations with politicians, or the interests of advertisers. Support alternative media.
  6. Build an attractive, alternative vision that reflects people’s needs. Be the resistance and opposition to the threats we now face, and the alternative that masses of people will want to join. Build a fair and inclusive society and economy that ensures the safety, self- determination, and wellbeing of all people and the sustainability of life-giving natural systems. Model this vision in neighborhoods, cities, towns, rural communities, and suburbs across the country.

We can expect the coming years to be difficult and painful, but also rich with the human impulse to turn toward and not against each other. We must nurture this impulse. The future of our humanity and our democracy depends on this, on you, on us.