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by James Mitchell
08 January 2021
Comment: Violence at the US Capitol was years in the making

Supporters of President Donald Trump storm the US Capitol

Comment: Violence at the US Capitol was years in the making

American politics at the start of 2021 will be remembered for two very different reasons but the extraordinary scenes on Capitol Hill will dominate.  Pictures of the horned, bare-chested, face-painted insurgent will become the image of the time.  We will learn his name and, no doubt, much about his background will be poured over for clues to understand this sordid episode in American politics.  On the same day, Congress ratified the election of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, while Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were elected as Senators for Georgia. But the devil has the best images.

Books and theses will be written, myths created and there will be no settled interpretation of what happened on Capitol Hill.  At this stage, so close to events, it is difficult to make sense of what amounted to an attempted coup in the country with the oldest surviving written constitution. Some will see Trump’s failure to usurp power as evidence that the Constitution worked. 

American ‘Founding Father’ James Madison, in perhaps his most famous Federalist essay, referred to the need for ‘proper checks and balances’ and that ‘Ambition must be made to counteract ambition’.  Madison and colleagues were determined to avoid the corruption of European monarchical rule and America has benefited from that foresight. But the constitution also contributed to problems.  Madisonian ‘checks and balances’ may have prevented Trump’s efforts to take control but also contributed to the gridlock that afflicts much American policy-making and blocks much-needed reforms. 

The multiple veto points in the policy-making system undermines efforts to develop much-needed policies.  It suits advocates of the minimal state but hurts the poor, the forgotten and marginalised.  One branch of the constitution can too easily limit reform initiated elsewhere (though policy initiatives at state level have also provided the impetus of many progressive reforms).  The appalling state of American health care and welfare can be seen as a cost of this otherwise positive constitutional feature. Constitutional design involves trade-offs and recognition that there is no perfect constitution.

Constitutions are important.  They provide the ‘rules of the game’ and like any set of rules they can favour one group over another.  The American constitution was drawn up by rich, white wealthy slave owners. The soaring rhetoric of independence has often hidden the hideous nature of the constitutional settlement.  Constitutional amendments and new interpretations have chipped away at the worst elements but have ultimately failed to alter the fundamentals of American life.  It was a settlement with path-dependent qualities.  In other words, it has been difficult to alter its terms over time.  Constitutions are super-institutions which embody, create and help perpetuate interests.  Getting it right at the start affects not just the first generation but future generations.  Dead men from the age of American independence still rule.

But that is only a small part of the story.  Wider societal and economic forces created conditions that resulted in Trump’s election.  There is a scene in Back to the Future when ‘Doc’ Brown challenges Marty, ‘Then tell me, future boy, who’s President of the United States in 1985?’  The Doc’s incredulity in 1955 that Ronald Reagan was president was priceless.  But should we have been surprised that someone like Donald Trump was elected in 2016?  Leave aside the abject failure of US authorities to prepare for this insurgency the deeper causes are what ought to concern us.

A vast literature on populism has provoked heat and argument though some agreement exists that alienation, disempowerment and dislocation in these economically turbulent times has been important.  There is, however, a gulf between prodding, cajoling then regurgitating the views of the discontented and understanding discontent.  We need to look long and hard at what happened and not pretend that this was a case of American exceptionalism.  Faragism is very different from listening, empathising and engaging.  David Lammy’s book Tribes deserves a wide readership as a model of empathy and understanding.  It is not necessary to agree with all of his proposals (I don’t) to see value in the book.

The problems lie much deeper and further back than the current political turbulence and these years of austerity.  In The Culture of Contentment, published almost thirty years ago, J.K. Galbraith argued that a contented majority had turned their backs on large sections of society.  A few years back a senior politician (no longer politically active) told a seminar, under Chatham House rules, that there were parts of the country that politicians did not bother with as they knew there were no votes to be won.  It was an honest but shocking admission.  We are paying a cost for this failure.

There was a period not so long ago when the orthodox view was that once established democracies tended to take root and were difficult, though not impossible, to overthrow.  Today, we are in danger of assuming that democracies are very fragile.  Willie Sullivan put it well, ‘Once it has taken root, democracy is tenacious and adaptive, but it is not inevitable that it either stays or progresses.’  Leaving it all to formal constitutional rules is dangerous.  Changes are needed in everyday policies.  Checks and balances are needed not only in our formal institutions but in our informal institutions, in how we conduct our debates.  Checking our language is needed.  Accusations of lying and fascism are all too common and devalue these terms, losing their impact when really needed.  And we desperately need to rebalance our economy and society.  Many people have legitimate grievances (‘grievance politics’ is a term used fondly by the privileged) and have been easy picking for Trump and his likes not least given the lack of alternatives.  Remove the causes of these grievances should go some way to undermining populism.

There will be much plaintive handwringing on the state of democratic institutions over the coming weeks and months.  Some balance is required to understand the threat and how to combat it.  Dwelling exclusively on the Capitol would be wrong.  We should not forget the election of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia, the first Jewish Senator in the Deep South since Reconstruction and the first African American in Georgia respectively.  Balance demands we should not forget that start to 2021.



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