Mayhem in US Capitol: The Frailties of American Democracy


Deepa Majumdar

I have long wondered what true democracy is. What does it take to have a democratic heart? Surely there is a difference between a rule-bound, structured democracy, and a democratic state of consciousness? If the former works from the outer-to-the-inner, then the latter works from the inner-to-the-outer. America is more the former than the latter. As a structured democracy, it is fashioned by a constitution, a posse of laws, and a historical tradition of legal discipline. Yes, America, as I have known this great nation, has always been disciplined.

Invariably courteous, especially in conflicts, American lawmakers are far more disciplined than their counterparts in other countries. Unlike some parliaments, where elected officials throw things at each other, American senators engage in rule-bound disciplined debates that demand a certain measure of self-control and suavity, eschewing thin-skinned reactionaries. That Americans bore with four years of the Trump presidency is a testimony to their discipline and respect for the rule of law. One may question whether this legalism and discipline are necessarily moral. If not, one may ask if they are traps of hyper-legalism.One may question the value of a largely amoral utilitarian legality. One may sigh at the venom beneath thin masks of professionalism. One may balk at aggressive eyes on smiling faces. But one cannot deny the iron discipline underlying American stability. Nor can one deny the resulting harvest – a promise of justice and freedom. Yes America works by two systems of justice – one for whites and one for black and brown people. But there is here at least an attempt at and a longing for justice. American stability enables great personal liberty – above all the freedom to protest without censorship. There are therefore at least three bulwarks of American stability – respect for the constitution, discipline in executing the constitution, and rule of law. All this enables a measure of social and political freedom that makes America attractive to immigrants.

Drawing from nature-nurture theories of the self, America (in its worldly aspect) espouses an outer-to-inner mode of self-transformation that reverses the relationship between legality and morality. Although legality serves as the penumbra of morality – so that morality should always lead legality – Americans perhaps draw morality from legality. Rather, their respect for the law makes them respect morality. If there is in America, “a rare sensitivity to ethics” (as a venerable Indian monk once said) –this is perhaps because America is a land of laws. Sometimes even lawlessness appears with a twinge of ethics. Photographed lounging in Speaker Pelosi’s office (during the Jan 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol), his foot on her desk, a picture of disrespect and lawlessness – even Mr. Richard Barnett showed  ethical awareness when he claimed he left behind a quarter to pay for the envelope he took from her office. This does not exonerate his actions, or excuse the crude misogynistic message he left for Speaker Pelosi. But it shows his awareness of basic ethics.

Yet, despite its sensitivity to ethics, and the smooth transfer of power to the Biden administration, America’s structured representative democracy is not as invincible as it is reputed to be.In an irony of history, the frailties of this system come from the same source that lends it strength – namely structure.For, it draws its mandate from its legal edifice (constitution, rules, laws) – not from the virtues that illumine the hearts of its citizens. Unlike a true democracy, which arises from virtuous hearts, a structured democracy relies on legal-constitutional scaffolding to enforce democracy upon its citizens. Inherently frail, a structured democracy cannot withstand the chaos that arrives in the wake of moral mayhem. No amount of structure can stabilize a democracy when its people decline morally, replacing contemplation with blind utilitarianism.

Although far from the ideal democracy born of a democratic consciousness, the American experiment remains perhaps the best we have thus far – a polity forged within boundaries set by realpolitik. Yet, although feted as a vanguard of modernity and the crowning glory of democracy worldwide, the American system has a few related frailties– above all, its worldliness, and as a result, its lack of inwardness and its violence overseas. A narcissistic polity, America sometimes delivers democracy cowboy style – from the barrel of a gun, through the most undemocratic means possible – rank militarism and the hi-tech war waged on nonwestern nations! After the tragedy of Sep 11, 2001, two students (white males) in my philosophy class said of Iraq and Afghanistan: “Nuke them! Bomb them!” Thus, the generous view of America,held even in countries America has carpet-bombed – that the American people are wonderful, but their government is bad – is not always true.

Moreover, representation itself (a corollary of structured democracy), when febrile and frayed, can be the Achilles Heel that topples democracy. Thus, a fourth possible weakness of the American system are its insincere verbose links of representation that stray far from ethics, friendship, and trust, drawing instead from business tactics to win votes through advertisement and strategies of competition. At all, a vote-based democracy comes with the alienation inherent in inordinate individuality. Contrast a vote-based democracy with one that draws from true kinship and altruism toforge individuals into a moral community that transcends vote-based individuality! When the American government spends hard-earned tax dollars to wage hi-tech wars, using the poor as cannon fodder in the form of soldiers, representation degrades itself to a two-way farce. On the one hand, elected officials, who are supposed to represent their constituents, vote for wars that jeopardize the very people they represent. On the other hand, citizens allow and abet elected officials to waste lives and money waging wars in other nations. Some questions therefore linger. Despite America’s great good side, why are its citizens out of touch with the violence their government wages inso-called Third World countries?Why are they out of touch with this stark contradiction– that while a domestic democracy, with liberty for its ideal, America can yet be a tyrant overseas? Why are they complacent before frayed channels of representation?

Thus, although still an exceptional nation, Americaremainsa strange narcissistic Jekyll-Hyde polity –aformallaw-bound domestic democracy that is yeta lawless international war-mongerer;a government for-by-and-of the people, that is yet plutocratic enough to let large corporations call the shots, etc.A demographic democracy that assumes votes represent the moral states of voters, America makes decisions by majoritarianism, votes, and rank individuality – not by the moral quality of voters, nor by trust and kinship. All this perhaps because the world is not yet ready for a real democracy of the heart. If blind-and-blinding utilitarianism manifests itself through endless totalizing strategies, then democratic consciousness manifests itself through Franciscan levels of fraternity and universality.

A fifth and sixth weakness in the American system are its proliferation of rules and regulations and its stunning inequalities. Yes The real world runs by a mix of choice and rules – so that absolute democracy (understood as free choice in everything) is infeasible. Buttoo many rulessignify not only loss of inwardness and conscience (which cannot be reduced to a rule) in a people who no longer find guidance from within, but also a creeping tyranny that smothers individuality.Moreover, notwithstanding its high ideals of equality, America suffers growing inequalities that jeopardize its democracy. Can a nation be democratic if it lets the jungle law of the market rule its budget and economy?

The Jan 6, 2021 insurrection revealed a seventh frailty – thatAmerican democracy guards against a tyrant, but not against a tyrannical people. On this fateful day Americans saw a two-fold strike on their democracy – the first embodied by Mr. Trump, and the second, by the attack on the Capitol (America’s hallowed symbol of democracy) by his followers. Although not a totalitarian despot, Mr. Trump is the closest Americans have come to having a dictator. A strange insurrection, inspired by a personage no less than the prevailing president, the attack on the Capitol, which took five lives, insulted and belied the courtesy and discipline characteristic of formal discourses within this temple of democracy. On Jan 6,Mr. Trump incited his followers to attack the Capitol where lawmakers gathered to confirm the Biden victory. He said, “We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”Always a cult leader, he did not join his followers as they attacked. Like an arsonist who watches with glee the fire he starts, he watched this attack on television.

It may be difficult to hold Mr. Trump legally responsible for the violence of his followers, as his speech was ambiguous enough to evade prosecution. But he and his followers remain proof of the frailties of the American system. Despite the Biden-Harris win, Trump and his followers signify this historical portent – that the spotlight of History is passing from America to China– that these are the last days of the American empire.

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