The Resilience of American Democracy

Have we reached the end of American democracy? The anxiety expressed on the occasion of the November elections and the recent invasion of the Capitol strikes me as excessive, writes Guy Sorman.
© Andy Feliciotti

That feelings run high in election season is not surprising and hardly new in the history of the United States. Without going all the way back to Abraham Lincoln, whose election provoked secession, we should remember that Nixon’s followed urban riots infinitely more violent than any protests Donald Trump might have called forth. Apart from the skirmishes, the misunderstanding arises from what we mean by “democracy” in America, which is not reducible to a presidential election. This democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville described it in his day (but who has really read his books?), is defined by its moral customs and its institutions. Let us consider this more closely.

What most surprised Tocqueville, whose background was in the French aristocracy, was first of all equality – that of social conditions, as well as freedom of expression and behavior. He foresaw that this equality of conditions represented the future of the old world, of Europe, and he was right. There are obviously rich and poor in the United States, but there is not an insurmountable social hierarchy; elites are fluid and are ceaselessly renewed. Donald Trump and Joe Biden present themselves as men of the people who speak to the people in the people’s language – hence their relative success. They each mirror the other in their common aspirations to attain education and riches, Biden emphasizing the education and Trump the riches. No one of any party in the United States contests these democratic rights. For both Republicans and Democrats, destined to govern together – the cohabitation of adversarial parties is more the norm than the exception in American history –, they will do what is necessary for the United States to remain the nation of wide-open opportunity, where the “pursuit of happiness” has been the first of rights since 1776.

These are rights guaranteed by long-standing, rock-solid institutions that will not prove vulnerable to Donald Trump’s incendiary tweets. In any case, it is important to recognize that while President Trump may never have shown a passion for the Constitution and the norms that derive from it, he never violated them either. If he has relied so much on direct communication via Twitter, this is because the president of the United States is a Gulliver tied down by Congress, the courts, the press, and the states. His only power is persuasion, the power of the pulpit, a platform that he has used neither more nor less than his predecessors, except that, in a time of social media, he has done so more flamboyantly. Has he damaged institutions? No. Has he transformed the United States? Again, no. Not a single fundamental reform bears his name (there is no equivalent to Obamacare), and he has started no wars – which makes him, paradoxically, a second Jimmy Carter, a pacifist. But it is undeniable, and the same holds true for his supporters, that he has stirred up some ethnic divisions and encouraged racist instincts; this is his legacy (although it is nothing new in American history), supported by groups anchored in their identity. At least he has not been an anti-Semite.

But democracy cannot be reduced to the White House or Washington. For Americans, real public life is found elsewhere, at the local level. The partisan crystallization around federal institutions might make us forget that, on November 3, other officials were elected too: judges, sheriffs, school board presidents, fire chiefs, municipal and county officers, state representatives, and others I’m forgetting. These thousands of representatives make up the finely woven local fabric of American democracy, everyday democracy, a democracy that takes place where people really live, far away from Washington. The importance of this local democracy is now evident in the tragic battle against the Covid-19 pandemic. Once the federal government had demonstrated its fecklessness in the face of this illness, local authorities took over with some success, as shown in the case of New York State.

This picture of a relatively peaceful democracy will not persuade those who dread civil and racial wars. I share their fears, and do not dismiss what haunts them, but I believe in the resilience of American democracy and in its capacity to manage things for the better. Doubtless because I can remember segregation prior to 1964 and Southern poverty, I can testify that, in two generations, thanks to democratic debate between formerly irreconcilable adversaries, the right to happiness has come closer to fulfilling its promise. This improvement of each individual destiny will have to continue, since Republicans and Democrats have no choice but to join together to fight immediate dangers: a deadly pandemic, an economic recession comparable to that of the 1930s, and foreign rivals (more rivals than enemies, I would say), such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.

On January 20, when the next president will be inaugurated – along with the sheriffs, justices of the peace, and other local elected officials – Americans will have forgotten the hurricane of tweets and the recounting of votes in some remote Georgia county. Democracy in America is more resilient than those who, between two elections, are only its provisional representatives. American institutions stand above those who run them.

Editorial published in the December 2020 issue of
France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.