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Democracy at risk

Fiercely contested elections can signal a healthy democracy. The free flow of divergent ideas are the bread and butter of democratic processes. Attempts to discredit election outcomes because a candidate doesn’t like them are different. Such delegitimisation regularly occurs elsewhere. But few expected such authoritarian tendencies would haunt the recent American election. The international community watches the United States in disbelief as those who do not accept the election results have put regulations and institutions protecting the rule of law in the crosshairs.

Before November 3, paramilitary threats of violence and hostile interference sounded the first alarm for a democracy at risk. FBI officials exposed a Michigan militia plot a month earlier. Two hundred members of a paramilitary organisation planned to kidnap the state’s governor and hold other legislators hostage. The conspiracy also targeted law enforcement officers at their home addresses. Using explosives and firearms to storm the Michigan statehouse, the militia arranged to stage televised executions of public officials there.

After the election, threats have not disappeared. Refusal to acknowledge election results have led to death threats against officials. Continuous denials and falsehoods sow mistrust among voters and hollow out prized democratic structures. Threats of violence remain a recurring theme throughout 2020. Despite the end of the election and the beginning of a peaceful transfer of power, democracy is more vulnerable than ever. Whosoever was “forced to witness the extinction of freedom,” Holocaust survivor Jean Amery once wrote about Germany in 1933, “knows that one must be vigilant.”

Americans too must remain vigilant to anti-democratic developments at home and abroad. Some countries in the European Union, like Poland and Hungary, already have chipped away at democracy. Their turn to illiberal politics have paralysed European Union institutions. The Hungarian Conservative Christian Democratic government effectively sent Budapest’s Central European University into exile after Viktor Orbán’s administration used antisemitic tropes to demonise the university’s founder George Soros, a Holocaust survivor. The European Court of Justice condemnation of the university’s expulsion came three years too late. Populist movements collaborate across borders, corroding existing social structures in education, the arts, and politics. Ignoring these mounting restrictions on rights and freedom of expression among European allies puts in peril democratic institutions in America.

The past shows how delegitimising elections and promoting civil unrest lead to danger. Before the Holocaust, the Nazi Party used paramilitary threats in 1930s Germany. By instigating street violence amid elections, Nazis gained political advantage. When other groups organised their paramilitaries, they only played into the hands of Nazi ambitions to discredit Weimar democracy. Brownshirts supposedly defended the German nation against internal enemies. But street violence only diverted public attention away from powerful alliances forming behind closed doors. Those alliances issued emergency degrees and eliminated democratically elected governments. By 1933, such measures ultimately swept Hitler into power. 

The violent hollowing out of democracy did not end there. A day after the German parliament building burned down in 1933, the right of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press were suspended. Arrests and charges of political opponents followed. “The Decree for the Protection of the German People” banned all parties except the Nazi party. By 1938, the state-sponsored pogrom, the Night of Broken Glass, targeted Jews throughout Germany unobstructed. A violence-plagued election brought Hitler into power and led, step by step, to mass incarceration, dispossession of property, forced relocations, and eventual mass murder.

“I am concerned about the many parallels between the rise of Nazi Germany and today’s America,” says survivor Oskar Knoblauch. Born in 1925 to a Jewish family in Germany, Oskar still speaks to Arizona schools today. “As a Holocaust survivor I am very much concerned the direction our government has taken to dismantle our democracy. It is very alarming that our Commander in Chief is not denouncing the different white supremacist groups as well as QAnon conspiracy theorists.”

While we must heed these warnings, creating and protecting democracies based on justice and accountability can achieve success. The transition from the South African apartheid regime to a democracy is one example. Protest and democratic alliances reversed recent authoritarian trends in this country. Every day South Africans showed extraordinary resilience, joining with media outlets, the justice system, and an active civil society to overcome Jacob Zuma’s corrupt presidency.

American citizens today must also refuse a path to authoritarianism and political unaccountability, one that Germany took in 1933 with devastating results. Threats left unattended undermine democracy. Disinformation and violence cumulatively chip away at voter trust, until voters themselves shrug as once viable and vibrant democracies crumble into lawlessness. In the US, we must speak up and demand pledges from elected officials and law enforcement to unequivocally respect election results and disavow post-election violence. A healthy democracy rises upon the free flow of ideas and democratic expressions of the people’s will. It falls with conspiratorial ideologies so enfeebled that only violence can help them prevail. 

This article was first published in the Detroit News

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Tali Nates
Tali Nates is the director, Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre
Björn Krondorfer
Björn Krondorfer is the director, Martin-Springer Institute, Arizona, USA
Steven Carr
Steven Carr is the director, Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Purdue University, Indiana, USA
Andrea Peto
Andrea Peto is professor at the Central European University, Vienna, Austria

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