The pandemic is back, not that it ever really left. Headlines are again dominated by explosively rising case numbers, which means equally rising levels of depression and panic. Covid is a news story so inescapable it swallows up the attention of the nation.
And yet, in lists of the biggest news stories of 2021 that media organizations are composing, while Covid is huge, the ongoing challenge to American democracy is a constant.
The headlines began in January with the first serious attempted coup in US history and have been running ever since, highlighted by the unceasing machinations by supporters of Donald Trump to either restore him to office or find some extra-legal way to eliminate the possibility he could ever lose if he ran again.
Indeed, as much as the Covid crisis has affected our nation, I have no hesitation in arguing that the story of our imperiled democracy is the biggest story of the year ��� a story unlike any we have seen before in the United States. The Capitol insurrection — and the egregious attempts by one party first to blow up the peaceful transfer of power, the bedrock of our democracy, and then to make several attempts to ensure no election would ever again deny them power — has sweeping implications for the future. I certainly don’t believe I have seen any other news story in my own lifetime, which goes back to the 1950s, that has shaken the nation to its foundations as this one has.
The country has been buffeted by tragic and frightening stories throughout the decades I have followed the news, starting, in my own experience, with the John F. Kennedy assassination. The shooting of JFK certainly seemed like a thunderbolt hurled at the heart of our government — with all kinds of disorienting details, including the accused assassin being murdered live on television, then the immediate and persistent conspiracy theories that ran rampant. A terrible time for sure.
Next: the escalation of the Vietnam War, which ran parallel to the struggle of the Civil Rights movement and made the ’60s the most divisive time in my early life.
The ’70s brought Watergate, which was supposed to be the biggest political scandal of our history.
On through the many tragic and disturbing mass shootings, especially the horrific killings of schoolchildren. Then the terrifying morning of 9/11, an event that did unite the nation — in overpowering grief.
Nothing can diminish the staggering impact of these events, and their ripple effects through the consciousness of Americans.
But the moment we are at right now feels different, eerie almost, like the stillness that presages a coming storm of a magnitude we can’t yet measure.
All of those earlier crises brought shock, horror and terrible sadness. But the state of the nation always remained stable.
Maybe only two events before my time, the Civil War and World War II, are legitimate rivals to our current crisis in terms of potential destructive impact. In both those earlier cases, our democracy also came under mortal threat, once from internal forces, once external. Both encompassed authoritarianism, violent threats to opponents, popular appeal based on rage and grievances, a cult following and very big lies. And, in both those past crises, our democracy still survived.
Bloodshed on the scale seen during those two wars is unlikely now; but democracy’s survival is no sure bet.
Mainly that’s because the truth of the threat is being either abused or obscured. For the first time, a group trying to unravel democracy has its own media megaphone to blast out propagandistic disinformation about the 2020 election, falsely claiming that it was stolen, despite an utter lack of evidence.
Lies about the election have been thoroughly discredited already, in courts and endless “audits.” But pro-Trump Republicans continue to believe the fabrications, and worse, use them to install biased election officials and to enact laws that pave the way for them to overturn vote totals they don’t like — all accompanied by unceasing efforts to suppress or deny the vote to people who oppose them.
That utterly unjustified and nefarious activity is the fuel stoking the drive to see the American experiment in a government of the people, for the people and by the people perish from the earth.
This isn’t a case of over-the-top partisan politics gone a bit too far, where one side pushes this way and the other side pushes back. It’s a slowly unfolding horror movie; and yes, unless something changes the scary ending, it will certainly be the biggest news story of my lifetime.