For years, The Washington Post has printed the epitaph “Democracy Dies in Darkness” at the top of page one, every day, week, month, and year. We read the message, but what is the point?
All this has been done without official explanation or even suggestion; we are free to determine the intention. That makes the reader, more than democracy, in the “dark.”
The timing provides one clue. The slogan began the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, when he claimed to have the largest inaugural crowd in history and when his spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, suggested that “alternate facts” guide the administration.
Thus, clearly, the idea is meant to remind readers that the Trump presidency may often disregard the truth (“shock and scandal”). A related explanation, almost logically, is that the country needs free and independent sources of truth to keep the administration “honest.” Those sources, also logical, come from journalists who, against the self-serving ambitions of politicians, can be relied upon to disregard falsehoods and present the electorate with the “truth” (apparently, journalists take an oath).
Enter the Post, only interested in “fair play” and integrity in shaping the future of society (alleged). Thus far, the slogan does little more than to remind Americans that “freedom of the press” is integral to a functioning democracy, going back to colonial times and John Peter Zender.
Zender, the original American free press advocate, was sued by the government for exposing hypocrisy and lies. In his famous response, printed in the New York Weekly Journal under “Cato,” Zender reminded the young country that “ …states have suffered or perished for not having or for neglecting the power to accuse great men who were criminals or thought to be so” (1721).
Under this grand tradition, the Post has carte blanche to define its purpose as conforming to that noble cause and to drum it in day-and-night for all to absorb.
And so it does. But there’s a bit more. What is the relationship between “democracy” and “darkness”? Are they integral?
Journalism, by definition, needs a short perspective: “breaking news,” “this just in, “stayed tuned,” “don’t go away.” Otherwise, the attention-span of the reader is lost, almost immediately. Great issues, war/peace, crime/punishment, democracy/dictatorship, involve complexities and personalities that, also by definition, require deep and long attention spans and equally profound interpretations and investigations. Often, even these efforts are inadequate to resolve complications.
Who is to blame for the Civil War? Should all memories of the Confederacy be erased? Should there be reparations for slavery? These are just a few of the still unresolved issues of that time period. Here, slogans are worse than useless and can even lead to greater dissension.
Why is “darkness” necessary for an end to democracy? The scholastic method would be to compare and analyze how a set of democratic countries fell to tyranny and then to compare the results. Within that comparison, there would be room for the “darkness” theory and what role, if any, it played in the end.
Definitions would be needed. What is “political darkness”? When it comes, will we know it? Within this description, is there a “dusk” period, “moonlight,” “twilight zone,” “stormy weather”?
Perhaps the most famous expression of the phenomenon was Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940), which showed how massive political “persuasion” can convert society into acceptance of realities previously unknown. “Every jump of technical progress,” Koestler concluded, “leaves the relative intellectual development of the masses a step behind and thus causes a fall in the political-maturity thermometer.” To recover from such shocks, he noted, would take “tens of years, sometimes generations” to overcome.
Koestler was referring to Josef Stalin and the infamous “purge” trials of the 1930s, and we can wonder if Russia has ever survived. Most analogies to political “darkness” refer to the totalitarian giants that stripped the Twentieth Century of its civility, taking the lives of hundreds of millions in the process. Given Koestler’s projections and the state of American democracy, where in that perspective do we lie?
What is the “political-maturity thermometer” of today’s American public?
How does The Washington Post describe the same in today’s America? The answer is left to conjecture, but the newspaper has, for all to see, taken on leadership of the contest (“obsession” puts it mildly). For all practical purposes, the media has become an agent provocateur within the political process, precisely opposite of Zender’s original vision.
American democracy has survived centuries against existential threats from both without and from within, including civil and world wars, economic depression, and vast social differences. Does it reflect faith in the durability of this civilization to defend it today, or do we need to adopt drastic methods against threats so severe that they cannot wait for another election?
The answer will lie in the result of the current impeachment process. The Post, The New York Times, and the Democratic Party target the Trump Administration as extinguishing the lights of democracy. The Administration and its supporters in Fox News and within the Republicans target the media and its national allies as the cause.
In another expression on the “darkness” analogy, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey said on the eve of World War I that “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
Many consider Grey’s reflection the most prophetic of modern times. It may equally apply to the current U.S. imbroglio. The several countries that were about to commit mass suicide on the European continent went to war eyes wide open and committed to the very end. When “darkness” came, it was way too late.
Europe didn’t “die” because one side was wrong, the other right. Nor were they both enshrouded in “darkness.” Europe died because neither side was able to adjust to the other, and both believed in the infallibility and the inevitably of their own cause. The summer of 1914 was very “bright,” indeed.
The American democracy will probably not “die” tomorrow, the media notwithstanding. But if it does die, death will occur in the full and bright glare of its people and their instruments, guns or words. And not just one side will be the instrument of death, it takes two.
Finally, as Koester wrote, death will come not after nightfall, but at noon.