The sixth of January will be remembered as a day of infamy in the history of American democracy. On this day, the world witnessed a fanatical pro-Donald Trump mob breaking into the United States Capitol to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. Trump lost the election, called it ‘fraudulent’ and refused to concede. Earlier that day, Trump had incited the armed mob to reject the results of the election and ‘march to the Capitol’.
When the mob broke into the Capitol, the elected representatives in the House and the Senate were going through the constitutionally mandated formality of certifying Biden’s victory. According to reports, security personnel managed to usher them into hiding about three minutes before the mob got there. An ongoing investigation of the break-in suggests the attack was part of a planned, coordinated insurgency to return Trump to the White House for a second term.
That this should happen in the world’s first constitutional democracy, in a country which prides itself as the ‘beacon of democracy’ and in a country which democrats from all over the world for many years have viewed as a source of inspiration, is numbing. But it did happen! How did it impact America’s democratic promise? What is its impact on aspiring democracies?
President Woodrow Wilson (1913- 21) was the first American president to champion the promotion of democracy outside the US. He saw this as an essential part of the country’s national security strategy. He called for the democratisation of Europe. After the Second World War, the US helped establish democracy in Germany and Japan. It also supported democratic movements in South Korea and Taiwan. But the scope and intensity of America’s support for global democratic movements lacked consistency. It varied depending on the overall political environment of the time, and the personal views of the incumbent in the White House about America’s role in the world.
During the Cold War years, America would call for the democratisation of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries but would coddle Latin American dictators as long as they resisted the expansion of communists in their respective countries. It even went as far as plotting to dismantle duly elected democratic governments they suspected to be left-leaning, for example, Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran (1953) and Allende of Chile (1972), and replacing them with US stooges.
America’s flip-flop after the Tiananmen massacre in China (1989) is particularly telling. Immediately after the massacre, the US imposed several sanctions on China for human rights abuses. It passed a bill that linked its trading relations with China’s performance on human rights. About four years later, under pressure from US business, Congress decoupled US-China trading policies with China’s human rights performance. Since then, the US has been, for all practical purposes, indifferent to China’s human rights abuses.
America’s long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia is another example of its commercial interest trumping over its democratic promise. The Saudi government is one of the most heinous, undemocratic human rights abusing governments in the world, yet the US does little to stop its abuses. Inconsistencies such as these have worked in favour of the sceptics of America’s commitment to the promotion of democracy and human rights. The four years of Trump and the almost total acquiescence of the Republication Party to his anti-democratic ways have turned the scepticism to cynicism.
Under Trump, America’s image as the paragon of democracy suffered more than ever before. He exacerbated white supremacy, thwarted all norms of decency and ethical conduct, coddled dictators, disparaged the free press, encouraged the disenfranchisement of blacks and so on. His conduct shook American democracy to such an extent that the dregs that lay beneath its superficial shine bubbled up. The flotsam is ugly.
Until recently, in the developing world, the idea of America conjured up the image of a country with vast military power, enormous wealth, mind-boggling technological prowess, great universities, amazing infrastructures and so on. Add to that the ‘rule of law’, ‘freedom of speech and the press’ and the ‘peaceful transfer of power’, and the country became the inspiration for a successful democracy. It turns out, American democracy, examined in its totality, is not what it appeared to be until Trump came to power. Its muchvaunted success is hopelessly lopsided. Recent events show it is beginning to lose even its core values.
The claim of the rule of law rings hollow when it cannot prosecute a president who incites an insurgency. In the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index’ for 2020, the US ranked 21st out of 128 countries. On the equal treatment and absence of discrimination list, the World Justice Project puts it in the 98th place out of 128 countries. Its claim of freedom of the press becomes unsustainable when its journalists are routinely threatened. In a 2019 International Press Freedom Organisation report, America occupied the 48th spot out of 180 countries for journalists to work. The claim of peaceful transfer of power’ was severely undermined during the inauguration of Joe Biden. Washington, DC had to be protected by over 25,000 security personnel to ensure safety during the ceremony.
It is evident that America has lost any moral authority to claim leadership of the democratic world, and question other countries’ suppression of democracy and abuse of human rights. Emerging democracies have no country to look up to for support. In an increasingly competitive world where totalitarian leaders like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are debunking the idea of democracy and claiming ideological superiority of their authoritarian system of governance, American democracy has lost ground.
Turning around America and making it a just society for all Americans and re-establishing its image as a global champion of democracy and human rights is virtually impossible without major changes in its constitution or without a progressive’s supermajority in the House and the Senate. Joe Biden’s majority, both in the House and the Senate, is razorthin. The beacon is dimming, and this is not good for anyone who values democracy and human rights.
The Kathmandu Post/ANN.