07 January 2021

Capitol Hill insurrection: the day after

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In AD 410 Alaric led his army of Visigoths into Rome and ransacked the city. By then Rome was no longer the capital of the western Roman Empire, but this single event sent shock waves throughout the known world. How could the founding city of the greatest empire in history be so vulnerable to barbarian tribes who could scarcely be called civilized? As we know, pagan Romans argued that, because Rome had abandoned its ancient gods, the latter had abandoned the city to its fate. Many thought Christians especially culpable, because, a generation earlier, the Emperor Theodosius had proclaimed Christianity to be the state religion, thereby angering the gods. Augustine, bishop of the north African city of Hippo, took up the challenge to defend the Christian faith from pagan accusations. The result became a classic of western literature, De Civitate Dei, known in English as the City of God.

I thought of this historical event as our family watched on television the events unfolding in Washington, D.C., on 6 January. We were, of course, horrified. It hardly seemed possible that a band of hooligans, egged on by the President of the United States, could invade Capitol Hill, breaching what we had assumed to be an effective security perimeter, and vandalize the offices of members of Congress. This is the sort of thing one associates with the Russian Federation in 1993, or a nonwestern country unschooled in the customs and constitutional procedures of democratic governance. In English-speaking democracies we have come to expect that all political actors of whatever partisan sympathies will play by the rules, acquiescing in the smooth transition of power once the electorate has made its decision at the polls. No one pretends that it's a perfect system, but, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, it is almost certainly the least worst of the political systems on offer in today's world.

If this is true--and I believe it is--then we all have an obligation to make it work, to respect the integrity of the processes, and to honour the rule of law, even when we disagree with specific laws and policies. The English constitution, to which we are heir, slowly developed a principle that is key to the successful function of our system of government, namely, that of loyal opposition. Admittedly, this has more relevance to a Westminster system such as Canada's, where the second largest party in the House of Commons is designated Her Majesty's Official Opposition. Yet even in a presidential system, where different parties may control the legislative and executive branches, majority and minority status still play a role, and allegiance to the Constitution must take precedence over partisan commitments--even more so over personal loyalty to a specific leader.

Yesterday's events have tested that principle in the United States of America, the country where I was born and raised. Since last November's election, we have been treated to the sorry spectacle of a sitting president refusing to concede his loss to his opponent, a circumstance almost entirely unprecedented in American history. In the normal course of events, a defeated incumbent president congratulates the victor, promises to support him, and urges Americans to acknowledge him as their president, even if they disagree with his policy priorities. They will, of course, continue to follow their own convictions about the nature of just governance, which means that they will indeed oppose, but in legal ways and according to the procedures laid down in the Constitution. In no case should they take the law into their own hands.

Until recently I had assumed that a political culture of respect for the rule of law was securely established in the United States, due largely to its debt to the English constitution and to the long experience of representative government extending back to colonial times. While we might expect to hear of an attempted coup d'état in Pakistan or Bolivia, we knew that it couldn't happen here. Not in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, or the US. We're too politically stable and our constitutional traditions too resilient for that to happen.

Yet what we must learn from yesterday's events is that we can never afford take our political culture for granted. Professed conservatives are correct to argue that the edifice of civilization is precarious at best and that efforts at improvement may have the opposite effect from what is intended. Over the course of my lifetime I've seen North American culture become coarser and cruder, with the media playing an outsized role in facilitating a climate of consumerism rather than public spiritedness. I cannot help contrasting, for example, the late President George H. W. Bush, who was a fighter pilot in the Second World War and served his country in a variety of offices before attaining the White House, to the current occupant, whose fame is due largely to starring in The Apprentice and his larger-than-life business ventures.

It is disappointing to see so many Americans, whose traditions should tell them otherwise, follow someone who has repeatedly shown contempt for their country's political institutions and has cultivated a climate of personal self-aggrandizement at the expense of the public good. Many of us feared that something like yesterday's events could occur under his tenure. I sincerely hoped that we were wrong, but, sad to say, we were not.

I will have more to say about all this shortly, but I will end by observing that the system is badly broken. It is not working as America's founders intended it to work. In particular, the internal party reforms after 1968 upset the delicate balance between elected office-holders and the citizens they represent. This resulted in a system in which prospective candidates can reach the top without sufficient vetting to ensure basic competence, grasp of the responsibilities of office, and, dare I say it, patriotism. I hope to address this issue and others in the near future.

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