In October 2020 I wrote a piece on democracy in the Transatlantic Puzzle. It concerned speculation about the death of democracy as the November 2020 US Presidential election was approaching, and pointed out that threats to democracy were not just taking place in the United States, but throughout the world. Four examples were offered: Belarus, Israel/Palestine, Mali and Russia. Reflecting democracy’s ever-changing nature, all four are now still in play to different degrees and in different ways compared to a few months ago, but not necessarily worse or better. They all have difficult rows to hoe, and compared to the US, are in the early stages of facing their own respective King Georges1. Ironically, the example that had been looking most bleak and in fact initiated the discussion, the United States, is now – all things considered – looking a bit less dire. Little did we know that the raucous period running up to the election was to pale in comparison to events afterwards, from Trump’s accusations and caterwauling to the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 and the recent impeachment process.
After November 3 and before January 6, as Trump appealed to the courts in various states to demand recounts, and as he continued with his raucous rallies and bellicose tweeting, the self-assuredness with which he conveyed such messages so many times a day was disturbing. Many people were left wondering where this was leading, what he would resort to, what sort of evidence he had, and what his ultimate aim really was. To some, he already was a divinely chosen patriot, a modern-day Cyrus of the Old Testament, desperately trying to save American citizens from the evil ensnarement of the Democratic Party’s godless leadership. This was further buttressed by wild conspiracy theories that need no repetition here. To others he was no less than a sideshow barker, a flimflam man seeing an opportunity for profit, and to others still he was an undiagnosed delusional narcissist who shouldered no responsibility and had an uncanny knack to influence others. The wider implications of how the election’s immediate aftermath would affect the international community were palpable, from the reputation of American electoral politics to foreign policy and conflict to environmental concerns and more.
And even though President Biden is well ensconced in office now, the drama is not quite over, and this might be the age in which democracy will be known for existential challenges. As various Republican elites struggle for their own front row seats, their eagerness to defend Trump has suggested less altruistic reasons. Just who they believe they represent – or want us to believe they represent – is unclear. Is it the mythically united mainstream Republican voters? Groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers? Maybe just self-interest and personal power? Perhaps there is no single answer. It defies comprehension to imagine, for example, Rand Paul or Marco Rubio as proud representatives of the QAnon Shaman or a 31 year old man with a loaded Glock handgun and 500 rounds of ammunition in his pickup truck parked near the Capital. Because the Republican constituency has a more diverse range of what it means to be a Republican than ever before, there is no Republican political unity. Although this can be said of many political parties anywhere, the failure of the American Republicans to even begin to find unity at the national level has only weakened them: after all, not everyone aims to be a gun-toting rioter with an eye on the Capitol. Despite media hype, the Democratic Party is less disparate, with gaps between moderates and progressives tending to be less extreme than differences found between Republican voters.
Now that the second impeachment trial of Trump has concluded and speculation is once again filling the headlines, the democracy question seems yet unsolved. Is it gasping its last breaths or about to embark on a new round of life in the 21st century? We need to remember how young a continuously running democracy in our modern world actually is. The United States of America has existed for 232 years; the next oldest would be Switzerland at 173 years. Credit must be given where credit is due: the fact that modern democracy has continuously survived for so long is hardly luck or coincidence and suggests an underlying foundational strength that challenges the primal, autocratic “might is right” assumption.
Ideally, democracy requires that elected political elites closely represent their constituencies, that the political culture of political elites reflects the broader political culture – as in the political choices and preferences – of those who have voted them into office. Of course the ideal of this is rarely reached, but it is something to strive for when such “trivialities” as employment, education, health care, race issues, the environment and other concerns are at stake. On one hand elected officials, once in office, can choose to completely ignore the wants and needs of their constituency, but on the other hand they are well aware they do so at the risk of not being re-elected. In most circumstances they need to remember that the more closely their choices reflect the political wishes and needs of their constituencies, the more democratic they are. The opposite is also true: the less that political elites reflect the political wishes and needs of their constituencies, the less democratic they are and the more autocratic they have become. The democracy – autocracy dichotomy has also recently been mentioned by President Biden, who in a recent speech pointed out that “democracy doesn’t happen by accident; you have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.” The very nature of the blunt instrument of representative democracy is to expect challenges, some more threatening than others, and boldly address them, be it over the short term, mid term or long term. Democracy is not born overnight, nor does it always comfortably survive various onslaughts. It is a form of government which is both organic and engineered, no matter if it takes decades or even centuries. And democracy is tenacious: it likes to fight for its survival, and does so through the people who understand its wider implications for the future and throughout the world. So in spite of democracy presently being strengthened and renewed, it appears that for now, the great drama of democracy is over, but democracy itself is not.
1 : King George III reigned from 1760 to 1820 and figured significantly in the US War of Independence. Similar to 20th and 21st century demonstrations, a statue of King George III was pulled down in New York city in 1776.