As the US prepares to swear in its new President, more than half of America and almost all of the rest of the world heaves a sigh of relief. The descent into a dystopian and quite surreal world of hate, criminal malfeasance and self-promotion untethered by any form of reality seems to have been halted. The storming of the Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump crossed a line that even some Trump supporters could not overlook.
Is this a decisive moment when the political establishment finally draws the line and begins its retreat from Trumpism? Has it taken an event of this magnitude to bring home the reality of the threat posed by the anarchic forces unleashed by a megalomaniacal leader? Is it a sign that the strain of muscular populism that has organically evolved in many countries is on its way out?
There are many reasons why this event is not a point of inflection, but merely a pitstop on the way to larger institutional collapse. Over a hundred House Republicans put their name to a resolution that challenges the validity of the Electoral College results in the US. Not because of any defensible evidence of fraud, and in spite of all courts including the conservative-dominated Supreme Court have decisively dismissed all such allegations, but simply because they don’t like the result. As many as 45% of Republican voters thought that the action taken by the rioters was ‘patriotic’ underlines the fact that the political momentum behind Trumpism lies intact.
Biden’s victory is a temporary surface reaction to a deeper underlying structural shift, one that still is on the process of unfolding fully. The important things here is not that Biden eked out a victory, but that so many mainstream politicians were willing to challenge the institution of elections. It is not uncommon for the losing side to complain about electoral irregularities, we see that all the time in India too. But for so many elected representatives to question the process without any evidence whatsoever and disregard the fact that the same mechanism got them elected too, merely to accommodate the whims of one individual is a sign that is far more significant than the electoral outcome. If America is so open to challenging the validity of a process that is absolutely at the centre of the institution of electoral democracy, then no institution anywhere in the world is safe.
Institutions collapse once the conventions evolved to resolve differences become illegitimate. We assume that we would accept that the essential rules of conduct will be followed by all, whatever the level of disagreement about outcomes. The loser concedes elections. The state acts as courts order. We stop when the traffic light turns red (not always in India). We abide by exam results that provide certification of our knowledge and abilities. The umpire adjudicates on whether someone is out or not. Without being able to take these for granted, society as we know it will cease to exist as brute strength will override everything else.
We are already seeing one form of institutional collapse. Many institutions follow rules in the letter but not in the spirit. Court decisions are final and binding, but the judiciary does not always decide without fear or favour but on the basis of who is in power. The media has the licence to report and opine on all events, but increasingly it does not seek to represent an objective reality but to promote a preferred narrative. The bureaucracy does not act as an agent of disinterested facilitation but uses its power for personal gain or in the defence of the strong. Countries where administrative institutions are strong like the US are able to while in other countries with weaker institutions, the collapse is near total.
Every human institution created to separate personal interest from social purpose has been systematically compromised. However, even judged by these standards, the challenge to the elections in the US represents a frightening new stage in this inexorable decline. For here the system is not merely being gamed, but openly strong-armed. The storming of the Capitol is a brazen attempt to try and overturn the foundational democratic process by force, and far from being a salutary lesson, has emboldened more than half of the elected representatives of one party to come out openly in support.
In a social media driven world, there is nothing like going too far. Lessons are never learnt, for mistakes are never acknowledged. What happens is that the definition of normal keeps getting revised. The numbers that make up the bulk of any political movement have, thanks to the platform at their disposal, an in-built resilience that allows them to stand their ground in spite of the worst possible reverses. There is a strong adaptive mechanism that is at work. Many coping strategies are found. Narratives abound. These were patriots agitating against a rigged system. These weren’t Trump supporters but members of the extremist left Antifa running a false flag operation. These actions were regrettable, but the responsibility for these lies at the doorstep of the other side. The protestors were driven to act this way out of sheer frustration. And so on.
Bit by bit, in the last few years the underlying structure that keeps alive institutions created by us to certify, adjudicate and resolve differences are being eroded. As a result, the future of democracy continues to look grim. If the US is in the position that it is in, despite having a very strong counterpoint to right wing extremism, and a functioning media, then the prognosis for other countries is considerably worse. It is much easier for democratic authoritarianism to prevail in countries like India where the strong have the means to indefinitely perpetuate their dominance. So, while large there is reason feel some joy and a lot of relief when President Joe Biden is sworn in on the 20th, it is unlikely to herald a significant change for the future.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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