On January 20, 1997, Senator John Warner, the master of ceremonies for President Clinton’s inauguration, claimed that the United States was “the oldest and uninterrupted Republican democracy in the world.” Last Wednesday, the ceremony was repeated with due solemnity, in a Washington city emptied by the pandemic and militarized to contain the aggression of the violent.
It is not necessary to comment again on the scene recorded on television. That which he never imagined exploded; But the event of the mobs encouraged by Trump does not take on its real dimension if we do not pay attention to the comment of that senator 24 years ago. At the time, the peaceful and festive handover of command represented the enduring virtue of a republican democracy (the same concept that we use to refer to a fragile civic project) that manifested a legitimacy paid for by tradition.
These days, it would seem that belief is tipping, although it is not news if we review history.
The Republican tradition in the United States does not mean smooth sailing. On the contrary, in order to preserve it, all kinds of conflicts had to be faced.
In this turbulent development, the Americans suffered the stigma of slavery and the extermination of indigenous populations, they suffered a bloody civil war and the assassination of presidents and social leaders, they embarked on an imperial adventure, dethroned Nazis, fascists and communists, they went through the ideological persecutions of McCarthyism, suffered military defeats, endured economic crises and, despite these inclement events, attracted millions of immigrants while transforming their society and the planet with successive industrial revolutions.
That well-earned stability should therefore not set aside a counterpoint between the republican order and a dynamic in which reformist reason and reactionary passion collide. This is the clash between President Biden and the Democratic Party, now in control of both houses of Congress.
I excuse myself to repeat what we have been saying since he assumed the presidency: Trump was an emerging and a disruptive agent. It embodied the dull reactionary moment of some social sectors that experienced a deterioration of their status through extreme polarization; Thus, he installed another version of the friend-enemy dialectic and set up a delegitimizing movement that grew in intensity.
The violence of the word was followed by the violence of the facts. We know some features of this style: CFK did not deliver the symbols of command in 2015 and Trump did not attend Biden’s inauguration. There was no pardon, but there was a farewell in which he outlined his desire to continue the fight. We will return, he said: the delegitimizing will could then be prolonged.
Still, it will be difficult for Trump to remain center stage. Not only because there is a new government in office but because of the lawsuits – political and ordinary – that are coming. The US has always demonstrated that the republic is a regime that, to varying degrees, claims consensus and enforces legal coercion due to the excellence of a judicial system that contrasts with our bland and labyrinthine processes.
In turn, consensus is a game that Biden must win. In his inaugural speech, the new president called for unity, combining compassion for those killed by the pandemic with the hope founded in the past that this crisis, like so many others, will be overcome.
The invocations to the truth reverberated against the background of a tremor in the basic values of republican democracy and an abdication towards them in a good number of legislators.
This is a typical drama of the 20th century authoritarianism that is being updated today: millions of votes in favor of a charisma of rupture and a portion of the leadership that renounces to defend a historic constitutional pact. In the besieged Capitol, these tribunes of extremism indirectly supported subversive action.
At first glance, it would appear that Von Papen, the conservative who supported Hitler and gave him a majority in Parliament, had returned to the ring. In fact, it is convenient not to exaggerate because without a doubt one fundamental difference stands out in this comparison: in Germany the tyrant prospered; in the USA republican institutions prevailed.
From this reaffirmation of values, several paths are opened. The Republican party faces the challenge of dispensing with a rebellious leadership and returning to the lane of moderate conservatism; for now, if that course is not clarified, a classic bipartisanship could be called into question.
On the other hand, it is clear that republican democracy faces new challenges, perhaps a decline. Such decline, as I have been pointing out for two long decades, responds to an internal deficit; it comes from within because it denotes the presence of movements of hegemonic intention that challenge the established systems of party representation.
This circumstance runs through part of the geography of democracy, is encompassed under the omnibus concept of populism and intensifies in crucial elections.
As has been proven in the US and also among us, the peaceful alternation between government and opposition is transformed into a combat that puts into play the foundations of the democratic regime: alternative government projects that recognize a common framework of coexistence do not compete. , but projects of alternative regimes that propose the exclusion of the opposite.
Republican democracy therefore requires an upward slope of that decline. It will be an arduous task that demands a “new deal”, as Franklin D. Roosevelt announced 90 years ago, and which certainly does not end in the mere enunciation of desirable ends.
The intelligence to select the conducive means to satisfy these ends, will therefore be decisive. Some smaller countries have already done so; It is time for this challenge to be raised by large and medium-sized nations,
Natalio R. Botana is a political scientist and historian. Emeritus Professor at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella.