What we knew about Despotism and Democracy in 1946, we should know now.

What we knew about Despotism and Democracy in 1946, we should know now.

I love public domain footage. It is one of the ways that I can easily look into the past to see what we valued as a society. It is also a way to see how we have grown and changed over the years. And sometimes, looking at this footage is a great way of seeing what we have known and collectively forgotten. For example, we used to understand how dangerous fascism was and we would make films about how to avoid the kind of divisiveness that helps it to grow. These statements weren’t obscured or held within high-minded metaphors as they are in Don’t Look Up. Rather, public domain movies, especially those put out by the US Government or public scientific organizations, had no need for this artifice. Within those short movies, they are able to speak truth in the plainest words that our past has to offer.

There are two such films that I have found to be incredibly helpful in this moment of perceived stalemate regarding voting rights in the US. They are companions to one another: Despotism and Democracy. While both of these films certainly show their age in terms of many social norms (1946 did not seem to acknowledge the vital role of women in democracy, for example), they lean heavily on widely accepted social science and historical precedent for inspiration. They also accomplish their aim of informing the public as to how Democracy flourishes and how it dies. So much so, that I think it is time that we remember the lessons from 1946 about why our democracy is in such grave danger in 2022.

In both of these movies, the central thesis is that all communities (or nations) are on a sliding scale from Democracy to Despotism:

Where your community lands on this spectrum are dependent upon four key attributes, which have scales of their own:

I would like to reframe these scales as a series of questions that have really helped me to think about what kind of society we are currently living within:

  1. Is the respect you have for others restricted to those in “your group” (however you define that), or is that respect widely shared with the whole community?
  2. Is the power (to lead, to work, to learn, to make decisions) in your community shared widely or is it concentrated in the hands of a relative few?
  3. Are all people in your community able to accrue wealth and live in economic prosperity or is that privilege reserved for only those who already have wealth?
  4. Is the content that your community has access to carefully controlled (by algorithms, by gatekeepers, by political parties, etc) and is that information automatically accepted as truth? Or, do you and your community regularly engage in critical evaluation of the content you consume, providing you with “unbiased” access to the truth?

Based upon your answers to those questions, you may see the signs of Democracy:

And when you ask those questions of your community, you may find that the conditions for Democracy are present or absent:

At the moment, I see the sliding scales moving toward despotism. I see respect only being offered to those we agree with. I see power being concentrated in the hands of those who are deemed to be “real Americans.” I see economic prosperity concentrating more and more in the hands of the wealthy. And, I see information being controlled by both algorithms and a strong distrust for anything that doesn’t fit into an already existing world view.

But it isn’t too late to swing the pendulum back the other way. It isn’t too late to respect others or to create systems that share power and economic prosperity. It isn’t too late to remove the algorithms from your information diet and add sources that you don’t always agree with. But, to do this, we must learn from our past. We must listen urgently to those Americans who had just fought a World War in an attempt to beat back the Despots who sought to control them. We won then, but it may be different this time…

So please, for the sake of the country (and the world), I implore you, listen:

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