In his latest Substack post, Democracy Seminar convener Jeff Goldfarb announced that we “will be developing new ways to extend and strengthen our deliberations in the coming months.”
Our effort to create and nourish a “world-wide committee of democratic correspondence” began long before the coronavirus laid waste to our world. And as a world-wide network, our efforts have always involved a strong online component. For the web affords our far-flung group many opportunities for the sharing of ideas and news and for real-time interaction. When some of us first met together at the New School in 2018 to relaunch the effort Jeff first began in the 1980’s, I am pretty sure that none of us had ever heard of “Zoom.” And yet over the past year Zoom has served as an absolutely indispensable means for us to meet in virtual space, to share stories, to commiserate, to celebrate and, most important, to share ideas about the threats to democracy and how to combat them.
We have held Zoom conferences where members of our group shared brief presentations. We have held Zoom webinars, live-streamed events intended to reach out to broader audiences of interested colleagues, students, and fellow citizens (we organized two very well-attended webinars on the U.S. election in November, which can be viewed here). And we have held what I will call, using the lingo of jazz musicians, Zoom “hangs,” where we simply hang out, say hi, talk and listen.
We held such a meeting last week to check in, and to share stories and concerns about recent developments in the places where we live, which include the U.S., Canada, Turkey, India, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Belarus.
Attention quickly turned to Poland, which is currently experiencing a wave of civil society activism and public protest against the ruling Law and Justice party’s recent ban on almost all kinds of abortions. As the New York Times neatly summarized on January 27: “Near-Total Abortion Ban Takes Effect in Poland, and Thousands Protest.” The protests, led by feminists but incorporating a wide range of social groups, have continued, in the face of government condemnation and threats, and in the face of winter weather and covid dangers. A number of our Democracy Seminar colleagues have been active in these ongoing efforts, and reports from Poland were shared with our group by Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer, Pawel Knut, and Dariusz Stola.
The Polish protests have been going on for some time. Back in December, Amanda Taub observed in a New York Times report that “In Poland, Protests Over Abortion Ban Could Revolutionize Politics,” pointing out that the protests in fact represented a broad-based civil society effort to oppose the social conservatism and general anti-liberalism of the Law and Justice Party, which controls both Parliament and the Presidency, and which has promoted a hard-right agenda that is hostile to feminism, gender studies, women’s and LGBTQ rights, immigrants, Holocaust scholars and institutions, and anything that it considers a danger to a pristine “Polish nation.”
This conjunction of xenophobic nationalism, social reaction, hostility toward independent universities and newspapers, and political authoritarianism is hardly unique to Poland, and indeed the spread of this plague across the world, in virtually every country in which we live, is one of the things that motivated us to revive the Democracy Seminar two years ago.
Similar developments are taking place elsewhere, most notably in Hungary, Romania, Turkey, India, Russia, Brazil, and of course the United States.
No leader exemplified this dangerous phenomenon better than Donald Trump who, as President of the United States, made it very clear that he despised liberal internationalism and “globalism” and intended to use the power of the U.S. to promote an aggressive nationalism at home and abroad—a nationalism paradoxically mobilized not against other similarly nationalist regimes, but against liberals and cosmopolitans within each country, figured as “enemies within” who threatened culture, history, and simply human security. Had Trump been re-elected in 2020, it would have represented a huge political and psychological setback to democrats everywhere. Trump lost. But, as we know, he did not go peacefully into the night. He incited an insurrection, brought the nation to the brink of an auto-coup, and then finally departed in ways that promise to generate continued danger.
That the U.S. came so perilously close to the overturning of a democratic election and an autocratic seizure of power bodes ill for the future.
Two recent New York Times pieces report that the January 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol heralds “A New Era of Far-Right Violence,” and that “Capitol Riot Puts Spotlight on ‘Apocalyptically Minded’ Global Far Right”; and Washington Post columnist Ishnan Tharoor has similarly observed that “Biden and the West face the threat of far-right extremism.”
One dimension of this transnational and indeed global threat relates to the spread of violence, via both example and networking, a point made disturbingly clear by Robert Coulson in his recent RFE/RL report, “‘We Know What To Do’: Far-Right Figures Across Eastern Europe Applaud U.S. Capitol Violence.”
But this threat of violence is connected to a broader range of far-right organizational and strategic linkages that have been widely studied and that deserve increasing attention. Civic Nation, an Internet project of the European Center for Tolerance and the European Center for the Development of Democracy (Latvia) dedicated to the creation and strengthening of civic nationalism in European countries, has recently published an extensive report on “The Transnational Far Right.” George Washington University’s Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies similarly documents “The Transnational History of the Far Right.” And in Dissent magazine, Agnieska Pasieka has recently written on “The Banal Transnationalism of the Far Right.”
And perhaps most dangerous is the cultural dimension of these far-right linkages.
Attacks on gender and sexuality studies are taking place throughout Europe; Andrea Peto has documented this, for example, in Hungary; and my colleague Maria Bucur has documented similar efforts in Romania. These attacks are of course linked to a much broader set of efforts to promote “the traditional family,” such as the current so-called “Geneva Consensus Declaration,” and the World Congress of Families, which have the strong support of Christian evangelical churches, the Russian and Romanian orthodox churches, and elements of the Catholic Church (on these developments I highly recommend Rita Abrahamsen’s recently-published “The Right Family: The Personal is geopolitical”). The European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights published an extensive report in 2018 on the influence of these efforts: “’Restoring the Natural Order’: The religious extremists’ vision to mobilize European societies against human rights on sexuality and reproduction.”
It is impossible to understand the Polish regime’s recent anti-abortion commitments without understanding these efforts. Dariusz Stola has called to my attention three recent pieces in Vsquare on the Polish right-wing Catholic group Ordo Iuris, its extensive anti-abortion efforts, and its international connections (here, here, and here). And indeed, as Polish writer Anna Mierzynska has observed, “Poland is becoming the center of European Catholic radicals. It’s not only Ordo Iuris anymore.”
This far-right mobilization obviously has other targets, including a free press, independent universities, and science.
This week, attention in the U.S. is focused on one particular manifestation of this extremism: the conduct and the comments of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the gun-toting, QAnon believing, Donald Trump supporting and newly-elected Republican congresswoman from Georgia. Greene’s extremism is not news. But last week news was made by the revelation that in 2018 Greene, a believer in all manner of conspiracy theories, posted on Facebook the claim that devastating California wildfires had been caused by a laser beam in outer space linked to “Rothschild, Inc. International investment banking firm.”
Greene, who has extolled the insurrectionary effort to overturn the November election and has endorsed the idea that Democrats deserve to be shot, incorporates in one individual all that is dangerous about today’s far right: climate change denialism, anti-vax fanaticism, anti-Semitism, paranoid hostility towards “liberals and radicals,” glorification of violence, resolute commitment to National Greatness, and love of The Leader.
She is no outlier. And she no doubt has many counterparts wherever hostility to liberal democracy flourishes.
These people claim to represent “the people,” but they represent a mob.
The current protests in Poland—and similar kinds of protests going on in Belarus, Russia, India, and elsewhere—are a genuine source of hope in the possibilities of acting in concert to resist authoritarianism.
And the protesters fight an uphill battle in which all who care about human rights and liberal democracy have a stake.
The Democracy Seminar is a group of intellectuals and activists committed to working together, across borders, to support such efforts by providing a space for the sharing of information and ideas and the fostering of new linkages and solidarities.
We share common problems, face common threats, and have common enemies.
And so why not work together?
For, as Benjamin Franklin is famously said to have observed back in 1776, we must hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. Editor in Chief of Perspectives on Politics, a flagship journal of the American Political Science Association, from 2009-2017. Author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One (2018), Professor Isaac has published in a range of public intellectual venues, including Public Seminar, Common Dreams, Dissent, the Nation, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Guardian.