A friend raises the question: “Did we overvalue American Democracy”? I’ll try two answers, one theoretical, the other about the possible aftermath of the attack on the US Congress.
In general, the condition of liberal democracy is a never-ending crisis. Democracy is the result of a perpetual conflict ruled by stable and legitimate institutions. It is never fully completed, even less is it perfect and pure.
The early settlers and the USA’s founding fathers developed and implemented the so-called democratic principles. They became broadly applied much earlier than in Europe, though through a number of controversies, stops, withdrawals and goes. Paradoxically, a perfect democracy is antinomic to a real democracy: thus, we can safely say that democracy never existed, neither in the USA nor elsewhere.
Nonetheless, American citizens have personally and collectively adopted two resilient beliefs:
(a) the awareness of living in a free country and the inviolability of people’s rights and dignity;
(b) a quasi-religious faith in their representative institutions, or better, their up-to-now unquestioned legitimacy which the people (with some “encouragement” by the ruling classes) accepted as the ultimate good.
We all still believe in point (a) and I dare say, to excess. Unfortunately, we have lost confidence in political and representative institutions, including the electoral systems. Therefore, the legitimacy of the democratic process, of the representatives and of old institutions, is quaking.
American democracy seems no longer such an impregnable castle, built on shared emotions and ideas. To a certain extent, democracy is a mood rather than a coherent and invulnerable apparatus.
Returning to the attack on the US Congress and to the original question (did we overestimate American Democracy?), my admittedly hesitant answer is “yes and no”.
In the USA, children begin learning democracy at elementary school – if not nursery school. More than in Europe, people assign great value to citizens’ well-regulated participation in public and collective decisions. One pays local taxes, is invited to a lot of committees, and vote on policy questions in the polls.
At the local level – or even at school or in the neighborhood – democratic participation is still possible. Nonetheless, big federal, state and big-city politics is deeply corrupted and unbearably oligarchic, and has been for many decades now.
Since the end of World War II, as many progressive scholars (who certainly cannot be blamed as anti-American) have remarked, the USA has transformed into an oligarchic political system and a military-based economy. We do not need to quote some extremist writer; it is enough to recall Paul Samuelson and John Kenneth Galbraith who advised John F. Kennedy and others.
Also, in the federal relationship between centre and periphery, the former has acquired increasing power. Trump is not the harbinger of crisis and transformation; he is rather the even-too-patent consequence of a populist drive that is challenging norms across the western world.
The trashy attack on Capitol Hill happened because politics, and specifically the President, no longer succeeded in synthesising the demands of conflicting vested interests, media and social groups. It is apparent how diverse and competing interests put pressure on the President.
This is no news: it is happening everywhere in the western democracies, except that in the USA, besides occupying the global limelight, the staging has been more flamboyant because of the peculiar personality of Donald Trump. The novelty of the situation, which climaxed in the seizure of the Capitol, is that, while in the past the President and other institutions had enough authority, legitimacy and consensus to achieve a blend, Trump failed by trying to deny legitimacy to opponents.
All during his mandate, until its very end, the President proved unable or unwilling to reconcile the ongoing conflict among powers, interests, factions, institutions, and social groups. Despite his bold announcements, Trump did not achieve his stated objectives, but further poisoned the social climate and accelerated institutional decay.
It goes without saying that some might be happy that Trump did not accomplish his platform: I myself am. Nonetheless, real democrats need to be seriously worried about the weakness of the President’s power. The questions are: does the survival of US democracy depend only on Trump’s political and administrative incompetence? Will President-elect Joe Biden be able to stabilise the political mood of the USA? Will Trump’s exaggerated reaction to his defeat, and his glee at the Capitol Hill attack, eventually counteract the populist infection, and the insult to American institutions?
Biden will certainly look more civil and his platform more balanced. Will Biden, however, be able to exercise an authentic democratic power, or will he be driven by uncontrollable, extra institutional forces of both vested interests and populist mob?
And what about the role of the net in mobilising the electorate and creating turmoil, should some faction be dissatisfied with the compromise and the decisions?
Democratic institutions are two or three centuries old. They no longer fit in the current culture and technology. It’s time for new institutional engineering – so-called constitutional reforms – that will result in institutions legitimated by people consensus.