I arrived at the city council chambers as the zoning and planning meeting was getting to head. Spirited debates over the choice to re-zone area A09-17-42 from low density residential to low density commercial erupted through the room. Citizens electrified the room with rousing statements on the ability of the surrounding tree line to block noise from the would-be commercial zone and potential reduction in traffic volume. Accusations of personal relationships with the developers were thrown back. The city planners valiantly held their ground. They held fast that the zone should remain residential because…well…that was how they planned it. In the end, after the dust had settled, the council voted unanimously to table the discussion.
At least, that’s what I think happened. In all honesty I may have fallen asleep for parts of the meeting and I left truly bored with local democracy. All I had learned was that if I wanted to see our nation’s defenses against erosion of civil liberties and democratic process, city council wasn’t the place to be.
So, later that night, I found myself in the event room of Panera bread, talking to a handful of democratic socialists. The meeting focused on tenants’ rights in Columbus and by the end of the meeting they had formulated plans to advance a campaign to educate low income Columbus renters about what rights they had to fight evictions and abuse. Groups like these provide meaningful protection against democratic backsliding.
When political scientists review a countries civil liberties and democracy, much focus is afforded to what liberties are on the books. However, a country’s liberties do not necessarily apply themselves homogeneously or consistently. Those at risk, more often than not, are those without the resources or knowledge to take advantage of what legal protections they do have.
When you have a society where the rules seem like they are applied unevenly, it breeds polarization. Polarization, in turn, opens the door for democratic erosion, populism and demagoguery. It is easier to have an “Us” and a “Them” if there are real differences in the treatment of two groups that can be pointed to. Furthermore, once you have defined a group in your nation as “Them” it seems more reasonable to vote for someone who is anti-democratic as long as they are against “Them”.
The Democratic socialists are understandably not the most pro-Trump group out there and I talked to them about what they thought was the best way to prevent future Trump presidencies. At least those that I talked to seemed to think that workers were the key. In their narrative, Trump was propped up by the rich, an unfair electoral system and a lack of education.
I’m not sure the picture is as clear cut as this but I do think they have a point. Social science tells us that populism and democratic backsliding occur more in times of economic hardship and that misinformation and propaganda speed their progression. To this end the democratic socialists seem to be putting up a fight. Trump’s improbable victory was fueled by economic pains in parts of the nation that have long felt left behind and forgotten. Ironically, groups like the democratic socialists are doing more than the current administration to combat their hardship. Furthermore, through programs like the one that was discussed at the meeting I attended, they hope to educate workers and promote their policies.
One of the main challenges that far left groups like the democratic socialists face is public perception. We have come a long way since the days of McCarthy. Members of my family were blacklisted and harassed by the FBI decades ago for involvement in the communist party and I couldn’t help but imagine what they would think of me casually chatting with democratic socialists over a Panera bagel. Decades have passed since the times of hysteria over communism and democratic socialism and communism are certainly very different. However, far left groups have not escaped the hysteria that reached its height generations ago. The democratic socialists were cognizant of their image tread carefully when enlisting support from people whose political leanings were unknown.
It seems as though that polarization reifies itself. Far left groups that could credibly ameliorate some of the contributing factors driving polarization. However, the polarized, negative perception of far left groups limits their effectiveness and their ability to work within the system.
Hopefully, as time passes, stigma will subside. Major political figures like Bernie Sanders have gained traction normalizing far left policies and ideals. Likely grass roots movements have paved the way for this but success at the top of the food chain also clears the way for grass roots movements. Time will tell and the next election will likely be a good indicator as to whether Bernie was a fluke or the new norm.
In the meantime, democratic erosion can be fought at the local level. If you want to see that fight for yourself, skip the courthouse and visit your local Panera Bread.