Commentary: A year from the insurrection and American democracy is shaky
The Capitol Hill insurrection has only shown how divided American society has become, say two global policy observers.
WASHINGTON, DC: The anniversary of the Jan 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol has come and gone, and many Americans are deeply depressed that the country’s political divide has only deepened.
Though most Republican Party leaders condemned the attack at the time, the GOP has since internalised former President Donald Trump’s web of lies and falsehoods about the 2020 election, which he lost by seven million votes.
Republicans have largely refused even to participate in the congressional investigation into the matter.
A year after a sitting president tried to overturn the results of a fair and lawful election, the effort to identify and prosecute those responsible now must compete for attention with other security crises: Russian troops massing near Ukraine; Iran nearing the threshold of nuclear breakout; and humanitarian catastrophes in Afghanistan and Yemen.
Faced with all this, American leaders will be tempted to draw a bright line between home and abroad. But doing so would be both risky and wrong.
America’s profound polarisation reflects a society whose members no longer share a core understanding of what it means to be “secure.” Americans tend to have widely divergent experiences – across racial, religious, and gender lines – with US domestic security institutions.
Trust in the US military and security forces used to be consistently high; now, it is falling, alongside trust in the rest of America’s government institutions.
Americans no longer agree about who or what constitutes a threat, with Democrats much more likely to cite internal cohesion and political violence, and Republicans more concerned with traditional nation-state foes.
Moreover, Americans are divided by ideology and age over whether people and ideas from elsewhere are an opportunity or a threat.
These divisions, and the resulting policy gridlock, would be bad enough in isolation. But the rest of the world is watching, and it sees a society that cannot agree on what democracy is, or on who belongs to the demos.
THE WORLD WATCHES
In the World Bank’s Combined Polity Score index, the US has been downgraded from a longstanding score of 10, the highest for a democracy, to a five, meaning it is on the verge of anocracy: A democracy with authoritarian characteristics.
Around the world, those who have been inspired by leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King are now haunted by images of the Confederate flag being waved in the halls of Congress.
Allies whose ties to the US go back to World War II now see US elected officials embracing Holocaust deniers.
Neither friend nor foe believes that the US can or will deliver on its long-term promises anymore, whether in the realm of vaccine distribution, climate accords, or nuclear deals.
If you are American and this description sounds exaggerated, you should look to your northern neighbour.
In Canada, with which the US shares the world’s longest unfortified border, top media outlets marked the January 6 anniversary with a debate over, “What to do about the likely unravelling of democracy in the United States.”
Back at home, American political scientist Barbara F Walter, a leading global expert on civil wars, writes in a new book, “Most Americans cannot imagine another civil war in their country. But this is because they don’t know how civil wars start.”
Americans need to recognise that the erosion of their democracy is as much a foreign-policy matter as it is a domestic one.
Those Republicans and Democrats who are still willing to work together on key international issues need to accept that this also requires working together to shore up core democratic norms at home.
Those norms are foundational to everything the US wants to achieve abroad. At a minimum, they include a rejection of violence and hate speech, strong protections for voting rights, and non-partisan election administration.
Conservatives who urge the Biden administration to act tougher abroad should stop to consider what constant right-wing harping about the “Big Steal” looks like to the rest of the world.
US leaders from across the political spectrum could send a far more compelling message by demonstrating a willingness to repair the cracks in American democracy. The capacity to do that has historically been one of America’s greatest strengths.
After all, we have been here before. A half-century ago, American democracy was tested by a president who was forced to resign and by a security establishment that misled the country into a catastrophic war.
This prompted a broad effort to address systemic flaws. And while the solutions were imperfect, they nonetheless succeeded in restoring the prestige of US institutions for the next four decades – both at home and abroad.
What might such an effort look like now? Senator Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota, recently mustered the courage to buck Trump, telling ABC News: “The election was fair, as fair as we have seen. We simply did not win the election, as Republicans, for the presidency.”
That is a good start. But without progress in tackling the full range of problems with US elections – who gets to vote and how the votes are counted – neither Republicans nor Democrats can hold their heads high in the court of global public opinion.
The responsibility doesn’t lie only with Congress, of course. In its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance published last March, President Biden’s administration made clear that, “our role in the world depends upon our strength and vitality here at home.”
Since then, Biden has signed bills and implemented policies allocating billions of dollars to research and development in strategic industries, physical infrastructure, and a better social infrastructure.
Again, that is a good start. But suppose the administration took its own logic a step further and declared openly that threats to our democracy are also threats to our security?
The Director of National Intelligence has already warned that violent political extremism – a euphemism for domestic terrorism – poses a greater risk to Americans than Islamist terrorism does.
With America’s crumbling political norms and violence-tinged factionalism, is it any wonder that only 17 per cent of the world’s democracies view the US as a country to emulate?
It is time for Americans, or at very least those who aim to represent the US in the world, to see themselves as others do, without excuses and rationalisations.
Anne-Marie Slaughter is CEO of the think tank New America and Heather Hurlburt is Director of the New Models of Policy Change Initiative at New America. PROJECT SYNDICATE.