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Stressed About the State of Democracy?
Self-care is essential. This is a long-haul struggle.
Welcome back to Lucid, and hello to all new subscribers! This Friday I will be on a mini-vacation so we won’t gather for our weekly Q&A. In keeping with the theme of today’s essay, I hope you can use that hour to do what makes you feel relaxed and well. If you’d like to leave self-care tips in the comments, please do.
Look out on Friday for a bonus piece on what it’s like to teach Fascism today in America, together with a version of the syllabus I have used in my teaching. Thank you to the member of the Lucid community who suggested that this would be helpful.
If you’d like to access this bonus content and join future Q&As (the next one will be on July 28, 1-2pmET, with Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg as our guest), you can sign up or convert your subscription to paid here:
There are many threats-to-democracy stories to write about today. Readers of Lucid won’t be totally surprised by New York Times reporting about Trump’s intention to bring some state agencies under direct presidential control, eliminating their autonomy. “What we’re trying to do is identify the pockets of independence and seize them,” said Russell T. Vought, who ran the Office of Management and Budget in the Trump White House.
This is called autocratic capture: widespread purges to get rid of non-loyalists jump-starts a remaking of government so the leader can steal and repress with impunity. I have talked about it many times before and will return to it again. For the moment, a quote from Strongmen about the endgame in one area: “Purges of the judiciary result in a justice system that exonerates crooks or doesn’t prosecute them at all.” Operating with no checks on executive power is the dream of every authoritarian, Trump included. If he returns to the White House he will make this a priority.
No wonder my inbox is full of messages from people who are anxious about the state of our freedoms. "I'm fearful and worried all the time, and this is not my normal state," writes one. So today’s post is about the imperative of self-care: we can't work to save democracy if we're not keeping ourselves mentally and physically healthy. (While eco-anxiety factors into our current mood, I will address this in a separate post on climate.)
Reviewing my shelves of books about democracy protection, I see that few authors pay enough (or any) attention to self-care. Resilience and mental toughness are essential whether you are dealing with doxxing and trolls, receiving death threats, defending yourself against lawsuits (the modern autocrat's way of financially and psychologically wearing down opponents), or facing hostile security personnel as you protest in the streets or spend nights in jail.
There is also the toll of psychological warfare which, by its nature, works in a cumulative fashion to wear us down. The sociologist Jacques Ellul's observations in his 1965 study of propaganda will be familiar to many on the receiving end of state and private disinformation machines. The target of propaganda "must not be allowed a moment of meditation or reflection" so that he "cannot recover, collect himself, [or] remain untouched by propaganda during any relatively long period."
Every activist knows that it is all too easy to feel overwhelmed when there is so much to do and our rights are threatened. "I respect the time I spend each day treating my body, and I consider it part of my political work...Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare," Audre Lorde, a veteran of feminist and other battles, wrote knowingly.
That means giving yourself what you need to replenish your energies, be it time with friends and family, time alone, time with a mental health professional (if finances permit), or time off from social media and political activity.
We need to attend to self-care because fighting for democracy is taxing on the body and the spirit. It can be difficult to show up day after day to protest or work on lawsuits, legislation, or voter registration without knowing what the outcome of your efforts will be. This is where hope factors in, as well as the self-regard that comes from knowing you are doing the right thing.
"I would say my personal hero is Sisyphus," the exiled Chinese dissident artist Badiucao remarked when I interviewed him in Feb. 2022. Facing continual Chinese government efforts to shut down his shows abroad, he takes inspiration from the Greek mythological figure who was eternally rolling a large stone uphill. "It seems like what I'm doing is always censored and taken down, constantly being threatened. But the very action of an individual who keeps trying in the right direction, has its own value, regardless of the result." In the meantime, pushing that giant stone day after day is exhausting.
As I travel the world to speak about authoritarianism and how to combat it, I encounter many who worry whether they have the stamina to persist as our democratic emergency deepens. At Honolulu's Church of the Crossroads, where I spoke in March as the Senator Dan and Maggie Inouye Distinguished Chair of Democratic Ideals, a woman cried as she compared the volume of lies and hate washing over America to a tsunami.
She described those fighting for social justice and democratic freedoms as opihi (the Hawaiian word for limpets), or small creatures that cling to the rocks as the water rushes in. She was not wrong in her choice of analogy; we are deluged with lies and threats. Yet she seemed relieved when I responded that we could also see those opihi as tenacious creatures. The tsunami passes and many of them remain.
The message of resilience is: resist the deluge as best you can, and then rest, recover your strength and serenity, and return to the struggle.
"Keep calm, be patient, preserve your energy, organize, and pick your current battles well," advised the journalist Satyen K. Bordoloi, a veteran of dealing with strongman Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That is easier to do if your body is rested, your mind not clouded with dread and fear, and you do not feel alone in your struggle. As the artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez remarks, "we cannot envision a future when we're stuck in fight or flight."
And working for an anti-authoritarian future is exactly what we must do. So, pace yourself, step away when you need to, and return to the fight.