It is not a new experience for me to live in a country where democracy appears to be going down the drain. I saw democracy slipping away, first slowly, then rapidly, from 1959 to the end of 1979 while I was working as a journalist in Buenos Aires.
Argentina’s imperfect democracy was finally done to death, along with thousands of men, women and children, when the Armed Forces took over on March 24, 1976. They imposed a reign of terror. Torture became routine as the generals, admirals and brigadiers who formed successive military juntas set out to annihilate an insurgency which initially captured the imagination of the young but degenerated into an orgy of violence. The government was largely made up by civilians who had encouraged the coup and then became advisers on economics and other matters the men in uniform knew nothing about and weren’t much interested in learning.
Before the coup that put Argentina in the history books for the infamy of the military regime that ruled the land from March 1976 to December 1984, the country had two elected civilian presidents, Arturo Frondizi (1958-62) and Arturo Illia (1963-66) whose mere permanence in office for their legal mandates would have strengthened the fledgling democracy that was throttled in 1930 when the jackboots stamped out the administration of Hipolito Yrigoyen (1916-22 and 1928-30).
I mention all this to set the scene for what is happening in the United States today where, in my opinion, democracy is in dire danger of going down the drain. Donald Trump gave fair warning when he blithely announced (Jan. 23 2016): “You know what else they say about my people? The polls, they say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible.”
It is not incredible. It is true. But it is worse than that. Trump’s people, a minority, are not the main danger. It is the passive majority who, as in Argentina, are simply looking the other way as their nation goes down the tubes. The wilful blindness of the Argentine general population to the horrors of the dictatorship allowed a minor holocaust to take place. The military decided to erase people who were on their list of “subversives.” Some of them probably had committed acts of terrorism, apart from urban guerrilla operations and combat groups in the countryside. Others condemned to be erased were people considered to be the military’s ideological enemies. I use the word “erase” purposely because that was the idea. They were to be “disappeared” — first killed and then their bodies disposed of as if they had never existed. Some were “disappeared” by means of cremation, burial in unmarked mass graves, or by being thrown, drugged but alive, from military transport planes, initially into the estuary of the River Plate and later into the deep Atlantic. Women prisoners who were pregnant were made to give birth in clandestine prisons or military units under infrahuman conditions. Then they were murdered and their babies given away to families connected to the military or police.
This could happen because there was a major breakdown of a key pillar of society. The one institution that could have sounded the alarm failed. The death squads were clearly visible as armed thugs drove unmarked police cars, openly intimidating ordinary citizens on the streets of Buenos Aires. The traditional press, which was relatively free, failed in their duty to inform and, instead, collaborated with the dictatorship by not reporting what was happening.
The difference between Argentina then and the United States today is that the traditional press has come alive and is carrying out its vital role in society with newfound fervour and dedication. There is a renewed sense of responsibility and a call to duty. But it is the worst of times as well as the best of times for American journalism. Over the past 15 years 2,000 newspapers throughout the United States have closed and, between 2000 and 2015, print newspaper advertising revenue fell from about US$60 billion to about US$20 billion. The magazine Atlantic reported that the losses wiped out the gains made over the previous 50 years. Over roughly the same period of time the number of jobs in the news industry was more than halved, falling from 411,800 people in 2001 to 173,709 in 2016.
Despite the financial difficulties, the press has managed to remain a bulwark against the chaotic but decidedly anti-democratic Trump administration. For me it has been heartening to see journalists doing their jobs while under constant attack from Trump, who has called the members of the press “enemies of the people.” There is “ideological blindness” on the part of pundits on both political extremes, particularly on television. But even on Fox News, which to my mind was devised not to deliver the news, but to advance a right-wing agenda, there are journalists who strive for objectivity. On the left, MSNB combats Fox, but allows much more screen time to a wider segment of the political spectrum. True conservatives, who in the main oppose Trump, are always welcome.
The problem is that most people are blinded by their political beliefs, which seem to be built into their genes. I remember the time when I had two friends on different sides of the political divide. One, who leaned to the right, believed that the Chilean dictator Pinochet was a well-meaning advocate of free enterprise. It was hard for her to accept that Pinochet was a butcher, and corrupt to boot. My other friend, who leaned further to the left, actually travelled to Cuba and saw the Castro dictatorship through rose-coloured spectacles. For what it is worth, my socialist friend still refuses to see the Castro-Cuban reality while my friend on the right does accept that Pinochet was a monster, although praises his economic policies.
I saw what I now know psychiatrists term “identity-protective cognition” in action time and time again in Latin America, where many people had to live under repressive regimes, both of the right and the left. It is a form of self-protection. Information that a person doesn’t like, although true, is discarded, while information that is not a comfortable political fit is discarded even if it is true.
The only antidote to what is really just old-fashioned self-delusion is good information provided by good journalists. If Americans wake up in time, old-fashioned journalism may be able to play its part in saving democracy from going down the drain.