New York (BrusselsMorning) January 6th will mark one year since the violent insurrection at the US Capitol that sought to disrupt the certification of President Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. A significant anniversary that we should recognise and reflect upon, it should not be overlooked that 2022 also marks the sixth year in a row that has begun with US democracy in crisis.
On 1 January, 2017, Barack Obama was still in the White House, yet the country had just experienced an election in which the winning candidate had already threatened to restrict freedom of the media and run an overtly racist campaign which included calls for disallowing Muslims into the country, accused Mexican immigrants of being rapists and closed with anti-Semitic tropes that, had they been translated into Russian, would not have looked out of place in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And, speaking of Russia, the winning candidate – Donald Trump – had benefited from interference by the Kremlin in the 2016 election. That crisis only worsened during his four years as president, since every January 1st, from 2018 to-2021, the US greeted New Year’s Day with a deepening democratic crisis.
What is past has not passed
Fortunately, the Trump presidency is, for now, a thing of the past, but despite the significance of Joe Biden’s victory in 2020, US democracy is far from being on a stable footing, not least because there remains a real possibility that Trump will get elected again in 2024, or at the very least be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee and therefore in a position to drag the country, once again, through his web of paranoia, conspiracy mongering, bigotry and shrilled accusations that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, many seemed to think that defeating Donald Trump would restore democracy in the US. That was never going to be true and the last 12 months have made that evident to all but the most pollyannish partisan Democrat. Biden’s first year in office has been marked by an emerging GOP consensus that the January 6th insurrection was not a big deal, by efforts by Republican-run states to limit the franchise and by an aggressive right-wing disinformation campaign centred on opposition to COVID-19 vaccines. All of this helped to further destabilise the US and deepen the crisis of democracy.
In the summer of 2015, it may have been possible to think of Trump, and Trumpism as phenomena that would quickly disappear. Even during Trump’s presidency, many looked to the Mueller Report, impeachment or electoral defeat in the belief that, one way or another, they would have the same effect. It is now clear that these notions were wrong and that we are six years into a crisis that may be with us for a lot longer. Not only are the divisions extremely deep, but they cannot be resolved easily. Chatter about civil war or breaking the country into smaller parts has gained greater traction, but, in a country that is so large and complex with polarisation only vaguely reinforcing geographical divisions, breakup is unlikely and would be devastating if indeed it did occur.
Authoritarianism remains strong
At the outset of 2022, US voters need to understand that the struggle for democracy may still be in its early stages. The damage that the Trump era did to the political fabric of the country cannot be easily undone. The coronavirus crisis, which began at the tail end of the Trump era, only exacerbated that damage while further exposing and deepening the longstanding problems of wealth inequality and systemic racism. The first year of the Biden administration should be a reminder that the authoritarian movement that Trump still leads is quite strong and is supported by a very large minority of Americans. This is not the kind of crisis that gets resolved by one, two or three election victories by the party of democracy over the party of authoritarianism.
The real work of building US democracy, making it more difficult for future authoritarian movements to succeed and restabilising the country is much more difficult than simply winning an election and should not be measured in electoral cycles. At its core, this work requires recognising not just the threat represented by Trump and an authoritarian GOP. There is a need to recognise that the Constitution itself institutionalises undemocratic structures, which, in recent years, have contributed to the rise of authoritarianism.
Crafting a system and building institutions that facilitate democracy in a country as large and diverse as the US is agonizingly difficult. However, it can begin with such basics as national election laws that guarantee the right to the franchise, electoral systems that treat all votes equally and by directly confronting the enduring legacy of the US’s racist past. None of this is going to be easy, but we are now six years into a crisis of democracy that will continue, at varying paces, to get worse unless we begin this hard work.