Fragile democracy

Former US President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial may have ended in an expected acquittal but the hearings in the Senate highlighted just how close democracy in the world’s most powerful country had come to destruction. The airing of previously unseen footage and recordings of emergency calls by the Capitol police showed that the peaceful transition of power that Americans have taken for granted for two centuries could well have ended differently. Armed white supremacist mobs, inflamed by Mr Trump’s speeches near the White House, had penetrated deep into the seat of the federal legislative branch. Visuals of intruders breaking doors and windows to enter the building, of then vice president Mike Pence, a particular target, and then Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer narrowly missing encounters with the attackers even as others ransacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s chamber, offered the world a chilling spectacle of the destructive power of rampant demagoguery over the institutions of democracy. From the footage, it is evident that only the courage of some members of the security forces prevented carnage of bigger dimensions.

Nobody understood this better than President Joe Biden, who commented that “this sad chapter in our history has reminded us that democracy is fragile”. Mr Biden’s statement also made the important point that democracy “must always be defended”. This much was obvious on January 6, when a shaken Congress reconvened and voted to validate the results of the US presidential elections hours after the attack. But neither that vote nor Mr Biden’s public inauguration on January 20 has expunged Trumpism, that blend of amoral right-wing authoritarian populism, from American politics, pointing to the level of vigilance that is required to ensure democratic institutions prevail. Nearly 147 Republicans voted to overturn the election results on January 6, and, despite seven Republicans voting with the Democrats, the failure of the Senate to reach the requisite two-thirds majority for impeachment shows that the dangers have not passed. Much will depend on the course the Republican Party takes in the months ahead. Some commentators predict a split, with centrist Republicans forming a new party. This may be a desirable outcome but one of the cold realities of even vibrant democracies is that politics depends on money. Although it is clear that Mr Trump was guilty of inciting the mob that attacked the Capitol, major donors have shown no sign of withdrawing their support to him or his brand of extreme right-wing politics.

To sustain the democracy of which they are so proud, Americans and their politicians will have to commit themselves afresh to respecting the rules and institutions that make up the essential guardrails of their system. It is not a lesson that is easily absorbed. In India, the experience of the Emergency suggested that dark period in the country’s fledgling democracy would never be repeated. Although leaders since have not been naïve enough to risk their political capital in this manner, the systematic weakening of the institutions of governance — judiciary, executive, legislative — and the strengthening of authoritarian power over free speech, individual freedoms, and culture point to the wilful undermining of democracy. Warts and all, the US has shown that defending these hard-won freedoms is a work in progress and eminently worth the candle when set against the sinister authoritarianism of China, the world’s rising superpower. It is a pity few Indian politicians understand this basic truth.


Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel