The attempted subversion of democracy in the United States on Thursday is not the result of a uniquely American failing, but the outcome of a breakdown of political culture to which New Zealand is not immune, US-born journalist Marc Daalder writes

In 1935, author Sinclair Lewis released a prescient warning in the form of the novel It Can’t Happen Here, in which a charismatic American politician becomes a Hitler-like dictator.

Lewis watched the Nazis orchestrate a path to power through burning down the Reichstag and blaming it on communists.

Over the past two months, Trump has ignited his own Reichstag Fire by losing the election and then pretending he didn’t. On Wednesday, local time, the fears of Lewis and every American committed to democracy nearly came to fruition as pro-Trump seditionists stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to block the formal certification of the election results.

While New Zealand’s proportional electoral system provides some reassurance, we are even more reliant on political convention (as opposed to constitutional protection) for the maintenance of democracy than the United States. Four years of Trump have shown that, without a robust political culture dedicated to defending democracy, political convention falls aside as easily as the Capitol Police yesterday.

World leaders and everyday citizens around the globe watched in horror. New Zealand’s Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, condemned the attempted coup, saying, “Violence has no place in thwarting democracy. We look forward to the peaceful transition of the political administration, which is the hallmark of democracy.”

Jacinda Ardern weighed in as well, issuing a statement calling the events “wrong” and insisting, “Democracy – the right of people to exercise a vote, have their voice heard and then have that decision upheld peacefully should never be undone by a mob. Our thoughts are with everyone who is as devastated as we are by the events of today. I have no doubt democracy will prevail.”

While some aspects of the situation are quirks of systemic failings in the United States, such as the fact that Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 while receiving fewer votes than his opponent, the overall fracturing of democracy is a failing of political culture that is not unique to the US.

In other words, it could happen here.

What to do with seditionists?

After every outrageous act from Trump or his campaign or administration over the past five years, commentators have predicted that this will be the defining failing of his administration. They have all been wrong.

Neither Trump’s attempt to encourage a foreign power to meddle in the 2020 election nor his botched response to the coronavirus pandemic – which has killed 361,000 and counting – have been enough to bring him down. Remember when he was caught bragging on tape about sexual assault? He went on to win an election after that.

Nonetheless, the attempted subversion of American democracy will not be forgotten by the sunset of the next news cycle. It will leave lasting cracks in the fabric of American society for years, and these won’t be healed by kind words or political compromises by the incoming President Biden.

How should we best reinforce New Zealand’s democratic political culture against falsehoods and conspiracy theories? Click here to comment.

This is as it should be. Encouraging or aiding the overthrow of a democratically elected government shouldn’t be normalised as mere politics. This was an attack on the United States. It was sedition.

For two months, many congressional Republicans have actively encouraged Trump’s delusions – his Reichstag Fire. Now, sheltering in place in the Capitol as their constituents stormed the halls, breaking windows and smashing up busts, they have reaped what they have sown.

After this, they should not be allowed to return to normal political life, arguing over taxes or education reform or public housing. They may claim that they had no clue their promotion of the election fraud conspiracy theory would lead to a genuine coup attempt. That means they are either idiots or liars. Neither are fit to serve as politicians or government officials.

Moreover, the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, drafted and ratified in the aftermath of the Civil War, specifically forbids those “who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof” from serving in the state or federal government.

This should be enforced.

Such an approach has risks. The purge of Ba’athists from Iraq’s military and government after the American invasion in 2003 is widely seen as prompting the destabilisation of the country and further widening the divide between the country’s Sunni and Shia communities.

Denazification after World War II, meanwhile, was carried out half-heartedly. Political scientists believe West Germany benefited from allowing key former Nazis to retain their positions in the new democratic country.

But American democracy will be threatened so long as politicians and officials who have shown a lackluster dedication to democracy are allowed to remain in power. The situation is reminiscent of Austrian philosopher Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance, which posits that a tolerant society should not tolerate intolerance lest it be made into an intolerant society.

The next time these Republicans have a chance to seize power against the will of the people, they may be more successful. They shouldn’t be given that chance.

Defending political culture

That congressional Republicans even felt the delegimitisation of the election would have political benefits for them speaks to a broader social ill. Writing on Twitter after the storming of the Capitol, German Ambassador to the United Kingdom Andreas Michaelis reflected, “After our catastrophic failure in the 20th Century we Germans were taught by the US to develop strong democratic institutions. We also learnt that democracy is not just about institutions. It is about political culture, too. All democratic nations need to constantly defend it.”

America allowed its political culture to degrade to the state where a sizeable minority of the political establishment saw benefits in eroding democracy. More than half of House Republicans voted to overturn the election yesterday. A snap poll found 45 percent of registered Republican voters strongly or somewhat support the storming of the Capitol. Just 12 percent say the mob was anti-democratic while 30 percent say they were patriotic.

This is not a uniquely American failing. Around the world, once-strong democracies have floundered in the face of populist movements fuelled by misinformation and manipulation on social media.

It could happen here, too.

While New Zealand’s proportional electoral system provides some reassurance, we are even more reliant on political convention (as opposed to constitutional protection) for the maintenance of democracy than the United States.

Four years of Trump have shown that, without a robust political culture dedicated to defending democracy, political convention falls aside as easily as the Capitol Police yesterday.

For now, we enjoy the benefits of just such a culture. Political flirtation with conspiracy theories and misinformation during the election was roundly rejected by voters.

Nonetheless, it didn’t take all of Trump’s 74 million supporters to storm the Capitol – it just took a few thousand (numerous neo-Nazis among them). We have our own core of dedicated extremists and conspiracy theorists, from the white supremacist group Action Zealandia to failed political candidate Billy Te Kahika Jr.

Their presence alone is not a sign of a failing political culture. But if enough people can be rallied to their cause or if their beliefs are sufficiently normalised into New Zealand society, that would put us in dangerous territory.

Holding seditionists in the United States Congress accountable would serve as a rebuke to anti-democracy forces across the globe and might go some ways towards healing America’s fractured political culture, at least in warning that attempts to subvert democracy will not be tolerated. The entire saga, moreover, is a cautionary tale against complacency in defending our own political culture.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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