Anti-science authoritarianism can’t flourish if we don’t let it

I’ve been rereading Sinclair Lewis’ classic 1930s political novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” which is about a right-wing politician who becomes a demagogue and launches a fascist takeover of the United States.

In the light of Jan. 6 at the nation’s capital, Lewis’ novel has special meaning.

Events at Anchorage’s municipal Assembly recently should raise uneasy feelings about the future of our political system, too.

I won’t delve into the give-and-take over the indoor mask rule that was on the table. Others are writing about this, although I personally take the advice of health professionals that face masks reduce transmission of COVID-19, hospitalizations and deaths.

But beyond that, what took place at the Assembly meetings and on Jan. 6 should be worrisome for those of us who really want to protect democracy.

Lewis set his story in America, but it was really about Nazi Germany, where Lewis lived and wrote in the years before World War II.

There are chilling parallels. I was struck by video footage of days of Anchorage’s Assembly meetings, where an unruly crowd protesting the indoor mask rule hurled shouts, insults and threats of violence to intimidate those they disagreed with.

Mayor David Bronson and at least one Assembly member, Jamie Allard, appeared to egg on the protesters. Finally, the mayor ordered security staff out of the chamber and for a barrier protecting assembly members to be removed, exposing Assembly members to what was becoming a mob.

Raucous municipal meetings with pitchfork-bearing crowds -- at least metaphorically -- are nothing new in our democracy, but the intensity of this was at a new level. At least one gun was found when police arrested a protester for disorderly conduct.

That an elected mayor acted to expose not just an elected Assembly but others of the public to potential violence by removing security is, in my mind, grounds for removal.

Is our mayor a demagogue in the making?

What worries me are aspirations of his supporters to oust moderate and progressive-leaning Assembly members who have opposing views. That said, government executives supporting friendly candidates in legislative elections is nothing new.

I am somewhat assured that this mayor won by the slimmest of margins, which means the electorate as a whole is more balanced.

But things can change. The power of social media manipulated to whip up the mob can’t be underestimated. People forget that many autocrats were first elected. They became dictators later.

I am encouraged that we have a free press reporting vigorously on the events at the Assembly meetings, just as the events on Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., were reported.

But how much does that count today?

What’s disappointing in that most people get information on public events from social media, which we now know is manipulated, thanks to the courage of a former Facebook employee blowing the whistle in testimony to Congress. We may be in a new, scary world.

Let me return briefly to the current controversy. We know masking for health reasons has been widely accepted in Asian societies for years. Going one step further, vaccine mandates to prevent diseases like smallpox have long been accepted in the U.S. and are often required by law, such as for school children.

My sense is that politicians are stirring the pot over face masks and vaccinations to gain an edge.

It’s a cynical calculation, and it won’t work in the long run. Big employers on the national level are now mandating vaccinations, whether required or not, and employees are accepting them, an example is the 98.5% compliance so far at United Airlines.

In the long run, most people will get the shots and much of this will pass, I believe.

But besides the manipulation, the anti-science and anti-expert biases in our society that underpin the current controversies are a cause for worry. For one thing, they impede progress toward the most dire threat we face, climate change.

Science will win eventually. It took years for people to accept that the world isn’t flat and to accept Galileo’s argument that the sun does not revolve around the Earth, but the other way around.

Belief is a powerful force, however. I met a woman in eastern Kentucky who was sincere and sweet and convinced that astronauts going into space was a hoax.

It was impossible, she believed, because if they had really gone up, they would have seen the angels.

Tim Bradner is publisher of the Alaska Legislative Digest and Alaska Economic Report.

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