“We demand our rights!”
“It’s we the people!”
“Shame! Shame on you!”
It’s bright and early on a spring morning and already I can hear the shouts of protesters from outside the window of my office where I work on communications and digital strategy for a California politician.
Since the start of the pandemic, the same crowd has gathered every few weeks to forcefully demand an end to COVID-19 safety restrictions. By now, I can pretty much recite all of their grievances by heart. They believe masks limit oxygen levels (not true), COVID is no worse than the flu (also not true), and most worrisome of all, that COVID guidelines are somehow a power grab by big government, creating a direct pathway to authoritarian creep.
I’ve seen hand-lettered signs that make offensive comparisons between pandemic restrictions and the Holocaust and heard angry shouts into megaphones accusing the government of deliberately using children as vaccine test subjects. As the protesters yell and jeer, I know the rational thing to do would be to turn away and tune them out. What’s the point of even acknowledging conspiracies and pseudoscience? Doesn’t that just add fuel to the fire?
But the truth is, we need to pay attention.
It’s not because the protesters’ claims have merit — they don’t. It’s because the protesters represent a bigger, more urgent problem we’re now facing as a country. They’re not just trafficking in COVID denialism and participating in the “infodemic,” a term used by the World Health Organization to define the spread of false COVID information. They’re representative of a broader problem sweeping the country: the growth of widespread conspiracies about the legitimacy of government, including continued support for former president Donald J. Trump’s “big lie” that he actually won the 2020 election.
Or let me put this another away: All those things being shouted and promoted by protesters like the ones outside my office and across the country? They’re built on the fundamental idea that the government can’t be trusted, which is a lie being pushed by the former president, large swaths of the GOP, and movements like QAnon. When these conspiracy theories start taking hold, objective truth becomes subjective and is often used and abused by those seeking power.
We’ve seen this in Congress with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and the House Republicans voting to strip Congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-WY) from her leadership position because of her condemnation of Trump’s big lie. And we’re also seeing it with the election audit in Arizona and the restrictive voting laws that have now been passed in at least 14 states since the start of the year. We heard it in House races in 2020 and are also hearing it in several secretary of state and Senate races like Missouri, where candidates are rushing to embrace Trump’s lies for votes.
And of course, there’s the January 6 insurrection and the GOP’s increasing refusal to recognize the violence of that day.
It’s a self-reinforcing cycle of eroding truth, which is starting to leave jagged scars across our democracy. A recent New York Times story suggests that up to 15% of Americans have beliefs in line with QAnon, particularly around the legitimacy of the 2020 election. More alarming: A June 4 FBI bulletin to members of Congress warns that some Q believers might increasingly resort to violence because they believe it’s necessary to further their Trump-supporting movement.
So, what does this mean and why does it matter? At the most basic level, things haven’t calmed down since Trump left office. Conspiracies around government are continuing to spread, impacting everything from past and future elections, to the current behavior of elected officials. There is a real reason to believe those with an agenda to exploit our current situation will do so, especially with GOP-majority legislatures like Texas attempting to pass laws to restrict voting (and sometimes succeeding). And there is limited time to act.
Democrats hold a nine-seat advantage in the House and a razor-thin lead in an evenly divided Senate, but there is a very real possibility that Republicans might regain control in 2022, particularly with redistricting maps still being drawn and in flux. The GOP is keenly aware of the possibility of this reality, with the Republican National Committee outspending the Democrats in May on key midterm races. It’s clear the stakes are higher than ever for the current Democratic majority to take legislative action toward protecting our democracy.
Now that Senate Republicans have blocked consideration of the For the People Act, Democrats have to move quickly on two fronts. They have to revisit scrapping the filibuster, as they also reintroduce and continue pushing for a vote on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would put proposed state voting laws through a federal clearing process to help lessen discriminatory legislation. It’s not a substitute for the For the People Act, but something that runs parallel in protecting voting rights.
Here’s where we come in: One of the most urgent things we can do is to add pressure on our elected officials. Pick up the phone and call their offices. Write letters and emails. Request town halls. Ask what kind of actions they will take to protect our democracy — especially before the 2022 midterms. Remind them that it’s time to act right now.
I know all of this sounds easier said than done, especially with Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) vocally and repeatedly stating they don’t want to eliminate the filibuster. But that’s why we have to keep up the pressure. Manchin seems responsive to pressure, to some degree, signifying at least a willingness to change filibuster rules, and we have to continue adding to that public pressure.
I know all of this sounds exhausting. We just survived a presidency where it felt like we were constantly fighting against a relentless onslaught of atrocities. With everything from migrant kids being kept in cages, to an uncontrolled pandemic that left more than 600,000 Americans dead, we endured a four-plus-year stress test as a country. We’re tired. I know I’m tired and I do this for a living.
But we can’t afford not to engage. With people like the protesters outside my office window willing to vocally and loudly defend their beliefs, we have to step up and make our presence known. There’s too much at stake for us to look away.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue