Capitol Hill Riot Spotlights Flaws in American Democracy

Contributed by Amara Willey.

The riot on Capitol Hill last week and the storming of the legislature’s building underscores what happens when the players in democratic societies do not follow their prescribed roles.

True democracy is consensus-based, but that isn’t a viable form of governance in a large population, so we turn to the vehicle of voting, leaving us with winners and losers. Each of these groups has a role to play in a voting-based democracy.

Uri Friedman wrote in the Atlantic in October of 2016, before the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, “Winners and losers of elections have essential responsibilities in functioning democracies. Winners do not exact revenge on their opponent by, say, abusing the powers of their office and jailing that opponent, as the Republican candidate threatened to do at the second presidential debate. Losers do not refuse to accept the results of a vote judged free and fair by a country’s governing institutions.”

This sentiment was echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the hours following the riot on January 6. “A fundamental rule of democracy is that, after elections, there are winners and losers. Both have to play their role with decency and responsibility so that democracy itself remains the winner,” Merkel said.

The tacit understanding that our country’s continued democracy is dependent on requires that the majority respect and include the minority’s views and that the minority respect the institution of democracy and the dissenting role that it plays. This is how every level of government is intended to work, from the Supreme Court to local government.

There have been other elections when one candidate or the other has had to act based on what was best for the country even when it wasn’t what was best personally or for their party. For example, regarding the 2000 election, Gore chose to concede for the good of the country. “Instead of making a concession speech, [I could have] launched a four-year rear guard guerrilla campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the Bush presidency, and to mobilize for a rematch,” he told The Washington Post in 2002. “There’s so much riding on the success of any American president and taking the reins of power and holding them firmly, I just didn’t feel like it was in the best interest of the United States, or that it was a responsible course of action.”

So here we are four years after having elected a “disrupter” president, with what a number of politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are calling “a failed insurrection.”

“While lots of attention, money, and power flows to the winners, it is really the losers who are key to keeping democracy healthy,” writes Shaun Bowler, professor of political science at the University of California Riverside and a co-author of Losers’ Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacy. “Graceful concessions by losing candidates constitute a sort of glue that holds the polity together, providing a cohesion that is lacking in less-well-established democracies.

It’s just this danger that Bowler warned against that prompted the unprecedented attack on the legislative branch and begs the question, how do we shore up our democracy after Trump?

World leaders have condemned the riots and Trump’s part in them, including Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, saying, “The electoral system in the United States is archaic; it does not meet modern democratic standards, creating opportunities for numerous violations, and the American media have become an instrument of political struggle. This is largely the reason for the split in society now observed in the United States.”

Nick Ottens wrote in the Atlantic Sentinel in October of five steps that Democrats must take to protect democracy. These include abolishing the electoral college and the power monopoly the Democrats and Republicans hold, putting Congress first, making it easier to remove the president, and creating states of the federal territories that are not represented in the Senate: American Samoa, the American Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and Washington DC, which would help to balance the less populous states that are included in Senate representation.

Fixing a broken system will take time and may not be the first concern of President-Elect Joe Biden as he enters office amid an out-of-control pandemic and economic chaos. But perhaps the very difficulties the country faces will give America the opportunity to strengthen its democracy and unite its lawmakers.

Writing in the Toronto Star, Nomi Claire Lazar called the riots “the last, best hope for American democracy.” An associate professor of politics at Yale-NUS College in Singapore and at the University of Ottawa, Lazar explained that Trump’s actions that incited the mob gave Republicans cover to eschew Trump and his politics. “Republican politicians needed and were desperate for some politically viable means of returning to the centre [sic]. They needed an excuse to separate themselves from Trump. And the siege of the Capitol provided just this chance,” Lazar noted.

This sentiment was born out as several Republican senators, sheltering in place with Democrats in the hours between the breach of the Capitol building and the final electoral college vote, eventually removed their opposition to certification.

Lee Drutman, senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America, suggested in an opinion piece, “Democrats need to support these pro-democracy Republicans, whatever that might mean — perhaps giving them leadership roles on committees, or opportunities to introduce legislation, or roles in the crafting of spending bills that could help them with their re-elections,” citing those Republicans such as Utah Senator Mitt Romney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who have criticized Trump and his tactics.

What happened in Washington, DC last week was a spotlight on the disfunction of our democracy, and that is not going away on January 20th when Joe Biden is inaugurated. We need to stop thinking in terms of sides, of winners and losers, and work towards the idea that our government represents all Americans, or at least the 150 million voters who turned out in November.

As President-Elect Biden said in response to the events on January 6, “The work of the moment and the work of the next four years must be the restoration of democracy — of decency, honor, respect, the rule of law, just plain, simple decency. The renewal of the politics that’s about solving problems, looking out for one another, not stoking the flames of hate and chaos.”

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