Many in America and around the world who witnessed the seemingly insane invaders desecrate the national Capitol on January 6, 2021 were saddened by this event. It put on raw display the fact that Americans see other Americans as their worst enemies. The worry that it sparks is that the shining light on the hill will become a searchlight, a non-lethal weapon in the name of defending or keeping at bay America’s democracy.
As Liz Shrayer writes in an op-ed in The Hill, “the effects of a frayed America on the world stage are the reasons for us to get it right”. Indeed, America’s reputation and standing from shore to shore have suffered terribly, making peace and security at home and abroad even more fragile than they already were. But an even more important and urgent reason to get it right are the effects of a frayed America at home: a lack of national character, a lack of trust and a lack of education.
America’s national character - the unique personality, lifestyles, behavioral configurations, attitudes, and psychological mechanisms characteristic of Americans - has suffered a steady decline in quality. Since the 1960s, our leaders, representatives and lawmakers have progressively lost their ethical political weather vane and forgotten that ensuring equality and fairness is their responsibility.
America’s social virtues have atrophied as the State has become increasingly remote from individuals. Representatives, senators and other elected public officials have selfishly pursued their own interests in detriment of the interests of those they were elected to represent. This has led to a growing hypertrophied democracy that is becoming a sociological monstrosity.
Politically-based creative destruction in pursuit of individual benefit and profit at the expense of civil society has crushed social trust and solidarity. This has led to a deepening social pathology: an individualistic, intolerant, exclusivist, and uncompromising “rights culture” devoid of duties or responsibilities. The exercise of a particular freedom has become an end in itself, regardless of the consequences for the larger community.
The storming of the Capitol in Washington DC on January 6, 2021 is clear, direct and unadulterated evidence of this. So is the consequent need by the State to oppress and contain expected violence on January 20, 2021, the Inauguration Day of Joe Biden as the nation’s newly elected President.
The decline of America’s national character has led to dysfunctional patterns of behavior in leadership, organizations and groups. This has generated an acute sense of unease and distrust among Americans. It is what Durkheim labeled anomie, which has been ravaging the nation and its communities since the end of the Vietnam War.
The usual social and ethical standards and rules binding American society together - as families, neighbors and communities - have been unravelling for decades. Subjective personal judgements, increasingly devoid of democratic rhyme or reason, have replaced “good government”. The right to liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness have become a cover for individual selfishness to pursue private aims without regard to anyone else.
But it is the politicization of the “rights culture” that has created a new battleground. On one side, there are those who understand that democracy is a privilege that carries with it important individual responsibilities that undergird the rights it confers on the people and their representatives. On the other side, there are those who have forgotten or have never learned what democracy is and means and thus confound privilege with their right to violate the shared responsibility of protecting and securing our democracy and the future of the nation.
Political turf wars and individual rights battles have led to a growing loss of trust and confidence by citizens in their government, in each other and in the educational system that is supposed to prepare their children for productive participation in society but has instead become elitist, unfair and unequal in access and opportunity. With the weakening of national character and the decline in trust, a growing number of people have forgotten, or perhaps were never taught, that Democracy is a learned behavior; it’s not something bestowed by a “manifest destiny”.
Many Americans have forgotten that the American individualistic tradition has historically been accompanied by people coming together and cooperating. Too many have not even learned the meaning of democracy. Too many American children are not being taught the early lessons in civics and political participation that will prepare them for sentient engagement in their democracy as adults. Too many have forgotten that they are citizens of a polity and as such are responsible for protecting fairness of participation in society and integrity in the practice of democracy.
As Sunday Civics explains, for decades, educators and scholars have raised the alarm that education in democracy has been wholly lacking. Americans have been taught that government and politics are actions that happen to them. So they are not prepared to take part in participatory government.
Americans have been taught about their basic freedoms – of speech, of assembly, of religion, of petition, of the press and the right to bear arms – but they have not been taught how those freedoms empower them to put their rights and responsibilities as citizens into collective agency for the common good or how to use their individual and collective power for positive change.
At the same time, they have witnessed a growing number of politicians, lawmakers and elected officials practice uncivil and undemocratic behavior. The results are increasing apathy, decreasing trust and faith in “the system”, decaying societal structures, and increasing frustration with the government.
The lesson to be drawn from the horrific scenes that unfolded during the storming and desecration of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 is that you can’t practice what you don’t learn, but you can learn by doing what others do, whether good or bad examples.