The U.S. Is Headed Away From The Ideals Of Democracy, Says Author Masha Gessen

Originally published on May 13, 2021 4:35 pm
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week, House Republicans doubled down on Donald Trump's lies about election fraud. They ejected Congresswoman Liz Cheney from her leadership position partly over her refusal to buy into Trump's narrative. And at the same time, Republicans at the state level are passing laws to limit people's ability to vote. So where does all of this leave American democracy? Masha Gessen released the book "Surviving Autocracy" about a year ago while Trump was still president. And they are back with us now to talk about what has changed.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MASHA GESSEN: Thank you, Ari. Great to be here.

SHAPIRO: When you and I spoke last year, the death toll from the pandemic was climbing fast, and Donald Trump was telling governors to crack down on racial justice protests, which you described this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GESSEN: That is as distilled an autocratic message as we could actually heard (ph) from this president.

SHAPIRO: So how are you feeling about American democracy right now compared to a year ago, better or worse?

GESSEN: Well, I am, of course, feeling better because we have a different president, and I think this president is doing a lot of things right. But it would be a huge overstatement to say that I'm feeling safe and secure or even like we're actually on the road to democracy.

SHAPIRO: I mean, let's get specific. When you look at the House GOP's decision to remove Cheney from her leadership post, likely to be replaced by Elise Stefanik, a staunch Trump supporter, how much does it matter that the minority party in one House of Congress is falling in line behind Trump's lie right now?

GESSEN: I don't think we should be framing this as the minority party in one House of Congress. I think we should be seeing this as a choice that the Republican Party has made. It's not exactly a surprise, but I think there was some faint hope that the Republican Party would denounce him after his electoral loss and after he totally discredited himself with the big lie and the insurrection. The opposite has happened. The party has made its choice - again, not a terribly surprising choice, but very disheartening choice - to line up behind Trump and to become, finally, an autocratic party.

SHAPIRO: An autocratic party - tell me why you use that phrase.

GESSEN: So I use that phrase because I think that there is a key distinction between democratic party - small D - and autocratic parties. Democratic parties, with all their imperfections, see their audience as the public. Autocratic parties see an audience of one - the autocrat. The autocrat in our case can have political electoral influence. He can certainly conscript a primary challenger to any one of the Republicans and all the other threats that we're very familiar with Republicans being concerned with. But ultimately, the person, the one person that they're talking to is Donald Trump. And that makes the Republican Party an autocratic party.

SHAPIRO: I think many people approach this question by asking, is American democracy broken or is it functioning? Do you think that's the right way to look at it?

GESSEN: I would reframe the question and suggest that we think of democracy not as a solid state, but as a vector. Any society, any country, is becoming more or less democratic at any given time. Democracy is a dream. It's the dream of the government of the governed. We will never be able to create a perfect government of the governed. But at any given time, we're enfranchising more people, making our government more a government of the governed, or we're going in the opposite direction. And I think if you think of it that way, the answer becomes suddenly very painfully clear. We're going in the opposite direction. We're enfranchising fewer people with every passing month.

SHAPIRO: One of the things that you write about in "Surviving Autocracy" is just the emotional and psychological cost of being vigilant. It's exhausting. And especially after more than a year of the pandemic, can you blame some Americans for saying, I would like to just not worry about this for a little while?

GESSEN: Oh, my God. I so cannot blame Americans for saying that, and I so feel that myself. And sometimes, you know, I watch Biden give a speech on television, and I feel like he's exactly the compassionate, kind grandpa that we need at this moment. But it's my job to be vigilant. And I think, you know, there's something that's very scary that can happen in this country that we have seen in history, which is a kind of alienation from politics that unfortunately, I think, a good, competent sort of technocratic administration encourages. Let them do their jobs, you know? Let me think about something else for a while, especially after having paid attention to nothing but politics, nothing but news for four years. That's understandable. But in a society where people see themselves as being separate and apart from politics, that's actually where openings for autocracies are created.

SHAPIRO: Masha Gessen is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and they are the author of "Surviving Autocracy," which is about to come out in paperback with a new foreword.

Thank you very much.

GESSEN: Thank you for having me, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.