In retrospect, the attempted insurrection at the Capitol was about a great deal more than an angry expression of disappointment by the populist side of gun culture America. The coup attempt of January 6th failed, yet it succeeded in undermining the unwritten, yet vital, the social contract that brought high levels of stability to the United States since the republic was established in 1789. The contract had featured a long succession of peaceful transfers of power after national elections. In effect, the U.S. more than almost anywhere earned high praise for its sustained establishment of procedural democracy, further enhanced by a two-party system that put aside differences during times of national emergency proclaiming bipartisanship a political virtue if national security was at risk.
This stability was unquestionably a great achievement for an ethnically and religiously diverse country with a large population, but this American record should be celebrated cautiously, with humility, and massive qualifications that must never be ignored. This U.S. rise to great power status rested on genocidally driven ethnic cleansing of Native Americans combined with economic prosperity for a land-based settler colonial white elite that owed its high standard of living to the racist and exploitative benefits of slavery. Even after the American Civil War and the end of slavery, racism remained, was cruel in its dehumanizing effects on perpetrators as well as victims, and extended to the entire country. That the United States could constantly invoke its own exceptionalism and convince most of the world that it was ‘the city on the hill,’ ‘the new Jerusalem,’ and ‘a light unto the nations’ remains without doubt a masterful triumph of public relations and state propaganda, a precursor of the capitalist empires built by Madison Avenue advertising ingenuity. But truth it is not, and never was!
What was true, which was a truthful exception to the big early lies, was the widespread adherence to the electoral process by which political leadership was determined, and legitimized. Procedural democracy at its core remains about the sanctity of elections as credible expressions of citizen consent. Even though there is no text it was this core provision of the social contract that was dangerously weakened by the January 6th assault on the Capitol, and even more than the assault itself, by the instigating and cheerleading role played by Trump and his immediate entourage. Even more telling is the commitment a year later by one of the two major political parties to a manifest falsehood of the greatest political consequence. The Republican Party overwhelmingly supports the central lie that the 2020 election was stolen, and this Trump deserves to be president. We can safely assume that most of the Republican leadership knows that it is endorsing a falsehood, but does so nevertheless for cynical reasons associated with calculations about their own political futures.
In the recent past this national ethos that expected politicians, whatever their ideology, to be good losers was strong enough in 1960 to lead Richard Nixon, not noted for his high morals, to forego any effort to overturn the official results despite strong indications that the votes recorded in Illinois were fraudulently manipulated to hand John F. Kennedy a victory he may not deserve if the votes had been fairly counted. Similarly, in 2000 Al Gore handed the presidency to George W. Bush despites some chicanery in Florida that invalidated a large number of Gore votes and may well have handed the White House over to the Republicans even though they ‘lost’ the elections. The point is not to revisit such controversies, but to show how previously strong was this sense that even when electoral outcomes possibly had decisive, rough edges the official outcome should be respected for the sake of maintaining confidence among the citizenry in the trustworthiness of the process. In mounting this ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign Trump repudiated this tradition in a context that lacked even a credible basis for questioning the propriety of the electoral process.
Such behavior prefigures downfall in a political system that stakes its legitimacy on the periodic opportunity of its political parties to nominate candidates, adopt platforms, and compete for the support of the citizenry. Such a procedural democracy does not pretend to rest its legitimacy on justice, yet early on the Constitution was amended to confer civil and political rights on its citizenry with the central abuse of power by the government. Yet to this day America never purported to become a substantive democracy that extends effective social protection or universal human rights to all of its citizens in the manner of many European countries that have upheld a quite different social democratic contract with their citizens. In that sense, the most basic freedom of all for US citizens, although not inscribed in parchment or openly proclaimed, has been preserving the right of every citizen to fail, a right substantially upheld through times of prosperity and hardship, reflecting the boom and bust bedrock cycles of capitalist theory and practice. The mixture of a cult of individualism together with minimally regulated capitalism is as much a part of constitutional order as are elections and the rule of law, but rarely avowed.
Under the economic weight and political challenges of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the New Deal fashioned by FDR and the Democrats served to rescue capitalism, a recovery process further helped by the onset of World War II. This was something so-called principled conservatives never liked, considering an encroachment on individualism, and the sanctified right to fail, and the willingness of those who fail to accept the consequences. A sophisticated interpretation of January 6th would be to regard it as a long-deferred payback by Republicans for the alleged abandonment by Democrats of this right to fail, including attendant flirtations with the New Deal safety net of social protection, demonized by the Republicans at the time and ever since as ‘crypto-socialism.’ Already in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan built the ideological foundation upon which the House of Trump was erected, including hostility to organized labor, reproductive rights for woman, an open mind toward racism, toughness on crime, and initiatives that gave the 50 states much more of a governance role in the country at the expense of the central governance structures that operated out of Washington.
The scary relevance of January 6th a year later is embedded in the hard facts that even such a display of insurrectionary violence did not discourage most of the Republican Party faithful or its voting base from following Trump over the cliff. Indeed, the opposite realities loom larger at the start of 2022 than they did a year earlier. This delusional crusade ‘to save America,’ fed by lies and conspiracy theories are now believed or at least endorsed by tens of millions of Americans. And the endorsement goes so far as to recourse vigilante, and presumably, militia violence to access and operate the levers of power, presumably to be solidified as night follows day by an array of fascist measures to assure that the nuisance of an electorate mandate is never again needed by the new self-anointed guardians of America’s future. The most reliable polls show that 34% of American citizens are currently supportive of such a violent extra-legal challenge, a frighteningly large number that potentially translates into an angry armed mob of over 100,000,000.
What is almost as worrisome are that the defenders of the old order, mainly the Democrats and the Democratic establishment, are sleepwalking while political subversion on a large scale occurs. Democrats are disunited, lack coherent ideas, and mostly without passion, except at the progressive edges represented by Black Lives Matter and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the squad. Remember that AOC, despite being the clearest voice of national conscience was only allowed 30 seconds to speak at the Democratic Party nominating convention in 2019. Also, when it comes to truthfulness, the Democrats also have dirty hands. How many among their leadership condemn the apartheid nature of the Israel state despite the preponderance of the evidence, confirmed by mainstream human rights organizations (Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem)? Or propose sanctioning Saudi Arabia in response to the brutal murder of an internationally respected journalist, Jamal Khasoggi, in the Saudi Consulate in 2018, a state crime carried out on orders of the government? And despite school shootings and an epidemic of urban gun violence how many Democrats are willing to advocate the repeal of the Second Amendment or take the political risk of voting against a bloated military budget at a time of growing domestic economic misery? Bringing Joe Biden to the White House in 2021 was a metaphoric display of a moribund opposition that didn’t seem to grasp the central reality that the country was facing a growing crisis of toxic polarization. Biden obviously didn’t understand that his repeated early calls for national unity were not only ineffectual but called attention to how out of touch he was with political tides sweeping across the country, which was yearning for confrontation, not societal harmony. As Noam Chomsky has been warning us what happened lasst January is still happening. In other words, the coup was not only an event, but that a process that is continuing to haunt our future, gains momentum, and engages willing architects draw up plans for achieving its dark goals.
Such a situation is dire, not only at home but globally. The needed focus on climate change, COVID, refugees and migrants, nuclearism and militarism, international law and the UN, peacemaking in the Middle East is missing, and other concerns is absent.
In other words, January 6th not only broke the social contract between state and society but also exposed the ineptitude and decay of two-party democracy. Such exposure should not be limited to the U.S. as parallel descents into political infernos are evident in such varied national contexts as Brazil, India, Myanmar, Philippines, Hungary, Russia. There seems to be a structural flight from humane patterns of governance due almost everywhere, at least partly due to the effects of neoliberal globalization intensifying inequalities and deepens alienation.
What must be evident is that without a surge of revolutionary energies responsive to national, sub-national, regional, and global challenges, the human future is unfolding beneath darkening clouds. Smoothing the rough edges of this American political crisis may buy some needed time to reinvent humane politics in the 21st century at the onset of this first bio-political-ecological-ethical-spiritual crisis ever to confront the human species, and then the hard work of inventing and deploying a transformative politics begins.