Column: Film inspires a glimmer of hope that defenders of democracy can win the day

  • Bill Nichols. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 1/1/2022 10:30:45 PM
Modified: 1/1/2022 10:30:06 PM

Twenty years ago, Nancy and I lived next door to a psychiatrist for several months. He specialized in treating people who suffered from “writer’s block.” I didn’t need his help at the time, but recently I’ve wished I could seek his advice.

If I had stretched out on his couch to spin out a tale about what’s kept me from writing lately, I’d probably have blurted out something about HB 2, the New Hampshire “budget” bill signed by Gov. Chris Sununu in June. That bill did its confusing best, among other things, to wangle more public funds for private schools in the name of “freedom of choice,” to restrict abortions, and to control the public school curriculum. HB 2, I might have sobbed, made me doubt the efficacy of the postcards Nancy and I write, urging people to vote for folks who want to keep our democracy alive.

But I’ve begun to regain confidence in the postcards and more. We can support local and state political candidates, organizers and their organizations — all committed to defending our democracy. And I can come up with a column now and then.

It’s hard to say what exactly made possible this restoration of confidence and hope. My best guess is a film and an essay, taken together. The film, Tango Shalom, tells the story of a rabbi who, despite a religious rule that prohibits his touching a woman other than his wife, enters a tango contest as the partner of a beautiful, skilled tango dancer after seeking advice from religious leaders in his own faith and a Muslim, a Catholic and a Hindu.

The essay by Thomas Edsall, “How to Tell When Your Country is Past the Point of No Return,” was in the Dec. 15 New York Times. It was recommended by a journalist friend who has long sought to correct what I suspect he takes to be my fuzzy-minded optimism. As the essay’s title suggests, Edsall is a man inclined to face up to grim realities.

He summarizes the views of several knowledgeable observers who believe it’s possible our electoral system “has come to the point at which a return to traditional democratic norms will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.” He reviews scholarship that claims “autocratic populism” can reduce our democratic rights so gradually we won’t realize the danger until it’s too late to stop the destruction of our democracy. He quotes from a Washington Post piece ominously titled “18 Steps to a Democratic Breakdown,” in which Risa Brooks and Erica De Bruin warn of a “comparatively quiet but steady subversion, rather than a violent coup or insurrection against a sitting president that Americans today have to fear most.”

Perhaps Edsall’s most chilling statement is in his summary of the predicament our two-party system faces: “Democracy — meaning equal representation of all citizens and, crucially, majority rule — has, in fact, become the enemy of the contemporary Republican Party.”

A CNN survey that finds more Republicans than Democrats believe American democracy is under attack — 75% versus 46% — leads Edsall to his own pessimistic conclusion. He believes the high level of anxiety in both parties is dangerous, partly because “it masks the true aim of America’s contemporary right-wing movement, the restoration and preservation of white hegemony. It is not beyond imagining that Republicans could be prepared, fueled by a mix of fear and provocation, to push the nation over the brink.”

Edsall uses two phrases in this conclusion that call to mind insights from Tango Shalom: “true aim” and “beyond imagining.” You would not know from Edsall’s analysis of scholarship and journalism about the threat to American democracy that much Republican anxiety is based on lies, not just the one “Big Lie” about Trump’s victory in the 2020 election, but many lies. The word “true” appears just once in Edsall’s essay, in his conclusion.

Truth, and the trust truth makes possible, are central issues in Orthodox Rabbi Moshe Yehuda’s high-risk tango challenge in the film, and his imagining is important to finding a way to use his dancing skill to win a prize that can save the school where he teaches. Commitments to both truth and imagination are implicit in what all the religious leaders seem to be advising the rabbi when he consults them. Yehuda’s rabbi advises him to pray and await a message. The Catholic encourages him to ask himself how he can achieve his goal without sacrificing his sacred beliefs and later urges him to seek help from others. The Muslim advises him to be aware of the time in which he is living and to consider the possibility that there may be no reason to touch a woman as he dances the tango. And the Hindu tells him difficult problems are good because their solutions are fun. He gives the rabbi a balloon, which turns out to be crucial to his performance of the tango.

The lively, colorful, multicultural world of Brooklyn portrayed in Tango Shalom could hardly be more different from the stark version of the American political ecosystem feared by the scholars and journalists reviewed by Edsall in his essay. Unlike this divided, mutually judgmental world, the Brooklyn of Tango Shalom is a place where all four of the religious leaders believe Moshe Yehuda when he speaks of the complicated moral problem he faces. They respect his religious faith, and they accept the solution he finds when he dances the tango. The film begins slowly, feeling fragmented at first. It is quirky and builds off stereotypes. But the writers and director of Tango Shalom have imagined a world in which differing religious beliefs don’t have to divide people. It’s a world in which democracy can survive because we trust each other enough to encourage fair voting practices and allow teaching about problems and failures we need to overcome if we are to build a more just society.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at

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