I was recently reminded of—or, perhaps I never really knew?—the original definition of the term “Third World” country. It was not intended to be a now disparaging designation of economic underdevelopment. To be a Third World country was to be on a short list of nations who were being asked to take a side amid the geopolitical chaos of the 1950’s Cold War. Are you democratic like the U.S. and its capitalist allies? Are you communist, like Russia, Cuba and other satellite nations? Or are you undeclared and up for grabs?
The term was coined by French demographer and social scientist Alfred Sauvy in an essay published in 1952 called “Three Worlds, One Planet.” (More about Sauvy here.) And while I’ve oversimplified things a bit, in short order, many of the countries still reeling from the European colonial experience in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East were asked to assert their place within the new economic binary. That the “short list” was most of the world, or that the term ultimately devolved into an insult, seems unsurprising in retrospect.
And yet, the history of the term weighed heavily on me as I watched whatever that was that attempted to pass for presidential debate last night. Your feeds are likely filled with post-debate analysis, so I’ll spare you much of mine except to say that the big losers were anyone who cares about the U.S. and its role in the world. (I grudgingly spare a thought for moderator Chris Wallace, who lost control of an unhinged President Trump early and often. Perhaps replace him “with a mom who has been home with her kids since March,” suggested writer and humorist Wendi Aarons to universal Twitter applause.)
Watching a sitting U.S. president, bluster, bully, name-call, misdirect, interrupt and lie his way through a debate with so much hanging in the balance—much of which, like the under-managed pandemic, happened on his watch—was a new low in political discourse. It was like his Twitter feed literally roared to life. But he managed to get a few points out quite clearly, and no, I take little comfort in the fact that he says the quiet parts out loud.
When asked to disavow white supremacy by Wallace; specifically, if he would be “willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and we’ve seen in Portland?” he waffled, then tried to blame Antifa. When further pressed by Wallace, he choose the Proud Boys to decry, and then misdirected. “The Proud Boys,” Trump said. “Stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem.”
Stand back and stand by? The Proud Boys, no stranger to effective messaging, are using the moment to recruit and rebrand. Antifa has no such marketing machine, since, according to FBI director Chris Wray, and repeated last night by Vice President Joe Biden, it is not a movement or an organization, but an ideology.
Depending on your own ideology, you may fixate on either the “stand back” or the “stand by” part of Trump’s response.
I would argue the latter is the crisis we’re now facing as a lower case “third world” country—one that seems increasingly out of alignment with the fragile democratic principles we’ve been talking up for so long. After last night, it now feels like we are fully undeclared and up for grabs.
In an attempt to sow doubt on the validity of the election (“This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” Trump said), he openly encouraged his fans to take matters into their own hands. “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully. Because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it,”
He’s been doing this for a while now.
Worse, his abuse is coming at a time when the pandemic has caused a dangerous shortage of verified, trained, and nonpartisan poll workers, many of whom are older and in high risk health categories.
In a quest to bring you some good news after last night, let me point you to Power The Polls, a nonpartisan initiative working closely with more than 70 corporate partners to help match healthy, low-risk volunteers with the training and safety equipment they’ll need to serve as a poll integrity workers. It helps mightily that companies like Gap, Microsoft, Old Navy, and Target are giving employees paid time off to become volunteers, and a whole host of others are making voting easier for employees in a variety of ways via Time to Vote and Civic Alliance, two business-focused coalitions dedicated to ensuring people have the time and support they need to get to the polls.
Through their corporate partnerships, Power The Polls now has more than 350,000 people signed on to help, and just in time: Experts estimate that about 460,000 poll workers will be needed this year. That they may need to fend off alt-right poll-watching freelancers make their jobs even more necessary.
This kind of deep engagement is what it will take to affirm our collective commitment to participatory democracy, despite the renewed threat of interference at the polls. It’s time to and get this country out of the undeclared category once and for all.