Remarks by Jonathan Greenblatt for the ADL-McCain Institute Event: Protecting American Democracy

Remarks (as prepared for delivery) by ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt

Good morning, everyone. I am so glad to be with you all here in Washington D.C. and to join the McCain Institute and Dr. Farkas for this event on one of the most important issues facing our country today. I would like to thank our guest speakers, especially Congressman Jamie Raskin for joining us today, as well as everyone here in person or tuning in virtually.  
I can think of no better way to honor the legacy of Senator McCain, a man who dedicated his life to public service and who sacrificed so much for our country, I think he would be proud to see all of us to come together, to stand as one, and commit to protecting our democracy. 

To speak out in support of our democratic institutions is the responsibility of every single person in the United States. We should never take this freedom for granted.   
This is especially true for those communities with long histories of discrimination and persecution.  
My grandfather was from Germany, and he often shared stories with me about his beautiful town, Magdeburg, and what a tolerant and wonderful place Germany was for Jews and its citizens -- until one day it wasn’t.  
My wife and her family are from Iran, and she too talks about her family’s life there and how Iran was a wonderful and beautiful place for Jews and its people -- until one day it wasn’t.  
Many Americans think it unimaginable that a political disaster of those magnitudes could ever happen here. But as Congressman Raskin just spoke of, I don’t think any of us imagined that an insurrection, an act of domestic terror, would ever happen at our Capitol, until one day it did.  
Many Americans think that we are on a steady march of progress, gaining ground with every generation toward a more equitable and inclusive society, and then you read about Jews, or as they are euphemistically referred to- “Zionists,” actively and aggressively marginalized at our nation’s finest universities, forced to submit to litmus tests to participate in public spaces, typically with barely a breath of protest from professors or administrators. 
And so, I am here today to share with you a very dark truth: the unthinkable, a collapse of American democracy can happen here. We must confront this truth head on and do everything in our power to avert this risk.  
Because make no mistake: the modern democracy -- a place where ideas flow freely, where institutions uphold norms, where rational discourse reigns, and where minorities and our rights are protected by laws and upheld by leaders – is foundational to the freedoms and flourishing of both the Jewish community and countless other minority communities in the United States. 
As we come together today, I believe there is good reason to be worried about these trends: 
First off, we see acts of hate are surging, both online and off.   Antisemitic incidents in 2021 soared to a whopping 34 percent over the year before. It was the highest number the ADL ever recorded in the more than four decades we’ve been tracking.  
Hate crimes against all groups likewise rose by an alarming six percent in 2020, according to the latest FBI data; the highest level reported in the last 12 years. 
Why is this relevant?  Because hate is a corrosive agent that eats away at the fabric of pluralistic democracies and healthy societies in general. It feeds and eats away at the norms like decency and respect that bind us together.  
So why is the hate growing?  

In part I believe it’s because the extremists are talking to each other.  

Again, a credit to social media which serves as a super spreader of hate and ugly ideas.  
Consider the “Great Replacement Theory, the virulently hateful notion that a “global elite” – often identified as a secret cabal of Jews -- are plotting to flood the United States and the West with non-whites and immigrants to commit so-called “white genocide.” 

It was that thinking that led neo-Nazis to terrorize the town of Charlottesville with cries of “Jews will not replace us!” and ultimately kill a young woman, Heather Heyer, in 2017.  

A white supremacist invoked Replacement Theory when he massacred 11 Jews in a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018; another killed 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in New Zealand in 2019, and yet another murdered 22 Latinos at a Wal-Mart in El Paso that same year.  Yet another went to buffalo this year and committed a grotesque act killing black Americans as they shopped for groceries. 

Or think about the violence that erupted around the country last year prompted by the Gaza war. 

This was a foreign conflict but somehow it became open season on identifiable Jewish people. Ugly assaults took place across the country. Now, it is safe to say that terrorists firing rockets at civilian targets like schools and hospitals is unacceptable in any context – and yet the wrongful demonization of Jews here in the US – and the failure of so many to speak out against this blood libel – set a precedent. 

In the wake of that moment, we have seen some call to disrupt and dismantle Jewish day schools and nonprofit organizations in Boston because of “Zionism”; we have seen climate campaigners refuse to rally for DC Statehood alongside Jewish organizations because of “Zionism;” and we have seen college activists across the country demand the expulsion of “Zionist” student organizations from their campuses – like Hillel and J Street.  
A lot of the same hate-filled fantasies that motivate extremists – such as Replacement Theory, QAnon fever dreams and antizionist conspiracies – are being mainstreamed, normalized and weaponized by public figures, elected officials and political candidates at all levels of our government. They are being trumpeted, not only on the dark corners of the internet, but in some parts of traditional media where they are shaping stories through editorial boards and on assignment desks.
This is not just "problematic speech.”  This is incitement. And these conspiracies – and, indeed, the larger environment of polarization and weaponized hyper-partisanship has brought us to the edge.

Recent polls show that a third of Americans believe that President Biden is not a legitimate president – that's over 50 million Americans who buy into the Big Lie – and between 15 and 20 million of them believe that violence is justified to overturn the results of the 2020 election and restore Trump to office. More broadly, about 40% of Republicans, 40% of Independents and nearly 25% of Democrats support political violence to address their political grievances.  

 As Rev. Little said this morning, this is not new, but this is increasingly normalized. 

The growing numbers of public figures who are active purveyors of these false conspiracy theories, and the still greater numbers who are complicit enablers by virtue of their silence, not only endanger vulnerable American communities, but pose a fundamental threat to our republic. 
Now let me acknowledge right here, up front, that there are many reasons why our democracy is at such great risk. Some of those have been decades in the making; others are more recent.  
These include the decades-long growth of profound distrust and cynicism in institutions, including government, the media, medicine, and education etc.  And they include serial failures of both Democratic and Republican administrations to effectively address crucial problems of income inequality and opportunities for the working- and middle-class Americans, long standing issues of racial discrimination.   
Other threats to democracy include the extraordinary rollback of civil rights in recent years, the tsunami of money in politics, the entrenchment of special interests in Washington and state capitols, unrestrained gerrymandering and the toxic polarization caused by both the right and the left demonizing and dehumanizing those with whom they disagree. 
Turning back to January 6, all of us watched in horror at the rampage through the seat of our government. Despite what we witnessed, we were actually fortunate that day and in the election season that preceded and trailed that fragile moment. Our institutions withstood the insurrection and scores of other attempts to overturn the 2020 election due in large part to the courage of several Democratic and Republican election officials and judges from both sides of the spectrum.
We learned how vulnerable our institutions were that day.

I want to leave no room for doubt: I believe we will see more extreme and inflammatory political hyperbole from the far-right MAGA contingent in the year ahead and we will hear provocative rhetoric – like President Trump suggesting Senator McConnell has a “death wish.” Such language has the potential to ignite an inferno of savagery. 
And alongside the reality of right-wing militias assaulting uniformed law enforcement on the steps of the US Capitol or the threat of widespread violence, we also have seen the ascent of thought police from the far-left attempt to police our public spaces and control our cultural conversations with a dogma that almost fuels endless late-night monologues. 

But it isn’t funny anymore when we see the Western canon seized from shelves because it doesn’t conform to ever-shifting current norms; when we see language collapse on itself, devoid of meaning, when we cancel scholars for the tiniest transgression or the slightest sin without even any opportunity of recourse. 

So when we pull back the lens we see one side wants to defund and disarm the police. The other side tries to infiltrate and undermine the police. It is impossible to miss the signs that both sides are gearing up for conflict and its moving into the mainstream. 

This doesn’t mean that we are headed toward a civil war. But we are in grave danger of entering into a prolonged period marked by political upheaval from – and let’s name them what they are – homegrown, domestic terrorists who are incited or encouraged by political leaders. The threat of civil unrest is real, it’s both destabilizing and it’s almost here.
These attacks on democracy are not only occurring at the federal level, but also at the state, local, and precinct levels.  
As I speak:  
•    Election deniers are becoming poll workers, vote counters and election administrators – and make no mistake -- this is a widespread out in the open effort lauded by the likes of convicted felon, Steve Bannon. 
•    Partisan hotlines are being established to falsely contest Democratic votes in swing districts and states.  Again, this is happening out in the open.
•    Radical right-wing candidates with disqualifying ideas have been buoyed by campaign dollars from Democratic donors out of a fevered notion that they will be easier to defeat in general elections.

This is playing with fire. 

The warning here is democracy, any democracy, is one demagogue away from disaster.  
I profoundly hope that we don’t face prolonged political crises, but if we don’t act and act effectively and in concert, I think the likelihood is high. 
To be clear, ex-President Trump is not the sole cause of all of this. Extremism always has lurked in the shadows of our society.  Philip Roth called it the American Berserk. 

But Mr. Trump brought it into the spotlight, gave it voice and power, and turbocharged it into a full-on assault on our democracy. And don’t take my word for it – ask Liz Cheney, ask Larry Hogan, ask Brad Raffensperger, ask Rusty Bowers – these are lifelong Republicans and movement conservatives who have no place in a MAGA-ified party where authoritarianism prevails.
As previously stated, there also are ominous signs for our democracy coming from the far left. The distrust of institutions and democratic processes runs deep among many progressives. There is little hope for democracy when both sides reject its legitimacy and the capacity for meaningful reform.  

And the egregious forms of cancel culture and the application of litmus tests that seek to excommunicate some of us based on our identities – think Zionism – is a slower moving, but poisonous toxin as well. It diminishes our ability to show up in public life as our full selves. It requires people to renounce their heritage to have a seat at the table – an idea that clashes with the core idea of America, not to mention one that plays right into the hands of the extremists who would like nothing better than to see their political opponents fighting among themselves. 
Now ADL is confronting and combating antisemitism and other forms of illiberalism on the left and will continue to do so.  But I want to be crystal clear that, today, the most immediate threat to our democracy in this moment is coming from the MAGA movement. That is the reality, and whether we are Republicans or Democrats or Independents, conservatives, or progressives, we must come together to combat this exigent threat. 
All of us must confront this issue as Americans but also in the context of our own identities.  
We Jewish people know that we tend not to thrive when our safety and security rests on the whims of an autocrat rather the rule of law. Throughout history, Jews have fared poorly in societies that are polarized along sectarian lines. We don’t prosper when conspiracies are the coin of the realm.  And it’s worth underscoring the words that Eric Ward from Western States Center has spoken so eloquently, that antisemitism is at the beating heart of white nationalism. 
But what starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews. 

The danger for American Jews is a microcosm to that of the larger American electorate. 

Antisemitism is making our own community more polarized, even within areas where we were once united. This is all to say, we have no choice but to react to protect ourselves and other minorities in America. 
So, the question remains, what do we do?  
 First, there are shoots of hope. While we see voter suppression laws in more than a dozen-and-a half states, many others have enacted or are considering voter expansion laws. There is a wave of new ventures like Renew Democracy and States United working to protect democracy. And just as 2020 featured a more diverse cohort of candidates, more people also voted than ever before in this country. And the leadership of Senator McConnell to support the Electoral Count Reform Act could lead to its passage and help to safeguard future elections. 

I’m also encouraged to see more progressive organizations and leaders taking on those in their own movements speaking out against internecine warfare at the expense of important agendas and inclusive social justice movements. We see this with the recent public rejection by many prominent Democratic members of when one of their colleagues said you can’t be progressive and support the Jewish state.  People on all sides are stepping up and saying – enough. 
So there’s a renewed energy for democracy in this country, and we need to tap into that. Democracy is not a spectator sport. We need a whole of government and whole of society approach. We need leaders, all of you here today, to get on the field to use your voice and your influence.  
We need to “counter-flood the zone,” so to speak, to show up at school board sessions, candidates forums, town hall meetings and at public health institutions where extremists are already appearing in naked attempts to inflame passions and incite division.  
And we need the nuts of bolts of our democracy to work – that means we must protect access to the ballot, ensure all votes are counted, staff the polls with non-partisan workers, and guard against political capture of our election machinery, and for Congress to get past its current gridlock and pass laws protecting voting rights and the integrity of our elections.  
But as the Congressman said before me, government alone cannot solve these problems. We need assistance from the business community and civil society to build a bipartisan, post-ideological pro-Democracy movement.  
So, there is work to be done and I am proud of what we have been able to do at ADL in working with partner organizations to reinforce the scaffolding of our civil society through legislation and litigation.  
For instance, just last month ADL spearheaded the launch of Project CODE, a new federal hub to combat political violence, bringing together partners like the National Urban League and The Asian American Foundation to create a connective tissue for fighting domestic extremism. 
In conclusion, recent events have reminded us of the fragility of our gains. And, at ADL, we remain devoted to our mission of ensuring the safety of the Jewish community and to ensure justice and fair treatment for all. This has been central to our mission for more than 100 years and today it compels us to defend our democracy itself; this is the work ADL was created to do.  

And we welcome this opportunity to work in coalition with the McCain Institute and its courageous leaders, with the speakers and organizations you heard from today.
Thank you.