The positive news for an increasingly violent and confrontational world is that democratic societies in 2022 withstood assaults from dictators, demagogues, environmental destroyers, and election deniers. Life globally and locally did not get much better, but outcomes could have been immeasurably worse.
Vladimir Putin believed his tanks would roll into Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv within days of Russia’s offensive on February 24. As happened at the turning point of World War II, 80 winters ago, Ukraine and its NATO allies have demonstrated that democracies, for all their messiness, can mobilize to turn back authoritarians.
He struggled, but France’s President Emmanuel Macron took nearly 59 percent of the vote in defeating far-right challenger Marine Le Pen, to the dismay of Putin and to the immense relief in the European Union. In Brazil, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva barely defeated the extreme right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.
Why should we care? Well, take Brazil. The rainforests of the Amazon, extending into nine countries, are the lungs of planet Earth. They have been cut down and burned at an unprecedented rate, with Bolsonaro encouraging the environmental carnage. Amazonia, instead of sequestering carbon, threatens to become a carbon emitter.
In our own country, media forecast sweeping victories for Trump-backed candidates in the mid-term elections, fueling the would-be Caudillo in his bid for a return to the White House. Instead, most of the election deniers, the “We are at war” nominees, were defeated. Trump came away demonstrating truth to an old adage: The empty drum bangs loudest.
In releasing the House committee report on the U.S. Capitol insurrection, its chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, summed up the stakes: “We can never surrender to democracy’s enemies. We can never allow America to be defined by forces of division and hatred. Our country has come too far to allow a defeated President to turn himself into a successful tyrant by upending our democratic institutions, fomenting violence and . . . opening the door to those in our country whose hatred and bigotry threaten equality and justice for all Americans.”
President Biden, in a year-end message, reminded Americans: “We’re truly blessed to live in this nation.” The 46th president felt alarmed enough to raise an internal threat to our enduring Republic: “I sincerely hope this holiday season will drain the poison that has infested our politics and set us against one another.”
Democracies have turned back aggression and regression, for now. As Biden noted, however, what’s needed is “a fresh start for our nation.” The need is international, a need to meet challenges globally, nationally, and locally. Democracies must deliver on multiple fronts. A sampling:
Climate, the human impact: The concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is climbing rapidly. It stood at 280 parts per million at the dawn of the Industrial Age. It had risen to 370 ppm by the year 2000 and has since climbed to 412 parts per million.
Among the consequences are melting polar icecaps which accelerate the warming. We’re witnessing climate extremes, from hurricanes that cost our country billions of dollars, to droughts in Africa that are displacing millions of people. The greatest suffering is among the poor, as Pope Francis points out, and has destabilized countries and put people on the move, across the Mediterranean to Europe and north to the United States. The climate crisis must be addressed with “the conviction we are one single human family,” in Francis’ words, with technology harnessed and recalibrated to save and not destroy the planet.
“The human family” is still feuding and not moving at near the necessary pace, as seen in the recent international conference at Sharm el Sheikh with watered down resolutions and agreement “in principle” to set up a fund to help climate-ravaged Third World countries.
Aggression abroad: Putin remains a growling bear seeking a country he may devour. He hints at negotiation, but he told Russia’s generals last week he will do what it takes to secure conquest, including enlarging the army to send more conscripts to the slaughter.
The aggression demands dissolve particularly when we have skin in the game (e.g. China’s designs on Taiwan) and when Europe is in the balance. As Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy told Congress last week: “Your money is not charity. It’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in a most responsible manner.”
The investment in Ukraine may be jeopardized by our domestic politics. A faction of Republicans in Congress and in right-wing media, (e.g. Fox News pundits Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham), seeks to undermine support for Ukraine. A desperate politician, Kevin McCarthy, is pandering to them in his quest to be House Speaker.
Violence at home: Gun violence is an ongoing plague, and political violence is becoming a peril to democracy. In a polarized America, the objective is to destroy those with whom we disagree. Demonize your opponents. Deny or make it difficult for perceived foes to vote. After all, in words of (narrowly) defeated Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, “We are at war.”
Demonizing is on your radio dial and seen nightly on right-wing media. It can be witnessed in politicians labeling members of the LGBTQ community as pedophiles and “groomers,” or when Trump and others claim liberals are out to “destroy America.” Rationality and civility get ridiculed. Stirring such anger boosts ratings. As officeholders fear being “primaried” by extremists, it becomes impossible to work out society’s compromises.
We’re also witnessing what a New York Times editorial characterized as “stochastic [randomized] terrorism.” Vicious rhetoric, the threats and warnings of a “they” who are “taking over,” are spawning physical violence. Farfetched? Look at the massacres of African American customers at a Buffalo market, shoppers at an El Paso WalMart, patrons at LGBTQ nightclubs in Orlando and Colorado Springs, and the hammer attack on the 82-year-old husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Silence gives consent. Polarization leads to paralysis.
Joe Biden is often a man of too many forgettable words. He is, however, spot-on with his hopes we will use the holiday season to “drain the poison that has infected our politics and set us against one another.”
We’ve survived 2022. It was a very near thing.