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“Democracies are always vulnerable”
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“Democracies are always vulnerable”

The 6 January attack on the Capitol says as much about the fragility of democracy as it does about American politics.

6 minutes
19 January 2021

The storming of the U.S. Capitol Building on 6 January was a shocking act of political violence. To make sense of this attack, the second impeachment of President Trump, and the implications for the inauguration of Joe Biden, we spoke with KU Leuven professors Bart Kerremans and Stefan Rummens to gain some much-needed context to recent events in the United States.

The assault on the Capitol elicited a range of emotions in the lawmakers, journalists and police who were present that day, but one unlikely emotion kept coming up in interviews afterwards: sadness. Sadness for the building, one that escaped being a target on 9/11 only to have its windows and symbolic ornamentation shattered by an unruly mob. Sadness for the lives lost that day, including that of a Capitol Police officer who died in the line of duty. And, most importantly, sadness for their democracy, one that has stood for more than 200 years, but whose existence for the next 200 has suddenly been cast into doubt.

The roots of the riot run deep through American history and culture, but the immediate cause was clear: the sincere belief that President Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 presidential election. President Trump and his supporters claim there was widespread voter fraud and that the invasion of the Capitol was necessary to halt the counting of Electoral College ballots. To their minds, only this dramatic act could restore Trump’s rightful victory and, in effect, restore true democracy.

To be frank, this belief is nonsense. Trump’s lawsuits have been thrown out of court, and no state investigations have found meaningful fraud. There is simply no proof of these allegations. Why then, do roughly 70-80% of Trump voters believe the election was stolen? How is it possible for so many people to hold so tightly to a conspiratorial idea that is so plainly wrong?

Toward the extremes

According to professors Kerremans and Rummens, the siloing of political reality is neither new nor uniquely American. Professor Rummens refers to political theorist Hannah Arendt and her work on the origins of totalitarianism in Germany in the 1930s, arguing that the threat is not “propaganda as a means of spreading lies, but more fundamentally, that propaganda undermines the distinction between truth and falsehoods.” Professor Kerremans, too, notes the long legacy of American policy makers who have exploited fear for political gain, from McCarthyism in the 1950s to Nixon’s “silent majority” in the 1970s.

The structure of American politics also plays some role in fanning the flames of division. Unlike parliamentary systems, the first-past-the-post system employed in American elections efficiently divides the electorate into two camps. As Professor Kerremens notes, “This generates a bipolar party system that amplifies this opposition between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. Yet there are other bipolar systems that do not lead to this very extreme opposition between two camps that we regularly see in the United States, such as in the U.K.”

Nevertheless, European democracies face their own challenges. Professor Rummens points to one nation in particular: “I always keep coming back to the example of Hungary. It’s a very different situation, but there you also have an authoritarian leader who has installed something that looks more like a dictatorship than a democracy at the heart of the European Union. So in Europe we are not immune from that undermining of democratic systems.”

Biden web

Preserving democracy

Yet this devolution of democracy is not inevitable. Robust democracy can be secured using available tools, such as a strong mainstream media able to cut across the siloing effect of social media. “The data show that the trust in people and politicians and the overall quality of the public debate is better in countries where you have a strong public broadcasting system, like we still have in Belgium.”

Both professors agree that, in the end, democracy must be defended by its citizens, not by the guardrails of governmental structure. As Professor Rummens notes, “The lesson that we learn again is that democracies are always vulnerable. A democratic culture in a society means the willingness of everybody to uphold that democratic culture, and act and talk accordingly. This is a major issue in America, the total lack of democratic responsibility taken by the Republican party. Tolerating that kind of behaviour, going along with the concept of the ‘stolen election’, despite all the evidence to the contrary. As long as leading politicians continue to lie, continue to demonise their opponents, democracy cannot work. The key element of what makes politics democratic is that that antagonism also takes in the legitimacy of the opponent. Yes, you can mobilise a struggle, but there should always be that basic respect for an opponent as a legitimate participant in the democratic struggle. And that has gone away in the Republican party for some time.”

Professor Kerremans agrees: “The problem here is that you start to present people who disagree with you as your enemy. You start to suspect them of incorrect or indecent motives, which is wrong.”

Not impeaching means saying that what happened last week is tolerable.

Picking up the pieces

Taking action to protect democracy when it is attacked is also vital. The immediate result of the attack on American democracy has been the rapid prosecution of the rioters and a second impeachment of President Trump. It was a necessary step, according to Professor Kerremans: “Not impeaching means saying that what happened last week is tolerable. It is intolerable! It clearly is an impeachable offense, so Trump had to be impeached. Given that, the Democrats made the right choice.”

It is now up Joe Biden to mend the broken political landscape Trump is leaving in his wake. Fortuitously, this has always been Biden’s message, running as a unity candidate who pledged to heal the nation’s wounds. Yet so far he’s only managed to unify his fellow Democrats, and Biden begins his administration facing a Republican party that remains loyal to Trump. He will also face steep opposition in Congress from the same politicians who refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of his electoral win in November.

Despite the political challenges, Professor Kerremans believes that, “The best thing Biden can do for the credibility of U.S. democracy is going for his agenda. Going to the American people and saying, ’You know, you can debate whether I've been elected to legitimately or illegitimately, but I'm going to show you that there is a president here, and that there is a president who is concerned about you and the things that you have to confront in your daily life.’”

President Biden has some renewed hope in pursuing his agenda. On the same day the Capitol was attacked, Democratic candidates won both open Senate seats in Georgia, giving Democrats slim majorities in both branches of Congress. With this power, Biden can be assured that his Cabinet and judicial nominees will be approved, and he’ll have the opportunity to pass a yearly budget by a simple majority. It’s not much, but if Biden hopes to restore faith in the functioning of the government, it could be crucial.

The difficulties for American democracy have never been clearer. At the same time, the inauguration of President Biden offers another chance to affirm the indelible words of a different president, Abraham Lincoln, who proclaimed that, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”