We are a family divided. My son, his wife and I are supporting Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primary while my husband and daughter plan to vote for Bernie Sanders. Despite these differences, we’ve all pledged to “vote Blue no matter who” in the general election.
After the events this week — the GOP-controlled Senate’s refusal to hear witnesses and remove the president from an office he has abused, the president’s subsequent firing of House witnesses along with their family members, and the imposition of collective punishment on the residents of New York and Utah (home of Mitt Romney, the only Republican who voted to convict) — I’ve come to believe that the November 2020 election is fundamentally a plebiscite. Rather than a choice between one candidate or another, it’s an up-or-down vote on the very existence of democracy.
I’d like to focus on one of the measures imposed by an abusive leader allowed to remain in office to continue his abuse — the punishment of the entire family for the perceived misdeeds of one member. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified in the House impeachment proceedings following a subpoena, was dismissed one day after the Senate vote, and his twin brother, Yegveny, who had nothing to do with the impeachment, lost his job as well. Tyrants and totalitarian governments punish entire families because it generates fear and enlists the family in keeping each individual in line. Who would become a dissident, or defect to a freer land, if they knew parents, siblings, and children would pay the price? Kim Jong Un, a dictator the president admires, executes family members of defectors; this is how he maintains the cooperation of North Korean slave laborers shipped to other countries to raise hard currency for his economically isolated and flailing regime. When Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes defied the Salazar dictatorship to sign 30,000 exit visas for Jews and others in France in 1940 following the Nazi occupation, his brother’s property was seized and all 15 of his children were blacklisted from education and employment. Facing lives of restriction and poverty, most of his children left Portugal.
Many commentators concerned about the assault on democracy in the United States have pointed to the president’s models — Russia under Putin, Turkey under Erdogan, Hungary under Orban, Poland under the Law and Justice Party. Certainly we are moving in that direction, and 2020 is our last chance to stop our slide into dictatorship. But I’d like to invite another perspective, that of the brave people of Chile who contested their dictator’s rule in a plebiscite with a joyful, funny, forward-looking campaign. The Democratic candidates have policies — things like Medicare for All that some of us would like to see while others are concerned about its cost or the repercussions of rebuilding the health care system from the ground up — but the 2020 election isn’t about that. It’s about whether the imperfect democracy that we’ve worked to perfect through the various movements for civil rights will continue, or whether we will replace it with the kind of regime against which our ancestors fought and died nearly seventy years ago.