Susan J. Demas: We have to want to save democracy as much as the far-right wants to destroy it

October 31, 2021 3:26 am

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I spent several years covering local school boards in small communities around Michigan, where the biggest issue was funding (it was during the Great Recession, but the need remains) and mundane matters like bids for school lunch vendors and repaving the faculty parking lot.

Occasionally, there would be a citizen outburst about something wackily unrelated (I remember one rant about fluoride in the water supply), but in general, meetings were snoozefests.

Nowadays, however, many school board meetings are the hottest ticket in town to witness ugly right-wing meltdowns over COVID health policies and textbooks that dare to teach that slavery was bad (sure, they’ll scream about “critical race theory,” which they couldn’t accurately define if their lives depended on it and isn’t even taught in K-12 schools, but it always comes back to this).

Teachers, administrators and school board members have been subject to death threats and harassment all over the country. 

Michigan, as usual, made the national news for all the wrong reasons in August with a man hollering “Heil Hitler” and flashing a Nazi salute while a Black woman and Jewish woman were trying to speak in support of Birmingham Schools’ mask order. And a restaurant owner jailed for refusing to follow COVID safety measures — who’s gotten highly sympathetic treatment on both Fox News and in local media — decided it was time to get more attention this month for threatening to call in the Michigan Militia over Zeeland’s mask policy. She, of course, has no kids in the school district, like so many of these far-right screamers.

How did we get here? It’s both the implosion of critical thinking that decades of coddling ignorance has wrought and the next stage of lawlessness embodied by the Jan. 6 insurrectionists who ransacked the Capitol. And this, of course, is being coordinated and funded by national right-wing groups.

So it makes sense why the Department of Justice this month directed the FBI to investigate myriad threats against educators and school board members, something initially backed by the National School Boards Association (NSBA).

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“​​The individuals who are intent on causing chaos and disrupting our schools — many of whom are not even connected to local schools — are drowning out the voices of parents who must be heard when it comes to decisions about their children’s education, health, and safety,” the group’s interim director, Chip Slaven, said in a highly reasonable statement. “These acts of intimidation are also affecting educational services and school board governance. Some have even led to school lockdowns.” 

But many Republican officials rushed to defend right-wing thuggery, just as they’ve done with the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, even though members of Congress were targets of their violence.

The GOP-controlled Michigan Senate Education Committee passed a resolution condemning the DOJ investigation of violent threats, which the Michigan Education Justice Coalition aptly said “gave aid and comfort to those who would seek to do violence instead of acting with civility.” (It would now seem unlikely that the Legislature would take up Democratic legislation upping criminal penalties for anyone who assaults a school employee or school board member). 

But why would we expect anything less when Michigan GOP leaders spoke at an anti-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rally last October just hours after the FBI announced a far-right plot to assassinate her?

Meanwhile in Washington, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) passionately defended the Nazi-salute-throwing Michigander (“My God! A parent did a Nazi salute at a school board because he thought the policies were oppressive.”) For good measure, he decided to time his tirade for the third anniversary of the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

And so last week, the NSBA board apologized — I’m not kidding — for its letter supporting the DOJ probe into people threatening their members’ lives. 

This is why we can’t have nice things. 

Anyone who doesn’t support fascist violence needs to be committed to fighting it as hard as those trying to kill democracy and do us grievous harm. ... Being mealy-mouthed only emboldens extremists and convinces non-discerning media that they’re the real and rightful majority.

– Susan J. Demas

I haven’t seen something this incredible since Dick Cheney’s friend publicly apologized after the former vice president shot him in the halcyon days of 2006. (Although we are probably only days away from ex-VP Mike Pence telling rioters he’s sorry he didn’t stick around and let them hang him for refusing to throw the Electoral College to Donald Trump).

​​There’s a Yeats poem that’s quoted a lot by columnists extolling milquetoast moderate politics (yes, I did it in my younger days when I wanted to be considered a Serious Person): “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” 

But that’s where we are today — and it’s not just centrists in Congress who seem hellbent on killing President Joe Biden’s monumental investment in climate change and the safety net just so Democrats can get crushed in the 2022 midterms.

Liberal weakness is a scourge. Anyone who doesn’t support fascist violence needs to be committed to fighting it as hard as those trying to kill democracy and do us grievous harm. Make no mistake: The far-right is a minority, but they are heavily armed and backed by plutocrats. The best case scenario is that they don’t care if we get hurt in their vile vision of a new civil war. The more likely outcome is that they’ll celebrate or instigate it.

Trump wasn’t the end of the threat; his presidency and its blood-stained final days was just the beginning. 

Being mealy-mouthed only emboldens extremists and convinces non-discerning media that they’re the real and rightful majority. If you’ve studied Europe in the 1930s, you know that a fractured majority that appeases inhumane insurgents paves the way for brutal authoritarianism.

It can happen here — and we may well be on our way.


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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.