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A critical choice

This is a difficult letter to write. It’s difficult because it’s just one more about politics, the election, democracy, all subjects we are either obsessed or fatigued with. It’s also difficult because most of us are locked into our respective positions on candidates, and it’s unlikely these few words will change anyone’s mind. So why try? Because this particular election is a critical tipping point for America. Whatever future it ushers in for my children and grandchildren, I want them to know that I attempted to make it a decent one for them, maybe a little more equitable, a little cleaner, a little less violent, a little more hopeful. If this helps only a handful of voters think twice, it will have been worth the effort.

When we fill in that little circle on the ballot next to Trump or Biden’s name, we are each voting for one of two drastically different futures for this country: one promising prosperity through less government regulation, unfettered economic liberty, “finally” putting America’s interests above all others, and all this under the aggressive leadership of one strong man; the other promising prosperity by challenging economic exploitation, keeping America’s interests first by working with allies, and being lead factually into the future by an administration representing a cross-section of America. I’m betting on a more prosperous future with Biden. Please look up “socialism.” A Biden presidency will not usher in socialism any more than Social Security or Medicare or the Affordable Care Act did. But a Biden presidency will stop the bleeding of democracy that Donald Trump has ushered in, give us a chance to catch our breaths, and use democracy to fix democracy.

I don’t like being taxed for things I don’t believe in. But I’m grateful to live in this imperfect country which protects my right to say so, to publish my opinions in a free press, to demonstrate peacefully with others, to vote, to have a choice of candidates. These freedoms that we now take for granted were hammered out long ago by people who fought hard to escape the tyranny of one-man rule. Yet here we are, two-and-a-half centuries later, faced once again with the threat of one-man rule, a threat of our own making. It just adds to the irony that each side sees the other as the real threat to our democracy.

For many single-issue Trump voters, these fears of losing democratic freedoms are either exaggerated or irrelevant. Others believe he would actually save us from socialism. But like me, millions of other patriotic Americans believe it is Trump himself who will continue to undermine democracy. This belief is not based on election-year exaggerations. It is simply based on projecting out what he himself has done and said in the past four years: issuing market-shattering decrees by midnight tweets, surrounding himself with sycophants, denigrating critics, tear-gassing peaceful protesters, cowing an entire Republican Party, unilaterally overruling juries, reinforcing delusional conspiracy theories of the Q-Anon cult. There’s no sense in rehashing the litany of controversial behaviors that are heroic to some and treasonous to others. We all see what we want to see, excuse what we want to excuse. But to his supporters who may still be willing to look past single-issue or economic self-interests, please consider these two threats that, unbelievably, this sitting American president has publicly made: to not accept the election results if he — and he alone — decides that an unfavorable election is somehow “rigged” against him; and for militant white supremacists to “stand by.” How can this possibly be acceptable to you, to us? We are used to hearing such election sabotage from Third World dictators, but not American presidents. How can his encouragement of militant white supremacists not be reminiscent of Germany’s once infamous “Brownshirts”?

But all of this is old news. Under Trump’s leadership he has encouraged Americans to trust only him, to distrust science, facts and each other. And it is this last point, our inability to talk with each other anymore, that is the most dangerous loss for a government by the people. When we stop trusting our flawed democratic process to solve our way through difficult problems, an authoritarian like Trump fills the void with this own cult of personality. It is one thing to applaud, ignore or excuse the daily outrages as political theater; it is another to vote for a president who will continue to flaunt the unwritten principles of decency and tolerance that make our Constitution possible.

This quote from a World War II German citizen is as relevant to us today as in 1955: “We were decent people, kept so busy with continuous … ‘crises’ that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing … all around us. And one day, too late … you see that everything … has changed … completely under your nose. The world you live in — your nation, your people — is not the world you were born in at all. Now you live in a world of hate and fear. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father … could not have imagined. Suddenly … you see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done … for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing” (from “They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45,” Milton Mayer, 1955).

I hope that an overwhelming majority of voters have recognized the danger in doing nothing in this election and will say no to the one-man rule our Constitution rejected so long ago. I hope that the popular vote so overwhelmingly rejects him that he and his private army will stand down and that his ego won’t throw the country into chaos by refusing to accept defeat. I hope I can tell my grandchildren that in 2020, a divided America chose instead a future to honestly address the many problems that brought us to this unbelievable brink.

John O’Neill lives in Saranac Lake.

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