Gorged Washington

If it was an insurrection, it was a pretty pathetic one. It was a demo gone wild in the last fling of a movement with pretended power.

I saw the scenes from across the pond and I was shocked as we all were that a seething mob could overwhelm the seat of American democracy in the form of a rebellion as if to overthrow the pillars of the state. A great, excoriating narration began to form with which I would blast the mob that defiled the soul of that nation. However in the cool light of the morning, it was nothing.

Washington still stands. There are broken windows and scuffed furniture, but otherwise you would not know. No one set the buildings alight or strung aged senators from lampposts. The riot was in the United States, where even children carry guns, but these were an unarmed crowd just rampaging in sheer joy through buildings which they could have visited any day with an admission ticket. It is not an attempted coup; more a “coo-ee!

Even so, there were deaths, and they are not anonymous figures – all lives matter remember. (Ashli Elizabeth Babbitt, since you ask, or should – 35 years old, ex-Air Force; victim of a conspiracy theory as much as a policeman’s bullet; unarmed; leaves a grieving husband. Also Brian Sicknick, police officer; died of wounds suffered in action.)

If it had been a coup or a rebellion, we would know about it. There would be blood on the streets and hundreds weeping for lost children. As the riot seemed to be led by followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, it matched it in form: much chatter, symbolism, oaths to take action, but no reality.

Did we not warn of this, when the integrity of elections is questioned and their validity is challenged? On this very website we foresaw the dangers:

A comparison has been made with 1814, and they say it is the only time since that fateful year that the Capitol has been overrun; but it was not 1814 and these protestors were not General Ross. There were no flames to douse this time.

I will condemn utterly the actions of the mob that day, because I can. It turns the stomach thought to see people like the high officials of Sinn Fein daring to condemn political violence without burning with the shameful hypocrisy of it, and the shock at this protest from France, whose streets still reek from the smoke of riots far, far worse.

Some things from my discarded excoriation remain. This was a disgraceful action, astounding, shocking and an assault upon the very pillars of democracy. The rioters need to face trial and those who encouraged or excused it have morally disqualified themselves from high office, and Donald J Trump, I mean you in particular – I can giggle at your playacting when you use empty words just to position yourself to achieve good things, as you have, but when it comes to that rhetoric playing out in this mob violence, there is no respect remaining to you. This was an exuberant play-rebellion, but in the land of guns it could have been very, very different. You did not know it would not be that way.

Who will feel kindly ever again towards the US Republican Party, after this, which their shenanigans encouraged? They will need to do some serious repair work and reinvention of what they are all about. That said, the Democratic Party did worse: they started the Civil War, all because they could not accept a Republican president or the abolition of slavery, and on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line they endeavoured to defeat the Union. They came back, eventually.

Things should calm down. In a week and a half a new President will take office, and the old establishment will reassert itself. It may be uncomfortable for that establishment though as a more radical fringe has invaded and occupied much of their party. Revenge will be in the air just as consensus is needed.

If there can be calm, then many guilty men will have to apologise and try to rebuild the mythology on which democracy must be built, and have the humility to yield their forfeited leadership to those who did not endanger the foundations of the state.

There is no avoiding a reckoning, in which the actions and words of those in positions of responsibility and influence have undermined the very system which gave them position and salary.

However, it is not just those you are thinking of who face that reckoning in the court of public opinion and at the harsh judgment of the ballot box. Those who without sufficient cause sought to undermine this election or to overturn the election by refusing to do their duty in Congress must answer for the damage they have done to the stability of the democratic settlement. Those who whipped up the mob, yes, they will be named. It is beyond party though; it must be.

  • Those who tried to subvert the Electoral College are guilty – and so are those who tried the same subversion in 2016.
  • Those who cat-called at Joe Biden that they did not accept him as a legitimate President are at enmity with democracy; as are those who called ‘Not My President’ at Donald J Trump, who shunned his inauguration and publicly tore up his speeches.
  • Those who tried to overthrow Barack Obama are guilty; and also those who laid knowingly false charges against Donald Trump to unseat him.
  • Those who refused to do their duty according to the American Constitution are culpable, but also those who conspired to disaffect appointed officials from performing their duties to the sitting President.
  • Those who propagated the QAnon idea, who whipped up and then excused the mob – they must face the consequences. Also though, those who excused the mobs which rampaged through the cities of America in the summer. They declared from their high positions that violence by a mob, when carried out in the name of a cause firmly believed in is a good and noble action. They set the tone, the landscape and the rules by which others led their own riot, and they should be thankful that those who rampaged over Capitol did not even approach the rage of the mobs in the cities. Such a one must be named, howsoever high she may have climbed, and face the like judgment.

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Divided by a common politics

It is a pity to miss Americans in these places, but they do not fit in as others do.  A televised political discussion in Britain, Australia, Canada, Ireland or New Zealand is the same in format, and commentators and politicians from any of the other of those lands can fit in seamlessly, and they do.  On the BBC’s Question Time last week, Malcolm Turnbull, a former Prime Minister of Australia could join in on equal terms, just as last year had Jordan Peterson and Stephen Pinker from Canada, and Irish politicians appear in discussions all the time. Commentators, philosophers and politicians can pop up all across the Old Commonwealth without our batting an eyelid. It quite normal. We speak the same language politically.  Tony Abbott (who ousted Turnbull) put it that “we are yes juridically separate entities but we are not really foreign to each other”.

American commentators do not fit the same way. They are welcomed and treated respectfully and can provide insight, but the alien political culture shows through at once.  We have the same human language but a different political language. We have the same understanding that we must have freedom and participatory democracy, but think of both in different ays. We ought to know each other better.

Joe Biden may be a good bridge – he liberally borrows from British politicians: on his first run for President he famously plagiarised a speech from Neil Kinnock, and accepting the Presidency yesterday he copied one of Margaret Thatcher’s; a knowing tribute. His campaign used a slogan from Boris Johnson; ‘Build Back Better’. It is less credible to think of an American politician copying from, say, Adenauer or De Gaulle, even if he has a certain idea of America. There is still then the spirit of the Anglosphere’s common frames of reference there.

We in the Commonwealth think we know American politics and thought because they are blasted at us constantly, but we hear them as part of showbusiness, not with an appreciation of the dynamics. A Parliamentary system is more fluid than a presidential one. American politicians appeal to the Constitution as an anchor or central point about which to revolve, which is not available in the British context. The vast geography and federal system of America is a point of differing starting points too, as is the ever-present legacy of the brutal plantations of past age.

All this needs further examination.

I wonder often how much our local political preconceptions mislead any aspiring commentator when looking at the politics of another land, and can only conclude that it is far more than we could ever imagine. At least the Anglosphere starts from the same culture. Foreign lands will remain a misunderstanding, and we for them.

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To the Extinction of their Democraty

Once the spell is broken, it cannot be woven again, and democracy relies on keeping a nation spellbound, just as autocracy does. (The rival systems enumerated by Hobbes differ from each other very little in this respect.) Democracy has been the most stable system as it absorbs shocks, but is breaking down and even in America there are whispers. The ‘Death of Democracy’ is a threat exaggerated by commentators by it is a moment’s work, and might be as much a part of the life of the system as its birth.

Mexico is a classroom for students of politics as its history has sampled every political system one might imagine. It has been relatively stable since about 1920; nothing like the cowboy-film version of old Mexico. It still teaches us. In 2006 a year of chaos followed the Presidential election. The losing candidate refused to accept his position, his supporters ran with that. They had reason to believe the election was stolen because in their own narrow bubbles all opinion was one way. Those protesting in the capital could not grasp that Calderón had enough support to have won, because in the capital he did not; outside their bubble he did. This shook the understanding on which democracy must stand, namely that each side accepts when it loses. Mexico is hardly a good example of a perfect, mature democracy because while it has been democratic for a hundred years, it was for most of that time a “guided democracy” in order to ensure stability.

In the United States it is meant to be different. Democracy has been unchallenged, even in the Civil War, for over two hundred years, and in fact to some extent since the first settlers on the eastern seaboard established colonies. There is belief in democracy; if there were not, the roots would dry up and the soil blow away. Where however a population draws itself in, each into his or her narrow bubble of shared norms, it is no different from the protestors in Mexico unable to comprehend that there are any who disagree, and therefore convinced that the election has been stolen.

There is a great deal more to be written on the destruction of political understanding. The danger is in the destruction of political acceptance.

No American President since the 1993s has had his legitimacy unchallenged, and this in a settled, accepted system: Clinton and his impeachment; Bush and the hanging chads; Obama and the “birther” theory; Trump with everything the other party could throw at him, including an attempt to subvert the Electoral College to keep him out; now Joe Biden’s elevation to office is being met in revenge with more law suits. Rumours of an attempt to subvert the College again appear to be smears, but we will see.

It is America though, and that counts for more than all the political shenanigans. Elections have been bought and sold many times in America, so I read, but the essential mindset in the common man, whatever party they support, if any, is that democracy unsullied is the American way, and that attempts to subvert it are despicable. That is mythology because the system has always been corruptible and corrupted, but America has always lived on self-myth, since the foundation of the republic. It is a necessity and the strength that will keep it going.

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Messages pour in for Joe

World leaders were united in offering congratulations to the man who will soon control the biggest national spending power in the world. Boris Johnson was one of the first to call the new President-to-be and in tribute to Mr Biden’s unique style, he plagiarised the whole text from a speech by Stalin.

Across the world, the message was the same: ‘we want your friendship, your goodwill, and most of all your money’. Hunter Biden stood by his father, watching as job offers rolled in from across the globe.

Boris Johnson did not forget to congratulate Kamala Harris too in her role, reminding her that both her parents were British subjects by birth and remarking on how well regarded her Indian grandfather was in the service the Empire.

Other political figures sent their own tributes. Ed Davey, brushed off being mistaken for a telephone sales caller to give a heartfelt tribute from the British Liberal Democrats, noting that they have long considered themselves allies with the US Democrats even if the Democrats have never heard of them, and they are in complete admiration, as in Britain they have never managed to conduct such open manipulation of the electoral system as was achieved in America.

Vladimir Putin did not send his congratulations: it is understood that in Russia a presidential election is not considered settled until they have finished counting all the bodies.

As the sound of knives sharpening behind Mr Biden continued, the world stood and considered the bright future for his budget spending.

In America now

Everyone has to give a commentary on the elections in the United States, apparently, and though I have never so much as stepped on American soil, it is expected of me.

The big winner was Joe Biden, in more ways than commentators have noticed; the apparent weakness of his overall position actually gives him more power against those who are seeking grab power themselves, but more later.

The election was all showbusiness, and that is what we have come to expect. It is turbo-charged since Hollywood pizzazz became the norm in all public presentations, and the Presidential Election is Hollywood-style with the stops pulled out, and that is the spirit in which I followed it, to the extent I did.

It would be comforting to believe this and the visceral hatred splitting the nation is new, but in 1835, when the ink was barely dry on the Constitution, De Tocqueville, who celebrated American democracy said:

For a long while before the appointed time has come, the election becomes the important and, so to speak, the all-engrossing topic of discussion. Factional ardour is redoubled, and all the artificial passions which the imagination can create in a happy and peaceful land are agitated and brought to light. . . . As the election draws near, the activity of intrigue and the agitation of the populace increase; the citizens are divided into hostile camps, each of which assumes the name of its favourite candidate; the whole nation glows with feverish excitement, the election is the daily theme of the press, the subject of private conversation, the end of every thought and every action, the sole interest of the present.

I say that Biden won, but there are the legal challenges. (Were there instances of corruption, stolen votes, dead voters and fraud? I expect so: there usually are in the American system.) It goes to the courts then to confirm the result we already know: the United States were founded by lawyers; the Union’s constitution and institutions were shaped by lawyers, and so it is expected that it will be fought out through lawyers. That is a habit of the American system almost unheard-of in the Commonwealth. On the other hand, it is far better than the alternative we see in less favoured lands.

The Presidency is a winner-takes all situation; it is not like a Commonwealth Prime Minister weighing the strength or weakness of a parliamentary majority, so the narrowness of win does not weaken the incoming President. What does, on the surface, is that his party failed to win control of the Senate, or to move the House of Representative much either. However, all is not what it seems.

The ground-level of the Democratic Party has become a very different place. This was the ancient party of the establishment – the party of Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis and George Wallace, the party that came out of the established powers and upheld them, championing in turn the old states, the plantation system and slavery, Jim Crow, and the gang bosses of New York. It was reliability encapsulated, against the insurgent Republican Party that wanted to tear down slavery and ossified power, but it learned to adapt, to create client groups dependent on them, in the New Deal and the entrenched dependency of welfare systems: even the Civil Rights Act was a cynical client-creation system when Jim Crow had failed. Now the roots are very different, filling with radicals that are the antithesis of what the Democrats were, whose ideas would cause collapse of systems, which are shattering the client systems. Now the man of their party is on top, with all the executive power in his hands, they want a turn at the wheel.

This is where the apparent weakness becomes a strength. By having power restrained, Biden cannot give that power to the nutcases – while he retains sufficient power to do as he wishes. Without control of the Senate, the wild-Democrats cannot fill all the offices of the Union with fellow nutcases: it requires compromise, which leaves Mr Biden in control of appointments, not the radical element.

Much has been made of the new conservative Supreme Court, and again this is to Mr Biden’s advantage, though not in the same way. The political argument over the court has been about the willingness of justices to overturn legislation, by reading into the Constitution words which are not there: a conservative court reads the American Constitution as it is written, and so is les willing to overturn legislation and executive acts. That strengthens the power of the President and of the House of Representatives. Mr Biden, for all the bluster by those behind him, should welcome a conservative court, and when the time comes he should appoint more conservative justices to it.

I doubt that the politicians will see it this way.

On the other hand, I am not an American, and I could have got it all wrong, and any American is welcome to tell me it is none of my business, which it isn’t.

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