Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media
From the moment he launched his campaign in June, 2015, Donald Trump's every tweet, threat and conspiracy theory has been logged and scrutinized, championed by his propagandists and critiqued by his protesters, and transformed into memes and viral tracts.
We Americans may be a captive audience to our reality-TV star who thinks he's an authoritarian, but we are a chatty audience, and our loquaciousness has been our salvation. For nearly a year, we have exercised First Amendment rights like we were working a defibrillator on democracy's damaged heart. We debunked lies, catalogued crimes, demanded justice and created a vast, informal movement dedicated to the pursuit of truth over alternative facts.
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But that may be about to end. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission announced it was planning a sweeping rollback of net neutrality, allowing corporations to decide what content is available online while pricing most citizens out of equal access to information.
For nearly a year, America has stood at the crossroads of a damaged democracy and a burgeoning autocracy. If net neutrality is destroyed, we will cross firmly into the latter, and our return is unlikely.
The threat to net neutrality highlights the reliance on social media and an independent press for political organizing in the digital age. Should net neutrality be eliminated, those avenues will likely become curtailed for much of the public or driven out of business due to loss of revenue. Without the means to freely communicate online, citizens will be far less able to challenge the administration. It doesn't matter what cause someone prioritizes: The elimination of net neutrality will impede the ability to understand the cause, discuss it and organize around it.
The erosion of freedom of speech and assembly has always been a hallmark of dictatorship, one traditionally associated with formal decrees of censorship or dramatic acts like book burning. In Mr. Trump's corporatized administration, overt state censorship is unnecessary and undesirable: Instead, technology can be manipulated while excessive litigation can force the media into self-censorship. The subtler gesture of removing the neutrality of the internet allows constitutional rights to remain intact on paper but demolished in practice.
The FCC's proposed rollback of net neutrality arrives with two other measures that mark the beginning of a more abjectly fascist phase for the United States – a systemic transformation that will likely endure after Trump leaves office. Along with the loss of a free internet, we face the packing of the courts with conservative extremists who legal scholars worry will decimate constitutional rights. Many of these judicial appointments are for a lifetime, curbing civil liberties for generations to come.
Americans also face a serious threat to the integrity of elections, with gerrymandering, restrictive voter ID laws, a bogus "voter fraud" commission, insecure voting machines, and foreign interference that is not only unchallenged but is sometimes encouraged by Republicans all adding up to the likelihood that the 2018 midterm elections will not be free or fair. Voter suppression will likely be rampant, with non-white and immigrant Americans the primary targets of disenfranchisement.
And here we lie at the interconnected horror of the Trump administration's autocratic manoeuvres. Consider this scenario for 2018: The repeal of net neutrality will stem the flow of information, making voter suppression harder to document. The packing of the courts will make the voter suppression that is documented harder to challenge. And the long-standing solution to purveyors of unpopular policies – vote them out – will be, by definition, impossible, since the election is rigged and the rigging uncontestable. This carefully constructed web of repression is how democracy dies.
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Gutting net neutrality is one of the most unpopular proposals the Republicans have made this year, along with Trumpcare and the proposed tax hike for all but the wealthiest Americans. Normally, there would be risk in proposing such widely loathed policies, but the GOP appears unconcerned with public approval – a strong indicator to me that the elections are indeed a fait accompli.
What can we Americans do? Talk about it – while we still can. Call our representatives, organize in our community, and have a plan for what we'll do should these repressive initiatives pass. Over the past year, citizens have had success exerting public pressure on officials and raising consciousness over social issues. The internet was key to these endeavours, which is precisely why the administration wants to eliminate equal access to it. If we, as Americans, want to retain our voice, we must speak up now, or forever, involuntarily, hold our peace.