Last week I got a call from a friend asking if I still had my bulletproof vest from my trips to Iraq over the last decade. She wanted to pass the vest on to a Black lawyer who was traveling to North Carolina to join Democratic poll watchers on Nov. 3, and whose life she feared for.
I used to have to travel to places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, or Hong Kong to write about dangerous elections. Not anymore.
My friend’s fears were legitimate — coming at a time when President Trump is spewing falsehoods about wide-scale election fraud while encouraging armed white supremacists to support him. GOP intimidation of voters, along with massive efforts to suppress mail-in voting, is in our faces.
No matter who wins, the result will be ugly (unless it’s a landslide). Trump has made clear he’ll reject the results if he loses, while Democrats will contest a Trump win that’s acquired via voter suppression. As you’ve heard many times — and it’s true — our democratic system hangs in the balance, with an autocrat wannabe eager to further shred its institutions, even if he loses.
So thoughts of that bulletproof vest made me wonder how many Americans are ready for the struggle — to rebuild a flawed democracy too many have taken for granted, a fight that will go on no matter what happens next week.
Lately there’s been a raft of op-eds and social media posts with titles like “Will you leave the country if Trump is re-elected?” Even some of my friends are raising the subject, usually, but not always, as a sick joke. That option of self-exile is largely limited to the young or those with money, and in the time of COVID-19 most countries aren’t welcoming Americans. But the mere fact that the question is out there gets under my skin.
Why should we have assumed that democratic rights, like a free vote, would always come easy?
Black Americans know better, having fought and died for voting rights for a century and now having them challenged again by GOP suppression efforts. The long lines of African Americans waiting for many hours to vote early in Texas, Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina have been inspiring — and fears of election-day intimidation against them infuriating.
Also inspiring have been extraordinary efforts of thousands of volunteers across the country to write postcards and make phone calls to encourage citizens to register and vote, as well as inform voters how to properly handle mail-in ballots.
But will Americans have the heart to continue that civic activism should Trump win?
It would not be easy with an unleashed president who detests experts, spreads COVID-19, and yearns to jail political opponents. A president who encourages racism, detests honest media, and disregards constitutional separation of powers.
Yet for further inspiration, I ask you to think of thousands of young Iraqis who demonstrated for months in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and other Iraqi cities, demanding an overhaul of their political system to eliminate a corrupt political class and Iranian meddling. Hundreds of demonstrators have been killed by snipers from Iranian-backed militias, yet these young people were still turning out in October. They won’t give up.
I think of the high school students I met on Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University campus a year ago, who told me fervently they were fighting for universal suffrage and rule of law. They will probably be banned from attending university or getting good jobs. Yet they were willing to go to jail to fight for democracy.
And then there is Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who was poisoned, no doubt by Kremlin agents. When I interviewed him in Moscow two years ago, he told me he would never leave Russia despite beatings and jailings. He won’t give up.
Airlifted to a Berlin hospital to save his life, he insists he will return home to continue organizing for local elections across Russia. Inspired by Navalny, local Russian democrats in the far eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk keep demonstrating - demanding the return of their elected governor ousted by the Kremlin.
The struggle doesn’t get much tougher than what democrats face in Iraq, Hong Kong, Russia — or Belarus. Yet they keep fighting for their rights.
If Democrats win the White House and Senate, the path toward achieving racial justice, more economic equity, and health care for all will be clearer, but still not easy. If Trump wins, or the GOP holds the Senate, the future of our democracy is murky. Perhaps the continuing battle will then focus on city and state levels.
But as we’ve learned from the Trump years, Americans can no longer take democracy for granted. We must fight to restore our institutions, or else lose them.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Let’s hope it doesn’t come to bloodshed from either side, and peaceful struggle can make progress. Yet, as Trump has shown, refreshing democracy won’t come cheap.