WASHINGTON—When U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi provoked what many expected could turn into a geopolitical crisis this week by visiting Taiwan (leading to China, who considers Taiwan its possession, into military manoeuvres), she invoked a great global ideological battle: “Today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy,” Pelosi said in a speech during her visit, according to CBC. “America’s determination to preserve democracy, here in Taiwan and around the world, remains ironclad.”
The struggle to preserve democracy in Taiwan remains vivid, as it has for decades. But back in Pelosi’s home here in the U.S., the see-saw balance to fight for the democratic system was also fired up to recently unimagined levels, with mixed evidence of success.
For instance: Full-on European authoritarian Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, appeared to a standing ovation at the influential right-wing CPAC conference in Texas. “Progressive liberals didn’t want me to be here because they knew what I would tell you. Because I’m here to tell you that we should unite our forces,” Orban said. “The globalists can all go to hell. I have come to Texas,” he said, urging a global alliance of nationalist authoritarian strongmen in the “fight” to “take back institutions.”
A few states to the east, in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, the leading non-Trump candidate to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2022, was flexing his own strongman muscles, suspending the Democratically elected prosecutor in Tampa who had taken a stand against criminalizing abortion and the provision of medical care to transgender people.
Still more troubling details emerged about what conspiracy theorists call the “deep state” — high ranking defence, homeland security and secret service officials who had surrounded former president Donald Trump — have conveniently lost or destroyed evidence of their communications from the time the former president was attempting to stage a coup to overturn the last election. And Trump disciples have racked up primary victories by running on Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was rigged, and on promises to more or less fix their state’s election systems to essentially ensure no Democrat is able to win in the future.
I was in Arizona late last month, and when I told someone I met there my job, they commented I’d secured a “front-row seat for the collapse of Western democracy.” Sometimes it can feel like it.
But this week also brought a lot of news that likely heartened that particular commentator. Such as the trial of Alex Jones, who has been one of the biggest — and certainly the highest-profile — propaganda purveyors of the right-wing misinformation apparatus that has been the gasoline fuelling the American authoritarian political machine. Humiliated and forced to concede his lies on the stand, he was ordered Thursday to pay more than $4 million in compensation to two parents of a victim of the Sandy Hook school massacre, whom he’d smeared repeatedly with the made-up lie that they were government-hired actors who didn’t really have a six-year-old child murdered. It was the first of a series of judgments that are coming against him related to that school shooting, and his phone’s contents may now wind up being evidence in the Jan. 6 investigation, too.
As welcome and surprising as that unaccustomed bit of justice might have been, it may still have been less of a turnaround than the one experienced by Kansas Republicans, who had scheduled a referendum on the right to an abortion for their early August primary, betting that only their supporters would show up in a snooze preliminary election in the summer heat. The result there — in a state among the Trumpiest and most Republican in the country — was that 59 per cent of voters supported keeping abortion legal and protected by the state constitution. It’s a result that has American political experts and pundits recalculating their perspective on how the Supreme Court decision to overturn abortion rights could shape the midterm elections in November. Democrats have long been expected to lose badly to Trump 2020 election denialists, due to a combination of the history of midterms in presidential first terms, runaway inflation concerns, and President Joe Biden’s poor approval ratings. Does Kansas show that concerns about abortion rights might give Democrats a fighting chance? And through that, breathe new life into Biden’s administration in the second half of his first term?
Maybe. Or maybe not.
But either way, the president and his party seemed to discover a sudden determination to use what’s left of the life of this first half of the term to take care of some unfinished — and it appeared for a time unfinishable — business. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia senator who has long held Biden’s priorities hostage, suddenly came on board to support a climate change and prescription-drug bill positioned as an inflation-fighting measure that could salvage key parts of Biden’s ambitious Build Back Better plan — notably including a change to electric vehicle protectionism that Canada’s government has long lobbied for, as my colleague Susan Delacourt wrote eloquently last week. That may give the president’s party more good news to take into the midterm election battle.
Friday morning, that measure appeared on track to pass Congress. Which may give the president’s party some good news to take into the midterm election battle alongside the abortion-rights rallying cry and what many are now remarking is a quietly strong legislative record in Biden’s first term that includes a big COVID bailout, a massive infrastructure bill, the first gun safety legislation in decades, control of prescription drug prices, and some substantial climate progress. And the Senate approved Finland and Sweden’s applications for NATO membership this week, too, by a vote of 95-1, shoring up the international opposition to violent authoritarianism exhibited by Russia.
Whether any of that beats back the nationalist tide that swells on the right wing of the political spectrum around the world is an open question. But if it makes the democratic alternative more attractive, it could swing the U.S.’s — and the world’s — fortunes back from the more obviously dangerous side.
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