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LMC 2023

US Democracy: A Second Heart Attack?

On 6 January 2021, America suffered a massive heart attack. The entire world watched as Washington, the seat of national power, a symbol of international egalitarianism, and the last remaining superpower was engulfed in a smoky cauldron of violent anarchy. When the sun set, it was not clear if American democracy would survive.

JJ Green
J.J. Green

National Security Correspondent at WTOP
US President Joe Biden at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on 21 April 2023. Photo:

Thousands who – incorrectly but deeply – believed that the 2020 Presidential election had been “stolen” followed Donald Trump’s call to take action and rioted. Meanwhile, he watched it unfold on television inside the White House.

The mob interrupted the congressional process designed to verify whether their claims held any merit. January 6th had been a cloudy, grey, cold, and depressing weather day that ironically marked a miserable moment in history for American democracy.  By sunrise on 7 January, American democracy was as fragile as ever, but the presidency had survived.

America’s fresh start is stalling

When then-President-Elect Joe Biden, heroically, took the oath of office on 20 January 2021, he said,

“This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day. A day of history and hope. Of renewal and resolve. Through a crucible for the ages America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge. Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy. The will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded. We have learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”

He promised to repair, restore, heal, and build. America needed a fresh start. Mr Biden gave America that start. But unfortunately, it was a fresh start that utilised some of the same tactics that opened the door to the division in America that Trump and his supporters had seized upon.

A key mistake was dismissing the voices of seasoned US allies as American military forces departed Afghanistan in 2021 – a spectacle triggered by the Trump administration but finished by the Biden team. It stumbled again by ousting and replacing America’s oldest ally – France, in a nuclear submarine deal with Australia.

And this fresh start – which promised everyone’s voice would be heard – quickly turned into a stalled start as public efforts to market Biden’s plan to Americans relied on the same few tightly controlled media platforms. Only a select few journalists have been given extraordinary access, while others have been largely and somewhat impudently ignored, slow-walked, or flatly denied access.

Democracy is not a tidy business

Biden is seeking a second term, while battling chronically low poll numbers. Many disappointed Americans are looking for other options. The problem is that the quest to achieve quick and politically valuable results often requires leaving out the diligence, sincerity, respect, and understanding that can lead to sustainable and fundamental change.

The recent leak of classified Pentagon documents can be blamed in part on Washington’s longstanding embrace and encouragement of the culture of leaking and its willingness to lie for the so-called greater good. It is that culture that led to the embarrassment that befell the nation on 6 January. It is that culture that continues to betray efforts to rejuvenate American democracy.

Sceptics question whether the Biden administration can achieve what it has promised. He must, however, first overcome roadblocks set up by some of his self-absorbed political teammates and the opportunistic box-checkers that are using this moment and his administration to enrich themselves, politically and financially. Their objective is simply and solely to live above the mounting problems facing ordinary Americans, rather than making the hard sacrifices to help solve them.

Peace and economic opportunity here at home, stability abroad, and for the US to remain a strong and influential beacon of international goodwill are what many want.

But the path to achieving those lofty goals is littered with impediments, many of which have nothing to do with the policies and practices of the President of the United States, but rather how the people of the United States feel about each other. 

A rising tide of gun violence has exposed what appears to be a preference to shoot each other rather than work out even simple misunderstandings. Every citizen must play a role in the democracy experiment. It cannot be left up to the nation’s leaders to work it out, because democracy, like charity, begins at home with each one of us.

In a speech on 3 April 2001, Estonia’s President Lennart Meri said:

“Democracy is an atmosphere that gives every individual the opportunity to realise himself or herself as a citizen according to his or her best abilities. It is not a simple political system; it may be the most complicated one, and it is, in any case, a system that must, day after day, also reproduce the certainty, the security that the system will prevail.”

Those remarks essentially mean that it takes mature and well-educated people with a strong sense of self-responsibility to lead and support democracy. That endeavour must be underpinned by an eagerness to treat each other fairly and with respect.

But democracy, as the president alluded to, is not a tidy business. Occasions to use shortcuts to achieve the appearance of democracy present themselves daily. But the temptation must be resisted because the problem with shortcuts is that they do not address all of the issues that support a strong democracy. And those unaddressed problems – and short-sighted, often exclusionary actions that ultimately divide people – will resurface again and again.

Donald Trump is re-emerging as a presidential candidate. He has never admitted that what happened on 6 January 2021 was his fault in any way. His cast of supporters is reassembling, slowly.

Anyone who has suffered a heart attack is well aware that the immediate hours, days, weeks, and months to follow are critical to their survival. Unless lifestyle changes take place, another – possibly fatal – cardiac event is almost certain to occur. America is dangerously teetering on the brink of that second heart attack.

It has been said many times and in many different ways throughout history that those who forget the past are destined to repeat it.

Global with JJ Green

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