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US might recoil from Capitol siege. But its democracy will remain riven by internal conflicts

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: It is hard to shake off the feeling that liberal democracy in America will continue to come under more stress, riven by its own internal conflicts and confusion of values.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
Updated: January 8, 2021 8:42:01 am
Pro-Trump supporters gather outside the US Capitol on January 6.

One of the more intriguing quotations associated with the Capitol Hill complex is by Rufus Choate, “We have built no temples but the Capitol, and we consult no common oracle but the Constitution.” On January 6, the Capitol was symbolically desecrated, and the authority of the Constitution was challenged. The desecration was not carried out by external enemies, but encouraged by the President of the United States, egging on loutish and armed groups like the Proud Boys to intimidate an elected Congress. They, some of them armed, made it to the inner precincts of Congress and disrupted the proceedings. In one instant, that indelible image damaged the reputation of American democracy.

This breakdown in order was also attended by a confusion in language. What was this: A coup d’etat, an armed insurrection, a violent protest, an act of sedition? Whatever the technicalities, there is no doubt that this was an attempt to subvert the democratic process, and had the full blessings of the Commander in Chief, and of sections of the Republican Party. It is also tempting to see America as a Hollywood movie writ large; a pantomime show full of guns, violence and cartoon characters that fundamentally change nothing. Its institutions have shown great resilience. The electoral process stood up to President Trump’s assault. State officials and courts discharged their duty. Revulsion against Trump played a part in giving Democrats control of the Senate. Trump’s most powerful enablers, from Mitch McConnell to Mike Pence, withdrew from the precipice. Trump’s endgame will soon be over. But there is good reason to think that this storming of the Capitol may be part of a continuing nightmare, not an ephemeral bad dream.

The assault on the Capitol is a sign of many challenges. The first is the racial question. The politics of protest will remain racialised. It is difficult not to wonder if a Black Lives Matter kind of movement would have been allowed to assault the Capitol in this way; there is more than a touch of white entitlement here. But the Right has also convinced itself that it is the victim, that it is the Left that condones lawlessness. The distinction between a movement for justice and inclusion and a movement for the subversion of democracy will be lost in this partisan construction of protest.

Second, there is now going to be more generalised partisan suspicion of state agencies. If it is true, as appears to be the case, that the police did not do all it could to stop this storming, might even have mildly encouraged it, and is reluctant to arrest protestors, it will expose law enforcement agencies to even more conspiracy theories, about which sections of the state are part of which party’s deep state. When the instruments of order are not perceived to be neutral, it is a continuing problem for order. And the challenge is that it is hard to convince citizens of the political neutrality of institutions like the police after visible incidents like these. This is not a new problem, but it now goes to the heart of political partisanship at the highest level.

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The third challenge is something the brilliant political scientist Paul Staniland has been alerting us to for years: The possibility of the growing militarisation of US politics. The US has always had an infrastructure of armed right wing groups like the Ku Klux Klan. But there now seems to be a reversal to a political climate where the mainstream political process openly legitimises them to an unprecedented degree. In a sense, cultivating a fear of a right-wing backlash is a time-honoured strategy to pressure the centre and the middle. One of the unintended challenges of Democrats controlling both Houses will be that discontent with politics now takes an extra political turn.

The result in Georgia was a testament to what political hard work can accomplish. But governing America, even with Democrats controlling both Houses of government, will not be easy. The most important transformation over the last few years is the institutionalisation of the infrastructure of hate and demagoguery across institutions, from media to civil society. This infrastructure is not going to vanish easily. Its goals are not just electoral victories. There is also a touch of cultural nihilism in this discourse, a will to cross all boundaries, that is not easily captured by our language of interests. How else would Trump take the place of Jesus? How else does one explain the deep QAnon conspiracist mindset that has taken more hold in politics than one could have imagined?

The Republican Party may have pulled away from the brink. But there is little sign that it will not continue to fuel the politics of resentment.

The Democrats will face two challenges. The divisions papered over in the battle over Trump will likely ensure that that small window of opportunity afforded for transformative change may not yield lasting results. And as the pandemic worsens, the convenient narrative of blaming it all on Trump will also begin to fall apart: After all, Democratic states like California and New York also have dismal records. The possibility of growing generalised distrust of the liberal democratic project cannot be ruled out.

Strong institutions can be, for a while, compatible with a deepening civil war of sorts, as conflicts get removed from the arena of bargaining to more fundamental conflicts of identity. But the lines of what is acceptable in politics have also shifted each time. America might recoil from the incident at Capitol Hill, invoke the 25th Amendment to protect the republic from further harm, or impeach Trump to send a message. But that American democracy has come to this is already a sign of its potential for strife.

There is a great deal of creativity in America. Technological disruption and economics have the power to change the narrative. But it is hard to shake off the feeling that liberal democracy in America will continue to come under more stress, riven by its own internal conflicts and confusion of values. The rest of the world might feel some schadenfreude at America’s divisions. But regimes in Moscow and Beijing quietly taking succour from the Capitol falling is not good for global freedom either.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 8, 2021 under the title ‘America attacks America’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.

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