Today, January 20, 2021, is a solemn day but also one of hope and relief. With a grieving nation raw with emotions, Joe Biden makes history as the first American president to experience a subdued and muted inauguration with a scaled-back ceremony with a small crowd, no song and dance and the capital on edge under militarized fortification. At noon EST, Biden was sworn in as the 46th President amid national mourning for 400,000 Covid deaths (and counting) and with tight security against domestic insurgency and terrorism.
Meanwhile former, twice-impeached President Trump, bitter and rancorous, has fast become a pariah for having sowed debilitating division, hate and violence. His tattered legacy will be defined by its pathological mendacity and deception, poisonous conspiracy theories, fawning sycophantic enablers, and human and psychological carnage.
Biden has been welcomed with expectation and feelings of solace by a majority of Americans and world leaders. There is shared belief that he will bring back decency to the Oval office, national unity and a forward-looking vision that will, with luck, put the pieces of a broken democracy back together again.
These are times of extreme uncertainty and fragility, of pain and weariness, of suspicion and distrust. But we should celebrate the seeds of hope Biden and his vice-president, Kamala Harris, the first woman, black and South Asian to occupy that position. Those seeds hold the promise of budding a new light from the shadows of the frenzied violence, in words and deeds, that has marked America since 2016 but has been silently latent for decades.
Since the 1960s, America has suffered progressive subversion of its democratic culture. America’s democratic deficit began with a failure of Americans to perceive their society… and continues with a failure to learn and practice democracy. The Trump administration took the process to its furthest logical consequences.
Americans are traditionally individualistic. This has brought enormous benefits to the economic sphere of American society. At the same time, the American culture’s orientation to group and community has, in the past, served to moderate the individualistic tendencies.
The coexistence of the two is what, as Francis Fukuyama in Trust points out, has “contributed to the overall success of American democracy”. But after sixty years of constant assault on the moral communities that make up American civil society and the consequent decline in sociability, the challenge now is to return to a better balance.
To maintain a democracy, the people’s elected representatives and senators must, paraphrasing Emile Durkheim in The Division of Labor in Society, be near enough to the individuals who voted for them, in order to attract them strongly to the power of democratic culture and drag them into the general torrent of democratic life. But since the debacle of the Clinton administration in promoting health care reform, skepticism about the workability of large-scale government management has become a rallying cry against government.
As evidenced by the storming and desecration of American democracy, on January 6, 2021, that cry has become an instrument of its subversion. Yet it has a deeper, more existential meaning for American society.
The consequences of losing social capital
The insurrection is a reflection of how far social structures in American society have disintegrated. Following the Trump administration’s assault on democracy, America is at a tipping point between renewal or decay.
A generalized loss of trust, norms of reciprocity and civic engagement – or what Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone calls “social capital” – has led to an increasing disconnect between American communities. Bonds among families and individuals have been broken. Americans have become unhappier, less educated, less healthy, less safe, and lonelier.
After four years of dishonesty and self-serving behaviors taken to the extreme, today there is a feeling that because almost no one, especially politicians, can be trusted, individuals have no mutual obligation or responsibility for action. The end result: NIMBY (not in my back yard) movements, organizations with malevolent antisocial purposes (i.e. conspiracy theories) and leaders who pull apart communities and families by exaggerating national myths as a way to place themselves as false heroes while understating the importance of collective effort.
Yet a government’s highest ambition cannot be limited to “do no harm”. Nor should it strive to socially engineer change. And government programs are incapable of creating a “great American democratic society”. The latter is a pipe dream and former a fallacy.
Let us celebrate and rise to the occasion
Today’s inauguration is an opportunity of a life time to choose optimism over pessimism as the guiding light for our world view as individuals and as a nation. The cup of American democracy is still half full, not half empty.
It’s time to shed willful ignorance, intellectual indolence and spurious hate (George T. Conway III, The Washington Post op-ed, 01/20/2021). It’s time to make America reflourish noble and beautiful again. Let us confront history and rise to this once in a lifetime occasion, with the determination and unfailing hope that have always made America exceptional.
Paraphrasing Emily Dickinson, hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul of America and sings the tune of democracy without the words of insurrection. And never stops – at all. The minimum necessary to sustain the republic will be done (The Washington Post, Editorial, 01/20/2021), if Americans work together to reestablish character, trust and education as directional signs on the path back to the shining city upon a hill.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris today bring a new day for democracy (David Ignatius, The Washington Post op-ed, 01/20/2021) from sea to shining sea. Let us celebrate despite everything.