At least once a day, I see something in the news that causes the opening lines of the sixth Harry Potter movie, delivered in Bill Nighy’s sinister grumble, to play through my head: “These are dark times, there is no denying. Our world has perhaps faced no greater threat than it does today.”

Then I carry on with whatever I was doing.

Americans are living in an odd, unsettling era where it seems more and more likely that our country will soon fall to authoritarian rule or rise to disaster movie status, but because we’re not battling Voldemort or enduring 40-foot storm surges quite yet—and because misinformation runs rampant online—it’s easy, and instinctive, to pretend these threats aren’t imminent.

With his new Substack newsletter and blog, Perilous Times, Duke public policy professor David Schanzer aims to drive home the reality of the dangers that we face in modern life while inspiring readers to take action against the “gradual degradation of our institutions.”

“Given our Perilous Times, teaching my students and opining once in a while in some media outlet just is not enough,” Schanzer writes in a blog post. “Tempering my voice to what is going to sound reasonable and suitable for a mass audience is just no longer in sync with the ‘fierce urgency’ of the times in which we live.” 

Since launching Perilous Times two weeks ago, Schanzer—an author and former White House and Congressional advisor on Homeland Security who, in addition to teaching at Duke, currently serves as the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security—has sent out newsletters to subscribers every few days, with readings archived on his site. His newsletters are opinionated, but well-researched and rife with links to reputable articles.

So far, he’s written about a compromise proposal for Supreme Court reform, MAGA as Christian nationalism, and the role of the filibuster in Congressional dysfunction, among other topics.

To learn more about his new project, the INDY spoke with Schanzer about misinformation, the erosion of democracy, and how to craft content that tells the truth but isn’t discouraging.

What drove you to create Perilous Times?

The threats to our democratic system of governance—not just in the United States, but around the world. While plenty of people are thinking and writing about it, I think what we’ve seen is that a number of other countries have kind of sleepwalked into authoritarianism—places like Poland and Hungary. We need to be very aware of that in the United States, and I want to do my share to try and prevent that from happening.

What are some of the most glaring dangers we’re facing right now? 

Confidence in our democratic institutions is being eroded. The approval ratings for Congress and for the President are declining. Confidence in other things like education, religious institutions, the media—all of those are declining. When you add to that a very complicated and polluted information environment—the internet and social media have made it increasingly difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, and democracy depends on people understanding what the truth is—we have a society that is increasingly disenchanted with its core institutions, and that makes for a society that’s ripe for an authoritarian: somebody who can promise to a) take control and b) make everything better. And of course, that never happens with authoritarianism. 

Do you think that people are underestimating just how perilous the times are? If so, are they misinformed? In denial? Both?

I think there’s a lot of different things going on at the same time. First of all, we’ve been through a very rough period in this country. The Trump presidency was incredibly disruptive and stressful, then the pandemic came on top of that, and then the contested election and January 6: an effort to violently interfere with the free exchange of a peaceful exchange of power. So that’s a pretty tumultuous five years. And we have some new and very disturbing economic problems on the horizon. 

I think most people are trying to recover from that trauma, and are also very focused on the state of the economy and their well-being. That’s why this is a very perilous moment, because distractions relating to the economy, rising inflation, disdain for institutions are all valid, but make it easy for people to essentially not pay attention, not understand what is happening, or have their views distorted. And we can’t deal with any of the substantive problems, whether it’s gun crime, police reform issues, climate change, or the economy, unless we get our democracy straight.

Your content is obviously pretty grim, but I imagine that your intention isn’t to make people feel helpless or depressed, so I’m wondering—do you take care to write things in a way that poses a solution or a course of action?

I’d like to highlight possible solutions. There is no single thing that’s going to solve all of our different problems, but there are things that can be done, and I definitely want the newsletter to discuss them. A lot of what newsletters do is point you to other people who have more expertise in these areas and what they see as solutions. 

I don’t feel like I should be in the business of telling people where their activism is best directed. I do feel the duty to not just be gloom and doom; I’m a teacher, I’m a dad, so I care very much about helping young people grapple with the world we’re living in. Exclusively pointing out how bad things are is not the way to do that. We have to be solution oriented. 

How does this newsletter connect to your current or former work? Why are you a credible source?

Up to the current day, I’ve been studying issues relating to radicalization and violence, the response to 9/11, and issues relating to al Qaeda. It’s a great thing that violence relating to al Qaeda and ISIS, while still a threat, is no longer anywhere near as potent or dangerous as it once was. But I think what we are seeing in the world is a lot of dissatisfaction and grievance with the status quo, and it’s developing into these populist movements that are extremely dangerous. So there’s a lot of parallels between my study of al Qaeda and the study of these populist movements and their threat to democracy. 

I see this as a natural evolution from what I’ve been doing since I came to Duke. The end of the Afghan war, now soon to be about a year ago, really bookended the 9/11 era. These issues haven’t disappeared, but I think it’s appropriate to be shifting my personal focus toward things that are more vital to understanding our modern society.

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