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The assault on the Capitol, a symptom of the fractured democracy in the U.S.


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The Conversation

David Thunder |

researcher Ramón y Cajal of the University of Navarra Institute for Culture and Society

Last Wednesday, the world was stunned by the storming of the U.S. Capitol by dozens of protesters. Faced with such images, many wondered if this was a regrettable security lapse, the work of a group of vandals who did not represent the citizens, or a symptom of a deeper pathology in the social and political fabric of the nation.

On an optimistic reading, this protest was just the deplorable outburst of a handful of citizens caught up in the frenzy of populist and anti-establishment sentiment, a cry of desperation by a tiny issue of Trump supporters ready to turn their electoral discontent into a riot.

If this nation's democracy were in good health, we could argue that last week's drama on Capitol Hill was nothing more than an embarrassing incident that should be put behind us.

However, it was not just an inconvenient interruption in a golden era of political stability: it is part of a broad process of delegitimization of public institutions that has been going on for decades. This time, the world's oldest democracy faces a threat that is often more lethal than war itself: internal division.

One of the essential foundations of any political regime is that citizens believe they have compelling reasons to respect the constitution and obey their rulers, even when neither the rulers nor the laws that govern them are entirely to their liking. In a dictatorial regime, this belief is largely based on fear: citizens know that dissent can lead to sanctions, imprisonment or persecution.

Instead, in a free society, loyalty to the constitution and the class it leads must be based on the perception that the institutions of government and the constitution are morally legitimate and genuinely serve the interests of the citizenry.

Unfortunately for American democracy, there is some evidence that the perceived legitimacy of the American political system is trailing and has been for several decades.

For example, 77% of Americans responding to the 1964 National Election Study said they trusted the government in Washington "always or most of the time." This percentage dropped to 35% in 1990, 22% in 2010 and 17% in 2019. Along those lines, a survey from business Gallup revealed that, for the first time in 27 years, more than 50% of respondents confessed to not having much confidence in the police.

The mass dissemination of numerous cases of police brutality, including the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in May 2020, has not helped to reinforce the legitimacy of the American political system in the eyes of citizens.

Regardless of one's opinion of the extent of police brutality, these highly publicized cases of corruption, whether alleged or proven, inevitably cast a shadow of illegitimacy over police forces at both the federal and state levels.

Finally, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a stark reminder that there are 'two Americas' whose values are too dissonant to be reconciled in a single regime.

Clearly, to suggest that Trump supporters adhere to one coherent set of values, while Biden supporters adhere to another, would be to oversimplify. However, it is clear that there are certain values prevalent in each political group that cannot easily be combined into a single 'good regime' idea.

For example, many Trump supporters believe the state should recognize the model traditional heterosexual marriage; care little about the identity claims of transgender people; think abortion is state-supported murder; and view public welfare programs as a waste of hard-earned taxpayer money.

On the other hand, many of Biden's supporters favor state recognition of same-sex marriage, are inclined to support the demands of transgender citizens, view abortion as a Constitutional Law and are in favor of state-promoted social welfare programs.

This subject of disagreements has been brewing for decades, but seems to have intensified under the Obama and Trump presidencies. It reveals a people deeply divided over basic aspects of their shared life.

The U.S. regime is supposedly based on a written constitution. But no political regime can survive long without a large majority of its citizens endorsing the legitimacy of the rules under which it lives and sharing some subject of Philosophy public, albeit austere, guidance for common life.

In the early part of the 20th century, a general Christian morality was widely accepted, at least in principle, by most Americans. But today it is not so easy to see what subject of public morality unites the population.