American politics is roiling. It is getting vicious and America is getting angrier by the day. What we see is merely the surface, the shenanigans of the Republicans and the Democrats. The Democrats intent on showing who’s the boss now and the Republicans still clinging to the last vestiges of dignity, hoping against hope that their brand will survive the Trump assault.
But below this political struggle is a socio-cultural divide which is not only widening but also becoming more and more immune to the political processes that were supposed to bridge it. The assault on Capitol Hill on 06 January 2021 was not the culmination but merely the beginning of a process unfolding before the world – a process proclaiming that the institutional fabric of American democracy today is not held by that very basic value that sustains institutions: trust.
On being sworn in as President, Joe Biden said, “I will be a President for all Americans – whether you voted for me or not. I will keep the faith that you have placed in me”. But faith is what’s in short supply in America at the moment. And institutions cannot sustain in the absence of faith and trust. The world’s oldest democracy is meandering along with an unprecedented crisis of confidence. Institutions which have been created and nurtured over centuries now seem unable to respond to the challenges of this epoch. Institutions are inherently fragile and need constant vigilance.
Political democracy is the hardest institutional framework to sustain, precisely because it needs an emotional connect. Autocracies are disconnected from humans and so a mechanised bureaucracy is often enough to manage them. The Communist Party of China is one such bureaucracy that has become ever more efficient over the decades and so many in the chaotic democratic world often find the efficiency of that system appealing. But democracy and its institutions are hard work. They need to be nurtured with the very human values of trust, faith and responsibility.
Political democracy is the hardest institutional framework to sustain, precisely because it needs an emotional connect.
The disconnect between the political elites and the American hinterland has been growing for decades now. The Red-Blue divide manifested itself first in cultural terms and then in political. The hinterland was crying for attention but mainstream political establishment had too little time to understand its grievances. Donald Trump entered this void and filled it with his angry diatribes and irresponsible politics, one that played into the worst instincts of his disillusioned supporters. The other side responded with an equally vociferous agenda which was all aimed at discrediting Trump’s Presidency without engaging with the sources of his support base.
And so when Trump’s supporters were told that the 2020 elections were fair, they responded by asking about the 2016 elections in which they were told that Trump had won because of Russian interference. If the other side was so certain of the fraud in 2016, they asked, how can one be so certain of the electoral system’s fairness this time. Trump’s personal agenda coincided perfectly with this explosive situation and he played on it. He provoked the mob and the mob lit the fire, bringing to dust the reputation of American democracy built over centuries.
It is indeed ironic that on the surface, post-elections American institutions seem to have done their job well. The courts did not entertain attempts by Trump to litigate the outcome, the state governments did follow the rules in certifying the elections, and even Vice President Mike Pence rebuffed Trump on not certifying the electoral college votes. Some may see in this the underlying strength of American institutions. But that would be a fallacy: institutions don’t die overnight. In the absence of a broader support system of trust, they decay and degenerate, they rot from within. And one fine day, all that’s left is a hollow shell.
It is indeed ironic that on the surface, post-elections American institutions seem to have done their job well.
The Republicans have moved away from their conservative legacy, one which appreciates the frailty of institutions and therefore, believes in preserving the civilisational moorings of that system. The Democrats are being pushed to the other extreme by their own fringe where violence is implicitly justified for the larger good. The centre is struggling to hold. Biden is instinctively a centrist and he must surely recognise the challenge of governing with a split mandate which saw Trump increasing his 2016 vote total by more than 10 million votes and expanding his base to almost 50% of the electorate.
An America at war with itself can hardly be a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. And that’s the real challenge for the global order. As America comes to terms with its own internal fissures amid a fraying of its institutional fabric, the non-democratic powers will be freer than ever to set the global agenda. The institutional moorings of the extant international system are equally at stake. Biden will have to look beyond impeachment for answers.