White Americans generally think U.S. democracy is tough and durable. Groups whose vote protection has only been legally enforced within the last six decades, however, know better. Observant politicos know that real democracy is a delicate thing that breaks like a glass hammer, if you don’t protect it. And all over the world, right now, these hammers are shattering against expanding walls of authoritarianism.
Here’s some history: It was only recently that some eastern European nations, such as Hungary and Poland, abandoned the influence of their Russian neighbor. When the communist U.S.S.R. regime collapsed at the onset of the 1990s, these “satellite” nations experienced a brief period of partying and cheer and the promise of democracy and freedom. But then things abruptly went to (CENSORED), with many of these places falling into corruption, illiberalism and malaise.
Seán Hanley is an associate professor in comparative Central and East European politics at University College in London. Hanley shared some of his observations with The Lighthouse on how it all went down. And, to a Mississippian familiar with anti-democratic tactics, the whole thing sounds frighteningly, hideously familiar.
When Hanley tells us, for example, that Hungary and Poland exhibited a “slide from democracy into a hybrid or authoritarian regime type … underpinned by sharp social inequality compounded by ethnic divisions,” he could easily be making a reference to the widening wealth gap between the poor and elite in the U.S., and the expanding wealth gap between white people and Black and brown minorities in this nation.
Also, when Hanley points out how in Hungary the conservative-national party “Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance” of Viktor Orbán won a landslide election victory and “proceeded to dismantle liberal checks and balances,” he could just as easily be talking about how Trump made a habit of firing lifelong government employees whose jobs were to keep him from doing brainless and illegal things. Plus, Orbán and his party “skew[ed] the electoral process in its own favor,” which sounds a whole lot like gerrymandering Black people and Democratic voters into obsolesce, and imposing vote restrictions that keep young people and Black people from voting.
Then, Hanley goes into Orbán extending “partisan control over state agencies, media and civil society,” which could be a flawless reference to Trump and the GOP politicizing federal agencies, basically moving Fox news into the White House and stocking U.S. courts with partisan judges. Finally, when the professor talks about how the Orbán regime developed “a harshly anti-liberal ideology, which de-legitimizes left-wing and liberal competitors as foreign to the national community,” he can pretty much just mark out Orbán’s name and draw Trump’s orange face with a big, black hurricane-shaping Sharpie.
If that weren’t already enough, Hanley also described events that echo the Southern Baptist takeover of the GOP.
“A similar, but faster, dynamic appears to be playing out in Poland under the government of law and justice,” Hanley stated, thanks to a similarly authoritarian “… party with a Christian conservative-national ideology comparable to that of (the) Fidesz (Party).”
It appears the only thing really saving U.S. democracy from a similar all-out takeover by Trump and his cult is a shaky system of checks and balances imposed by the Constitution and Black voters who regularly throw electoral might behind the Republicans’ opposition, as in the recent Alabama elections and presidential ones.
But Black input is limited when the population is a minority and white voters vote as a single-minded bloc of Borg. That’s the issue in states like Mississippi, where white people still dominate, and in places like Georgia, where a white, Trumpist secretary of state can casually toss nearly half a million mostly minority voters off the voter rolls.
In some of these places, like Mississippi, youth are becoming disenchanted with the lack of liberal freedom and the slaggy job market that comes with a closed, backward society. It may actually be no coincidence that youth out-migration in Mississippi bears a resemblance to the dropping population of authoritarian mud pits like Poland and Hungary.
Gulf Coast development released an economic report in 2018 that used Census information to determine Mississippi’s millennial population dropped by 35,013 people, just as the U.S. millennial population became the nation’s largest age demographic. In fact, Mississippi is the only state in the nation losing millennials at this rate.
Holmes County resident Demerius Jones is a 23-year-old Jackson State University graduate with a new degree in software engineering. In January, Jones is moving to Falls Church, Va., where he will be developing and maintaining proprietary software at Northrop Grumman Corporation and making more than $70,000 a year, after taxes.
“Holmes County is, I think, the third poorest country in America, so I had to get up out of there. There’s no opportunity here,” Jones told The Lighthouse. “To achieve that type of salary in Mississippi you would have to contract, or be someone with a PhD, but in Virginia I can make this much as an entry-level employee.”
As of Jan 25, Holmes County is the poorest county in the state, but not the nation. Still, Jones’ $70,000 salary will not be helping it. But the loss goes much further than cash. Mississippi and Holmes County will also lose the benefit of Jones’s refreshing political attitude and his positive influence, which could have served as both a draw and an inspiration to other people his age. If Jones had stayed, he would have acted as a blueprint for success for other Black youth coming from a place of concentrated poverty. He would’ve also voted for the kind of politician who encourages youth with progressive ideas and social investment. As it stands, Jones will leave the local political environment to an older generation with dated ideals and 50 years of poor decisions.
He can hardly be blamed for chasing opportunity, but by leaving, Jones exemplifies how the youth exodus fossilizes the kind of politics that drives young people away in the first place. The Los Angeles Daily News editorial board recently pointed out how striking it was that “far-right politics has been fueled worldwide” by dropping population and declining birth rates. Washington Post opinion writer Charles Lane also noted the extreme partisanship in places like Hungary, which had an annual growth rate of -0.25 percent. Ultra-left and ultra-right parties captured a combined 54 percent of the vote in recent elections there.
“The relationship between extremist politics and population decline is not coincidental — and it has powerful implications both for Europe’s political future and that of the United States,” Lane wrote. “… Emigration, plus low and declining birthrates — a characteristic of modern society that Eastern Europe shares with Western Europe and the United States — has resulted in whole villages hollowing out, with only pensioners left behind.”
Anybody looking for evidence of “whole villages hollowing out” in Mississippi need go no further than the towns of West, Vaiden, Winona or most any community in the Mississippi Delta. The maternity ward at the hospital in Winona has been decommissioned for years, and the few mothers still giving birth in the community usually travel north to nearby Grenada.
Mississippi politicos may angrily punch around themselves while flailing for a local target, but the problem is not limited to Mississippi. According to studies, youth are generally fleeing rural communities all over the United States and flooding urban areas in places such as the East or West coasts. Many of them, like Jones, move to where the jobs are. Others seek more things to do or the thriving nightlife that is characteristic of a vibrant, healthy economy.
There’s no way to calculate how much millennial income is headed out and leaving conservative Mississippi Governor-elect Tate Reeves to rot, but what they are inevitably leaving behind is conservative politics. Unless we change things here at home, the vacuum of ultra-right thinking that benefits Reeves and his conservative cohorts in Mississippi and other rural places will only get bigger.