No Gloating on First Anniversary of DC Riots: Misguided Republican Anger at a Beneficial Electoral System

DC RiotsShe called it a “beautiful sight to behold” when student protesters stormed the building that houses the Hong Kong Legislative Council. Now Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi is at a loss to explain why the spectacle of a mob assaulting the Capitol did not meet her approval.

On this day last year, the world looked on in disbelief as a multitude of angry flag-waving people forced its way into, and ransacked, a proud symbol of American democracy. Illiberal and authoritarian regimes from China to Zimbabwe were quick to diagnose a terminal illness and rub some salt in the wounds of a slightly stricken adversary. The events in Washington of 6 January were said to have uncovered “blatant double standards” and “stripped the United States of its “moral high-ground.”

Schadenfreude kicked into overdrive often accompanied by liberal doses of irony and added touches of facetiousness such as when none other than President Recep Tayyip of Turkey called the events a “disgrace for democracy” whilst his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani promptly noted the “weakness” of Western democracy. President Emmerson Mnangawga of Zimbabwe surmised that the US “no longer has the moral right to punish other nations under the guise of upholding democracy.” Displaying a bit more tact, and perhaps understanding, Russian president Vladimir Putin kept mum.

America’s friends and allies were much less eager to comment. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson drew on his undisputed mastery of the English language to utter kind and elegant, yet meaningless, phrases to express his dismay without offending his best friends. Most other Western leaders just pretended to ignore the events and kept quiet.

No Passarán

What most Chinese pundits and other commentators not particularly well-disposed towards America choose to overlook was the built-in resilience of US democracy which can withstand and absorb shocks without capitulating to authoritarian forces in a modern rendition of ‘no passarán’. Also, and more than just a footnote, the Washington mob was out to overturn a free and fair election – as determined by the courts. These protesters were not so much inspired by lofty democratic ideals as they were motivated by rage at an inconvenient election outcome.

In an opinion piece published in the New York Times, former president Jimmy Carter points to a study by the Survey Center on American Life, part of the American Enterprise Institute think tank, which found that 36% of Americans – roughly 100 million people – agree with the statement that “the traditional way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” The Washington Post meanwhile reported that about 40% of Republicans believe that violence against government is “sometimes” justified – a mere replay of the Second Amendment and, as such, nothing to freak out over.

Mr Carter worries about the erosion of democratic values. He notes that though politicians, and citizens, may disagree on a great many issues, until recently very few questioned the fundamental constitutional principles that underpin US democracy. When even court findings on reported election irregularities and contested outcomes are being dismissed as partisan, a problem does indeed exist.

Republican anger is all the more remarkable because the US electoral system actually does seem tilted, however slightly, towards the GOP. Since 1988, only one Republican presidential candidate (George W Bush in 2004) has managed to win the popular vote.

In 2016, Donald Trump was bested by Hillary Clinton who received almost 3 million votes more than her Republican opponent yet lost in the Electoral College. The same fate fell to Al Gore in 2000. Such anomalies had been absent from American politics for well over a century.

In the 1876 election, Rutherford Hayes landed in the White House on the back of the Electoral College as did Benjamin Harrison twelve years later. Both gentlemen were Republican candidates. However, the first one to benefit from the idiosyncratic system was John Quincy Adams in 1824 – candidate for the Democratic-Republican Party (aka Jeffersonian Republican Party), the forerunner of the present GOP.

The Longest Shot

Only five times in US history did the Electoral College diverge from the popular vote. This usually only happens when the popular vote is close with Hillary Clinton being the only exception of note. It was always a long shot for President Trump to try and swing the Electoral College, given that he lost the popular vote by well over seven million ballots.

However, it is rather unfair – and also historically incorrect – to depict Mr Trump as the only president ever to challenge the electoral system. That honour must go to James Madison, one of the Founding Fathers and the fourth president of the United States, who freely (and proudly) admitted that the constitution he helped write achieved “the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity.” Mr Madison’s repeatedly expressed his condescension of ‘the people’: “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

Explaining his views in The Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 essays written to explain and promote the ratification of the US Constitution, Mr Madison argued against an “interested and overbearing majority” and warned of the “mischiefs of faction” leading him to endorse a system that combined the tenets of representative democracy with those of federalism.

A Brush with Rupture

Notwithstanding its vast array of checks and balances, the United States on 6 January 2020 came perilously close to the unimaginable: a rupture of the constitutional order. The system creaked and groaned – but ultimately held. Rather than a sign of weakness, the storming of the Capitol showed that American democracy can – and does – survive even the greatest challenges and upheaval.

Opportunistic criticism from leaders who deny their people a voice and say is not just gratuitous but downright malicious, bordering on the ridiculous. Imperfect and assailed as it may be, US democracy survived the events of early last year largely intact and with the preservation of the constitutional order and the rule of law. However, that brush with disaster should not lead to complacency.

Some may severely dislike Donald Trump, and fear his return to the White House, whilst others may hope and pray for that day, a narrow strip of common ground must be found to harbour a collective belief in the timeless values and institutions that ensure the supremacy of the will of the people. If the ‘people’ want to propel Mr Trump back into the White House then, however much others disagree, that will must be respected. Likewise, a second Trump Administration must in turn respect the confines of US democracy as imposed and maintained by the courts.

However, polarisation now runs amok in US politics and demagoguery seems at an all-time high with public discourse becoming ever more acerbic and fact-free. Today’s disconcerting political ambiance shows a chilling resemblance to the dystopian world depicted in Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 political novel It Can’t Happen Here which describes the rise and fall of a demagogue elected president of the United States on a patriotic platform. Although written at a time when fascist forces in Italy and Germany were on the ascendancy, the novel’s warnings seem equally applicable to present times.

Temptation

Whilst most readers would succumb to the temptation to see former president Donald Trump in the character of the power-hungry Buzz Windrip, that would also miss the point. Politics may be lively, with the frequent brinkmanship-like courting of disaster, a few good men is still all it takes to prevent a calamity. Though the Republican Party may presently be enthralled to its former president, that party is by no means monolithic and still contains plenty of honest politicians for whom the rule of law and the preservation of the constitutional order remain sacrosanct – and principles elevated well above mere party politics.

In fact, nearly every dystopian novel with a social slant may be misinterpreted and deployed as a dire warning of today’s supposed slide into political barbarism. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M Miller’s 1959 science fiction masterpiece, describes a faintly recognizable world in which knowledge and culture become despised in a process dubbed ‘simplification’ whereby anyone with a modicum of learning is being hunted down and killed – by ‘simpletons’ – until illiteracy prevails.

The progressive dumbing-down of the public debate – with the routine dismissal of expert opinion, the absence of fact-based arguments and the prevalence of alt-truths or ‘wokeism’ – is arguably a bigger threat to democracy than any single candidate. In today’s world, knowledge is no longer considered a key to power – and that is as disconcerting as the rule of partisan dogma.

Wheels of History

What was witnessed on 6 January in Washington may, ultimately, have been nothing more than the turning and churning of the wheels of history – also identified and described by Mr Miller: “All societies go through three phases. First there is the struggle to integrate in a hostile environment. Then, after integration, comes an explosive expansion of the culture-conquest, then a withering of the mother culture, and the rebellious rise of young cultures.”

With his summary, Mr Miller closely followed historians and philosophers such as Oswald Spengler (The Decline of the West: Outlines of a Morphology of World History) and Will Durant (The Story of Civilization) who saw the decline of civilization as the product of strife between religion (dogma) and secular intellectualism with convention and morality as fatalities of that clash.

One need only look at the outrageously outfitted QAnon Shaman strolling the hallowed corridors and halls of congressional power looking for ‘Satan-worshipping paedophiles’ to conclude that a revaluation of experience, expertise, education, and rationality is urgently needed.


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