The Zurich-based American law professor Alexandra Dufresne sees recent political developments in the United States as both positive signs and warning stories for the world’s democracies.
This content was published on January 11, 2021 – 4:20 pm
Alexandra Dufresne is a lawyer for refugees and children
The attack by right-wing extremists on the capital of the United States has understandably dominated headlines around the world. Almost every American I know is angry, scared, and heart disease. With 373,000 deaths from Covid-19, devastating job losses, and millions of children unable to attend school in person, it feels like an especially dark time in the United States.
However, dramatic video footage of extremist violence should not be allowed to overshadow tremendous – and historical – good news. This news is monumental for the US and will have an impact on Europe too.
Last week, two Democratic candidates, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, won the Senate runoff in Georgia, giving the Democrats a majority in the 100-seat chamber, with the new Democratic Vice President casting the casting vote.
Democrats’ control of Congress is critical to President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to achieve his health, economic, immigration, and environmental policy priorities. While the executive can make some decisions through executive action, major reforms can only come through the legislative and appropriation process carried out by Congress. Democratic scrutiny also means that Republicans cannot block or delay the appointment of federal judges or key presidential appointments. This will allow the Biden government to take the first steps to bring the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy under control.
This will also affect Switzerland and the rest of Europe. The most significant effect will likely be in the area of combating climate change, which is a top priority for the Biden government. While President-elect Biden can reverse several of President Trump’s polluting executive acts and rejoin the Paris Agreement without the support of Congress, he needs both houses of Congress to make significant and lasting investments in green energy.
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. I left when I was 18 in 1992 and rarely returned. I have found over the years that it is almost impossible to explain the level of racial segregation and inequality, or how deeply politically conservative it is – or was, to someone who has not visited Georgia. Most of my friends and colleagues in the American South – of all races and ethnic groups – and I are overjoyed with the election results, but deeply surprised. Personally, I’ve never been so happy that I’ve proven myself wrong.
Most attribute the victory to the inspirational leadership of Stacey Abrams, a former member of the Georgian legislature and former candidate for governor, who began laying the foundations for democratic victories in Georgia many years ago when many thought their dream was be impossible. If you read Abrams’ book, now is our timeexternal linkWhen you hear her speak, it immediately becomes clear that she is a visionary of rare political talent.
But Abrams didn’t do it alone. Her leadership was effective because she inspired thousands of people to invest in the electoral infrastructure infrastructure – grassroots, empowerment and mobilization at the community level. It focused not only on general political goals but also on the endless, meticulous details of combating voter suppression techniques to protect everyone’s right to vote. Legions of grassroots activists and organizationsexternal link worked to get the vote external linkin communities previously disenfranchised or ignored, from a “transactional” model of politics, in which candidates seek voter support during campaign season, to an empowerment-based model, in which local activists and community organizers make their neighbors important too Matters involve non-election years. These groups formed a common ground between rural and urban voters, as well as between voters with different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
All these investments in people and infrastructure have paid off. Over 4.4 million people or 60% of the eligible voters voted in the runoff elections in the Senate, which is more than double the previous record for voter turnout in a runoff election. African Americans and young people in particular voted at historic rates, which is particularly noteworthy given the challenges of the pandemic.
No democracy is exceptional
The past four years have taught many Americans not to take our democratic institutions for granted. It is always a mystery to me when fellow Americans express shock and disbelief that we are now acting like “one of those other countries” that we associate with political violence. I have spent much of my career representing people who have fled political persecution. Of course, the US can be like other countries struggling with political violence. Have we forgotten 1775, 1860, 1968? Did we really think we were special?
It doesn’t take much history to read to realize that tyranny, anarchy and war are the default and that peace, the rule of law and democracy are the exception. Democracy is a fragile thing. You have to take care of it, even if – especially if – your particular democracy is not in crisis.
I often hear people in Switzerland express extraordinary feelings, similar to what I hear in the US. Switzerland is a peaceful, democratic, constitutional state in a chaotic world. But the things that make democracy work – a strong education system, a robust media environment, social equality, open dialogue, a critical understanding of one’s history, limits to corporate power and other special interests, an impartial justice system, a robust electoral infrastructure – take You have a lot of energy and vigilance to maintain. By seeing the cracks in the system, it may be too late to prevent much of the damage.
The experience in the US over the past four years has led me to advise the people in Switzerland to be vigilant when it comes to protecting the norms necessary for sustainable democracy. This includes people on the progressive side of the debate. Some progressive organizations, friends and thought leaders – including in Switzerland – share information on social media that is inaccurate or misleading. Misrepresentations may seem harmless on their own, but they destroy – albeit gradually – the common good for accurate information.
Do the hard work
The problem is that effectively maintaining democracy is often boring, tedious, and boring. It’s easier to complain on social media than it is to call back and knock on doors. It’s easier to blame your uncle for conspiracy theories than to research the media market that would have radicalized him and the economic and social factors that would have made him an easy target for radical complaints. It is all too easy to privilege the voices of the rich and powerful over those of the people who have been marginalized or treated as invisible. While it is important to deal with important substantive issues – such as combating climate change – it is even more important at this moment to deal with structural issues such as gerrymandering, voting systems for “winners take all”, disenfranchisement, polarization of the primaries and oversized corporate lobbies.
In terms of building democracy in the US, it is important that everyone do their part. It is deeply unfair to expect people in color communities – especially women – to continue doing all the heavy lifting. Doing a part doesn’t mean sharing memes on social media or shaming a family who supports Donald Trump. It means taking the time to educate yourself on structural issues and partnering with nonprofits and stakeholders, activists and community organizations to rebuild the infrastructure of our democratic institutions at both local and national levels. U.S. citizens overseas can do their part by researching electoral reforms, raising funds for grassroots political organizations, casting votes, calling members of Congress, writing letters to the editor, amplifying grassroots activists’ voices, sharing best practices from other countries, and Helping People Register to vote and meet technical voting requirements, participate in protests and demonstrations, and telephone and text banking.
This work is necessary because at the end of the day it is not difficult to encourage people to use force to tear things down. It’s not difficult to convince people that the system is fundamentally against them, that “truth” is fit for purpose in the moment and a much-needed sense of community by tending to your complaints and flirting with conspiracy theories. And it is not difficult to convince yourself that the suffering of “others” – whether liberal or conservative – is not real or does not matter.
However, it is difficult to inspire people to channel their hard-won resilience into building something real, robust, and potentially permanent. Fortunately, the careful work of individuals and communities in Georgia has shown that organizing and strengthening the community can be invested in even in the midst of a pandemic. It can serve as a model for democracies everywhere.
Alexandra Dufresne teaches US law, international law and children’s rights at universities in Switzerland. She works with non-governmental organizations for refugees, human rights and development in Europe and is co-founder of ‘Action Together: Zurich, CH’, an action group of US citizens in Switzerland.
End of insertion
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch.
swissinfo.ch publishes articles by contributors who write on a wide variety of topics – Swiss topics or those relating to Switzerland. The selection of articles offers a variety of opinions that are intended to enrich the debate on the issues discussed. If you would like to submit an idea for a statement, please send an e-mail to email@example.com
End of insertion