Self-Rule and Survival
Or: What the War in Ukraine (and the Coup in America) is Actually About
At stake in the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a very simple idea: that people should be able to choose their own rulers. Ukrainian democracy is far from perfect, but Ukrainians quite rightly think that their votes count. After thirty years, they are used to democracy’s, in this very broad sense. It is part of their sense of who they are. By staying in Kyiv, the elected president, Volodymyr Zelens'kyi, took all of the irony out of the name of his television show and his political party: "servant of the people."
The Russian invasion was designed to overthrow the Ukrainian government and kill or humiliate its rulers. The Russia assault on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv was thrown back, but everywhere Russia did manage to take territory it kidnapped or executed local leaders. At this level, too, Ukrainians were used to the idea that they could choose their leaders, and that local elected officials had certain responsibilities. Although their example will never be known the way that Zelens'kyi's is, countless Ukrainian local officials did their best in the face of an unexpected and very often lethal situation.
The Russian system is based upon entirely different principles, or rather on the principle that there are no principles. It calls itself a democracy, but only to mock the idea that the people could rule. Its elections are rituals of power, in which power shows what it is by faking elections and not even pretending not to fake them. When a courageous rival such as Navalny appears, he must be poisoned and when that failed, imprisoned. Freedoms that are taken for granted in Ukraine, such as the right to free speech or to form associations, do not exist in Russia.
Russians know that they are lied to all the time; the system assures them, though, that all leaders everywhere lie all the time, and at least the lies they hear are Russian lies. It is not so much that Russians literally believe what they are told on television, but rather that they take the fictions as guidelines to what they should say and do. But once one has (directly or indirectly) taken part in a war on the basis of lies, one is implicated in the lies, and will have trouble casting them aside. This is how Russian tyranny works, and how tyranny works generally: the violence makes the lies necessary, and the people make the lies their daily life.
That is what Ukrainians sense, and know, and understand, since Russia is their neighbor, since Russia has occupied much of their country since 2014, and since Russia has occupied still more this year. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a clash of ideas of what politics, society, and indeed life is all about. This is more important than history or language; discussions of history or language are usually just ways of articulating the difference in political philosophy. Because the Russian system denies the possibility of democracy, or free elections, or civil society, or journalism, all of these things must be defined, when they appear, as fake, alien or somehow hypocritical. In the confrontation with Ukraine, they must all be physically destroyed so as to prove their impossibility. Indeed Ukraine itself must be destroyed so that Russians do not get the idea that a neighboring post-Soviet country is home to people who take for granted that they can vote, speak, and assemble as they wish.
It is striking, isn't it, how close the ideas of self-rule and survival can be? Is it possible, for example, to imagine the United States of America without the idea of democracy? Our democracy, too, is flawed. But there are Americans, most Americans I'd like to think, who believe that they have the right to choose their rulers, and that journalism and civil society are a natural and normal part of political life.
Yet in the United States we face a situation in which our basic instuition that we deserve self-rule is challenged -- not by foreign invasion, but by the actions of some of our own politicians. One of our presidents tried to stay in power after losing an election, and most of his political party continues to live in his big lie. The failed violent coup of 2021 is very likely to be followed by a stealthier version in 2024: a soft coup in which votes are not counted and in which states choose their own electors, regardless of how people vote, with the Supreme Court assuring us that we never really had a right to choose our leaders anyway.
Unsurprisingly, the Putin regime tried to help Donald Trump get elected in 2016 and in 2020, and celebrated the coup attempt of 2021. Self-rule rises and falls internationally. But the most important actors in America are Americans. The most important opponents of self-rule in America are Americans. It was Americans who attempted regime change in 2021, and, if we do not change course, it will be Americans (with tyrants around the world cheering in the background) who will attempt regime change in 2025.
The people who plan the next coup assume that the United States would survive a transition to open authoritarianism and that they will be able to hold power indefinitely while denying Americans the right to choose their leaders. I think that they are mistaken. Indeed, I think that they are making the same mistake about their fellow Americans that Putin made about Ukrainians: not understanding that, for many of us, rights and freedoms are not a joke but an identity, and that self-rule is not some legal nicety but a way of life -- one that is worth taking risks for. I would anticipate that, no less than in Ukraine, American reporters will take risks to explain what is actually happening, American civil society will mobilize against an existential threat, and unexpected heroes will emerge
Thanks to Ukrainian resistance, we have all been given a chance to think, with at least some hope, about the future of democracy. Thanks to the January 6 hearings, Americans have been given a chance to think about the choice they can make to preserve our republic. It would be a very good thing if, in our midterm elections of 2022, we voted only for candidates who denounce the big lie that Trump won the 2020 election. Beyond that, it is important for all of us, these next two years, to make clear what we stand for. A second coup is being planned in America. Like the first one it will fail if it is attempted -- but it will fail in a different way, by breaking the country apart. America will not survive without self-rule, and I fear it is unlikely to survive a second attempt to take it away.