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Glen Argan: For America, we hope the choice is good over evil

  • January 12, 2022

Growing numbers of commentators are warning of “a grave danger” to American democracy — the possibility of a civil war or other anti-democratic actions by right-wing extremists aimed at overthrowing the United States government.

Canadian political scientist Stephen Marché, in his new book The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future, maintains American conservatives have been actively preparing for civil war by training themselves, gathering weapons and rehearsing possibilities of war. Since President Joe Biden’s election 14 months ago, an openness to violent rebellion against federal authority has become a mainstream conservative position. Calls for armed resistance against the U.S. government have increased sharply over the last year.

Another Canadian academic, Thomas Homer-Dixon, wrote in The Globe and Mail detailing the similarities between Germany’s pre-Nazi Weimar Republic and the current situation in the U.S. “(America’s) problems are systemic and deeply entrenched — and events could soon spiral out of control.”

The New York Times, in its Jan. 1 editorial reflecting on the anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol — “Every Day is Jan. 6 Now” — points out that an overwhelming majority of Republicans believe Biden’s backers stole the 2020 election from Donald Trump. As well, about one-third of Republicans believe violent civilian action is warranted if elected leaders fail to protect America.

The Times also notes several state legislatures are enacting laws to both make it more difficult to vote and easier to subvert the popular will if legislators do not like the results of an election. “The Republic faces an existential threat from a movement that is openly contemptuous of democracy and has shown that it is willing to use violence to achieve its ends.”

All three sources suggest practical steps that could help prevent widespread political violence and the subversion of democracy.

As one who sees secular liberalism as impotent in developing effective non-violent solutions to world problems, I take their warnings seriously. The impotence of secular liberalism stems from its deflated understanding of the nature of the human person, that is, its assumption that persons are centres of desire rather than beings capable of self-transcendence through love.

Secular liberals accept that centres of desire can and even should be manipulated to achieve some supposed greater good. However, a human person is a being of immeasurable value with a dignity that should never be violated.

Democracy is inherently fragile and unstable. It is fragile because it involves more than the continued existence of democratic institutions. Those institutions, such as an elected parliament and an independent judiciary, are essential. But Catholic political philosopher David Walsh notes that liberal democratic societies become flabby to the extent citizens are unwilling to sacrifice their personal interests for the common good.

Democracy is unstable, Walsh argues, in that it must maintain a balance between freedom and equality. A democratic society which overemphasizes equality shows a willingness to suppress freedom. Conversely, an overemphasis on freedom leaves vulnerable citizens open to exploitation by the powerful.

A democratic society requires rulers and a citizenry committed to democratic values — tolerance and respect for those with different points of view, a willingness to accept electoral defeat, upholding of universal suffrage and respect for human rights. If the people fail to uphold those values, democracy may crumble. Democracy is not self-perpetuating; it must be continually renewed.

The major totalitarian states of the 20th century — the Soviet Union, Communist China and Nazi Germany — arose from the ashes of failed democracies. While Americans may believe their democracy will last forever, no democracy is invulnerable. Economic and social conditions can alter so that citizens demand a strong leader who will set things right. Further, modern technology has created an array of tools for dishonourable governments and corporations to manipulate the beliefs and actions of the citizenry.

Many conditions could arise or already exist which could contribute to outbreaks of civil violence leading to the destruction of American democracy. These include the widely held Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump, an ineffective presidency, a pandemic which threatens life and freedom, a history of solving problems through violence, widespread belief in delusional conspiracy theories, high inflation which reduces people’s life savings and a stock market crash which throws millions into unemployment.

The dark side of America is already on display. However, while democracy is never a permanent achievement neither is its destruction inevitable. Our hope lies in human free will, the possibility that people will come to their senses and that they will choose good over evil.

(Argan writes from Edmonton.)

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