If American democracy were in good health, one might make the case that last week’s storming of the Capitol building was a last gasp of despair by an unruly band of Trump supporters, egged on by the president’s incendiary allegations of electoral fraud.
The truth is that it was the latest chapter in a wider process of disaffection from public institutions that has been going on for decades. The world’s oldest surviving democracy is facing a threat potentially more insidious than war itself: internal division.
One of the essential foundations of any political regime is its citizens’ belief that they have good reason to respect the constitution and obey their rulers, even when neither their rulers nor the rules they live under are perfectly to their liking. In a dictatorial regime, this belief is premised largely on fear: citizens know that if they dissent, they may be fined, imprisoned, or harassed.
In a free society, on the other hand, allegiance to the constitution and ruling class must be premised on a perception that the governing institutions and the constitution they are guided by are morally legitimate and genuinely serve the interests of ordinary citizens.
Sadly for American democracy, there is a growing body of evidence that the perceived legitimacy of the American political system is on the wane, and has been for several decades.
For example, 77 percent of American respondents in a 1964 National Election Study affirmed that they “trust the government in Washington always or most of the time.” That percentage dropped down to 35 percent in 1990, 22 percent in 2010, and 17 percent in 2019. Similarly, a 2020 Gallup Poll found that for the first time in 27 years, over 50 percent of respondents did not have much confidence in the police.
The massive publicity surrounding high profile and credible allegations of police brutality, including the killing of George Floyd by a police officer last May, certainly did not help to bolster the legitimacy of the American political system in the eyes of ordinary citizens.
Finally, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a reminder of the extent to which there may exist “two Americas” now, whose values are just too dissonant to be reconciled within a single regime.
It would be an over-simplification to suggest that Trump’s supporters all sign up to one coherent set of values, while Biden’s all sign up to another. But broadly speaking, there are certain salient values in each camp which cannot be readily combined within a single idea of the good regime.
For example, many of Trump’s supporters believe that the State should recognize the traditional model of heterosexual marriage, have no time for transgender rights, believe abortion should be allowed in few if any circumstances, and view State-sponsored welfare programs, including universal health insurance, as a waste of taxpayers’ hard-earned money.
Many of Biden’s supporters, on the other hand, are in favour of State recognition for same-sex marriage, would be favourably inclined to the demands of transgender citizens, view abortion as a constitutional right, and are well disposed toward State-sponsored welfare programs, including universal health insurance.
These sorts of disagreements have been brewing for decades, but have intensified during the Bush, Obama and Trump Administrations. They reveal a people deeply divided about the basic terms of their shared life: a people at odds with itself.
The United States is built on a written constitution. But no political regime can survive for long unless a large majority of its citizens endorse the legitimacy of the rules they live under and share some sort of public philosophy, however austere, to guide their common life.
Whereas a broadly Christian morality was widely accepted, at least in principle, by the majority of Americans in the first half of the 20th century, it is not so easy to see what sort of public morality unites them today.
Last week’s shocking images of citizens scaling the Capitol and occupying the offices of their political representatives were vivid expressions of a nation in decline.
Only time will tell if these rifts in the American nation will somehow heal or fulfil Abraham Lincoln’s sombre warning that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”