Months before America’s presidential election, the U.S. State Department expressed deep concern about the conduct of Belarusian authorities during that country’s presidential election. Ahead of the vote on Aug. 9, President Alexander Lukashenko, who was seeking a sixth term, warned that his enemies were planning a violent disruption in the centre of Minsk – and used that warning as a pretext to cordon off roads and shut down transit systems even before voting had concluded. Mobile and internet connections suddenly became conspicuously slow. Soldiers were spotted making their way to the capital.
On Aug. 10, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement saying that the Belarusian election had been marred by “severe restrictions on ballot access for candidates, prohibition of local independent observers at polling stations, intimidation tactics employed against opposition candidates, and the detentions of peaceful protesters and journalists.
“The Government of Belarus must prove through action its commitment to democratic processes and respect for human rights,” he added.
Three months later, it was time for the U.S. election. U.S. President Donald Trump had earlier issued warnings that his enemies were planning violent disruptions. Voter suppression tactics – long lines at polls, attempts to get ballots thrown out, misinformation about the legitimacy of mail-in ballots – marred the election process, as did premature declarations of victory by agents of both the Democratic and Republican candidates, as well as by Mr. Trump himself.
Protesters gathered outside polling stations after Mr. Trump called for states to stop counting ballots where unfinished tallies showed him in the lead. Roads were not cordoned off and public transit remained operational, but the protective barriers retailers had erected ahead of the election stayed in place, just in case. By Thursday evening, when it looked as though Mr. Trump’s prospects of re-election had all but vanished, the President emerged to stand before a White House podium and baselessly claim that the election was being stolen from him. A cheeky Mr. Lukashenko might have seized the moment to urge U.S authorities to reaffirm their commitment to democratic processes.
It would be hyperbolic and needlessly provocative to suggest that the U.S. has devolved to Belarusian levels of dysfunction and authoritarianism (though dragging protesters into unmarked vans in Portland over the summer was a bit on the nose). After all, Mr. Trump can call for the imprisonment of his political opponents, but he can’t actually put them in handcuffs. He can groundlessly claim he has won the election, but he can’t rig it so that results show him getting 80 per cent of the vote. He can label journalists the “enemy of the people,” but he cannot charge them with crimes against the state.
But the fact there are parallels to be drawn between the United States and a country where democracy is in peril or nonexistent – including the misinformation being spewed from the highest levels of government; the rounding up of peaceful protesters, as occurred in U.S. cities over the summer; the radicalization of young men, such as the Kenosha shooter, through state propaganda; the distrust of science and medical professionals being sown by a President who told his followers that doctors get paid more when patients die of COVID-19 (that’s a bit on the nose, too) – illustrates the extent to which democratic norms in the U.S. have been eroded in a rather short period of time. Indeed, it would have been unthinkable just one election cycle ago to suggest that retailers across the country should be boarding up their windows in anticipation of election day riots. That’s something Americans would’ve contemplated for countries such as Belarus, Russia, Egypt or Nigeria – not for the beacon of freedom and democracy that is the United States.
In September, Sri Lankan writer Indi Samarajiva published an essay titled “I lived through collapse. America is already there,” in which he discussed how the mundane normality of everyday life during the civil war in Sri Lanka served to obscure the progression of systemic collapse.
“If you’re waiting for a moment where you’re like ‘this is it,’ I’m telling you, it never comes,” he wrote. “Nobody comes on TV and says ‘things are officially bad.’”
“Collapse,” he continued, “is just a series of ordinary days” amid ongoing disaster, "most of it happening to someone else.”
In present-day America, collapse might look like a thousand people dying from COVID-19 every day while the President’s proxies try to disqualify millions of legal ballots in an election that could be decided by a court widely seen as a mere partisan agency. Collapse is the weaponization of conspiracy theories and misinformation while tens of millions of Americans ration food and while rifle-toting protesters take to the streets. And it’s all happening while most Americans go about their days, swipe right on Tinder, shop early for Christmas presents and tuck their kids into bed at night.
America may not be Belarus, but its democracy is like a frog in a pot on a low flame. The water feels fine – right up until the frog goes belly up.
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