What It Would Be Like to No Longer Live in a Democracy?

So much that we take for granted has been thrown into question, it seems a good time to test the hypothetical. What would it be like, if we could no longer count on fair elections and a representative government?

That worry is our only common ground at the moment, yet we cannot even agree on what is “fair.”

Say that tomorrow, we wake up and know, deep in our gut, that it is over. The American experiment failed. The Constitution is up for grabs. Power belongs to those who seize it and the allies they recruit. We will still brew a cup of coffee. We could check the morning news, which would be a crucial way to stay abreast of what happened next, stay safe and vigilant and engaged. That would be a safeguard—as long as control of the media was not concentrated in, say, a handful of giant corporations who could be bought for profit’s sake.

We would continue to work, scrambling to find jobs sufficiently neutral to be secure. We would still buy groceries, walk the dog, hug those we loved. Our jokes would be darker, more wry. Parties would be keyed a little higher, the celebration more intense, maybe a little manic, a stay against depression. We would try harder to save money, and it would be even more important to invest it prudently—provided, of course, there were still regulations that protected all investors.

As control tightened, those of us who did not fit into the ruling ethos—intellectuals, rebellious artists and writers, minorities by race or creed, people whose sexuality or mental state or ethnic background did not conform—would have to live wary. We might look up old friends who had landed in the establishment or former lovers who had enough money to buy us out of trouble. We would have to feel them out ever so gradually, like a maid who must carry a Meissen china teacup filled to the brim and knows she will lose her job if it sloshes. Burner cell phones might be best—provided, of course, there was no precedent of government wiretapping.

We would make secret plans, research countries where we could live more freely, and do our best to gain skills they valued, knowing all the while that fewer and fewer countries would accept refugees from a nation they did not trust. Those of us lucky enough to have family or friends in other parts of the world would keep in touch, perhaps writing regularly in hope that they would help us if we needed refuge. Historically, that has always been the safest bet—contingent, of course, on a safe, reliable, well-funded, nonpartisan, and efficient postal service.

No longer would we buddy up with power in that old, friendly, harmless way, back when people were excited to chat with their state rep or say hi to the mayor at a cocktail party. Instead, we would stay as far away from power as we could. In a pinch, there might be local officials who were well-intentioned, and we could carefully seek them out—as long as those in power did not have access to sophisticated methods of digital surveillance and location tracking.

If we got tired of playing it safe, we could go underground, form a resistance movement. There would be plenty of people like ourselves, and we could find ways to talk to them, maybe even slip them a flyer on the street. That could work—as long as no one in the government had facial recognition capabilities.

Simple pleasures would remain. We could distract ourselves with learning, private conversation, gardening, cooking with whatever ingredients are available, though imports might be restricted. We could forget our troubles and read ourselves to sleep every night. Great literature flourishes in oppression. Or do we just think that because only a few extraordinary works manage to survive the censors and we never see the rest?

Never mind. Other diversions would flood in to save us. Booze, for example—we would drink even more than we have during the pandemic. Mindless television, whatever the monopolies felt suitable to show us. Bootlegged underground copies of old Frontline shows. Design would lose its freedom; whimsy and beauty would vanish from the public sphere. So would a sense of carefree adventure, exploration, innovation. So would the ability to work alongside people of different ideologies—but that has already happened.

If a police officer or a soldier came into view, our first impulse would be to step into the shadows. If light glared, we would keep our heads down. We would copy, in other words, what young Black men have done for decades. If we got arrested for insubordination or treason or somehow thwarting the State, we could try to plead our case in court and might even prevail—as long as the judges were nonpartisan, detached from any political agenda.

I suppose this is how Trumpists have felt: that elites ruled, the media could not be trusted, activist judges were pushing their own agenda, nebulous forces were conspiring to bring about the downfall of America. The difference is that so many of Trump’s supporters do not simply want their needs and views to be heard and addressed. They want them to dominate, at the exclusion of others’ rights.

Unless you are White, cisgender, heterosexual, American by birth, right of center, and Christian, you might not want to play this game.

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.