Looking at the events on Capitol Hill on 6th January 2021 from the other side of the Pond.
Before I started writing, I was a Modern Studies teacher in an Edinburgh high school. For those who live outside Scotland, that means I taught Politics, a subject that it’s possible to teach at a surprisingly basic level to even the youngest children, and to exam at all levels, including university. Although the contexts obviously change over time, the syllabus always centres on a number of basic concepts – ‘power’, ‘representation’, ‘equality’ and so on.
A key concept is ‘Rights and Responsibilities’. It’s seen as one single entity, not two, so that students of all ages are expected to understand that with every right comes responsibilities. Even at the most basic levels, that understanding is tested in external examinations: candidates might be asked what responsibilities go with ‘the right to drive a car’ (e.g. drive safely/not too fast/not while drunk) or ‘the right to keep a pet’ (take care of it properly). Even the least able student understands that the right to vote comes with the responsibilities to use your vote wisely and to accept the result of elections; and that the right of freedom of speech comes with the responsibility not to offend or defame, and to accept that others might disagree.
When it came to elections, I used to spend quite a bit of time explaining to my students that the true miracle of democracy is not that everyone gets a say (although that’s true), but that in a democracy, the losers accept the result and don’t try to overthrow it. Most election results are actually quite close – even where there’s an apparent landslide victory, it’s usually a trick of the election system. In the UK in 2019, Boris Johnson didn’t even manage a majority of the vote at all, despite his commanding parliamentary majority. Yet the losing voters accepted it. In the US Presidential Elections of 2000 and 2016, it was the same story.
The reason why losers accept the result is twofold. First, most people don’t like violence, they just want to get on with their lives in peace. They can mutter in private about the government they don’t like, but their everyday lives aren’t that much affected by who runs the country until they get another chance to change things in four years’ time.
The second reason is that winners are expected to represent not only those who voted for them, but the entire electorate. A win by a small majority is not a mandate for a leader to do whatever he or she likes: that would be dictatorship. Obama clearly wanted to bring in greater gun controls and more healthcare protection during his term of office, but he was forced to water those plans down to take account of opposition views. All elected representatives in a democracy – Presidents and Prime Ministers, Senators, MPs, Mayors, councillors, all the way down to elected school governors – are expected to take account of everyone’s view, not just those who voted for them. It’s an unwritten contract that all elected politicians enter into with their electorate.
That contract has been broken on both sides of the Atlantic. Clearly, when the outgoing President is actively encouraging his supporters to rise up against the pillars of the state in order to overthrow the result of an election, he’s not respecting democracy, but neither has he done so in the preceding four years: all he wants is enough votes to win another term in office. Losers don’t count. We’ve not seen that before in the USA, and George W. Bush made an effort to be ‘Presidential’, in other words, speak for all of America. Whether you think he was successful or otherwise isn’t the point: Dubya was trying. Trump made no effort at all to be anything other than contemptuous of ‘losers’.
We have seen similar problems here in the UK. 52%-48% on a one-off Brexit vote was never a mandate to tear up 47 years of history; all it showed was that the UK was dissatisfied with the existing relationship with the EU. (Remainers like me need to acknowledge that there were problems, but that’s for another essay.) In Scotland, 45% of the electorate voting for independence in 2014 can’t be swept away as a footnote in history. Yet that’s what’s happening. Both in Brexit and the Scottish independence debate, there was an overwhelming argument for a further vote, yet the winners simply refused to allow it. They were scared of losing, of course.
Something has gone badly wrong with our understanding of ‘Rights and Responsibilities’ in large areas of western democracy. Why so many have lost sight of the concept of ‘Responsibility’ is hard to say: perhaps they were never taught Modern Studies, Politics, civics or their equivalent; perhaps they were taught poorly, by insufficiently-trained teachers; perhaps they just forgot what they ever learned; or perhaps they’re just not very bright. There’s some evidence that all four have played a part.
Arguably, though, the worst offenders are neither our educators nor our voters. Our worst offenders are those demagogue politicians who foster and foment the worst instincts in our society – violence, racism, xenophobia, intolerance, lack of concern for the less fortunate, and many other evils – in order to grab power for themselves. For the most part, but not exclusively, the right seems to have cornered this market for themselves. It’s hard to see a Democrat calling for insurrection, and Nigel Farage specifically said before the Brexit referendum that he wouldn’t accept a 52/48 vote against him. So much for democracy.
We in the west are inclined to sneer at the subservient culture of citizens in many Far East countries, but people over there do seem to have a better grasp of responsibility to the greater community. Freedom of expression is never something to take for granted. Those who seek that right have to keep their side of the bargain, too.