Debating (American) Democracy

Jerry Bannister

Like everyone else this evening, I’m struggling to keep up with the news. What’s striking about the latest crisis in the United States is that, even at the very heart of American power, there remains so much confusion about what’s happening on the ground in Washington. Despite the ocean of tweets, there is still a lot of uncertainty about what tonight will hold once the curfew is enforced. Yet, even as reporters struggle to keep up with events, commentators on social media, including historians, are debating the merits of democracy. Although many social media commentators differ from Joe Biden, they generally share his view that the attack on the US Capitol is an attack on democracy.

Given the circumstances, I thought that Biden gave a good speech.  He tried to strike the right tone of appealing for calm while calling on Trump to step up and condemn the violence that he himself incited hours earlier. “The world’s watching,” Biden stated. “Like so many other Americans, I am genuinely shocked and saddened that our nation — so long the beacon of light and hope for democracy — has come to such a dark moment.” Biden is right: the world is indeed watching.  I will leave to others to debate whether anything that happened today is genuinely shocking, but it’s important to note a distinction that Biden made and which academic commentators, including historians, would do well to recognize. After affirming the ideals of America, Biden returned to the practice of democracy: “The certification, the Electoral College vote, it’s supposed to be a sacred ritual to reaffirm… the purpose is to affirm the majesty of American democracy.”

Those are my italics. I don’t know how much that emphasis reflects Biden’s intention, but, as a Canadian historian, they mark a crucial distinction as we debate the origins and future of this crisis. What we’re seeing on TV and Twitter is a violent attack on the people, institutions, laws, and norms that support democracy. Whatever you call it – attempted coup, putsch, mob attack, anarchy, right-wing insurrection – it is shocking to see and read about violence that has, at last count, claimed at least one life today. Whether you saw it coming or were at least stunned (as I was) by the images of rioters invading the Capitol, it’s bound to generate further debate over the history and future of democracy.

As events in Washington unfold, and as historians participate in the coming debate, we should keep in mind that this is an American crisis. I am not in any way denying the systemic racism, genocide, and violence of colonialism in Canada. We share many of the same problems that the United States is facing. But there are also differences. Depending on one’s perspective, those differences may be minor but, as I said the day after Trump was elected, those differences don’t feel very minor today. While it’s important to research and recognize patterns and problems that transcend national borders and identities, it’s equally important to avoid seeing Canada through the lens of the United States. American democracy is distinct from Canadian democracy in ways that have fueled Trumpism and spread violent extremism in the United States. Just to take one example: imagine if Trump were not simultaneously the head of state and of government. If there were a separate head of state in the United States, as there is in Canada and many other democracies, then I think that today’s events would have unfolded differently. Even with a head of state from the same party, Trump as head of government would have a far harder time contesting the election and undermining democratic institutions. Trump’s presidency is a reminder of the terrible weight that words and symbols carry in electoral politics, and a head of state even with only limited powers could still serve as a check against attempts to subvert democracy.

National differences matter.  Forms of democracy matter.  Whether one sees Trumpism as an aberration, as Biden does, or as the culmination of trends that stretch back generations, it is a distinctly American form of bigotry.  Trumpism shares a lineage with racist movements elsewhere, including Canada, but it has evolved in a republic with a constitution that makes it exceptionally difficult to remove a president once they’re elected.  Differences such as the offices of head of state versus head of government may seem minor to some, but during crises like we’re watching this evening they become centrally important.  While the world watches Washington, we need to recognize the difference between the ideals of democracy, on the one hand, and the reality of American democracy, on the other.  Today’s events may reveal what America really is, but they do not define democracy for everyone.

Jerry Bannister teaches history at Dalhousie University.


Featured image: Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump protest in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S. January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith.

Latest Comments

  1. Jeff McNairn says:

    Thanks, Jerry, for the salient reminder that, even as we are overwhelmed with images and commentary from the United States, we ought to resist the temptation to see Canada solely through the lens of the United States. Of course, the Untied States has always loomed large in the politics of Canada and the British colonies from which it emerged.

    One difference that struck me as I abandoned any pretence of working yesterday was how large history loomed in the ways American politicians and commentators talked about events. Sure, here were lots of hazy references to historical tradition. You quote Biden’s claim that the United States has been “so long the beacon of light and hope for democracy.” Yet in addition to invocations and symbolism such as the presence of the Confederate flag, history appeared in rather detailed disputes about elections in 1800 and especially 1876 and knowledge of the War of 1812 or whose portraits hung where as images from within the Capital buildings were discussed.

    There used to be an easy myth that Canada was about history and precedent and the United States was forward-looking and about rights. Canadian historians have uncovered a rich history of rights-talk in British North America and Canada long before the Charter and lots of Americans were talking about the rights of the American people and American states. American historians have long talked about the creation of historical memory from the Revolution and the Constitution of 1787. Constitutional commentary in the United States is frequently framed as a debate about the eighteenth century. There’s also no dichotomy here as rights, as E.A. Heaman and others have shown, were often conceived as historical.

    Still, I find it hard to imagine in the very midst of a Canadian crisis about elections or the role of parliament hearing the specifics of Canadian political history do any substantive work in public reasoning. We may be the ones who still have a monarchy but for better or worse it and the Canadian system it operates in are largely untethered from history. The more I think about it the more I realize I shouldn’t have been surprised at the contrast, but yesterday’s events were a sharp reminder of the contrast.

  2. Jerry Bannister says:

    Thanks, Jeff. One of the enduring effects of the Revolution is that it offers Americans such a convenient heuristic for talking and expressing politics. It comes with a whole package of rhetoric and symbols that can be readily deployed on social media or in the streets. Stripped of nuance or contexts, American history becomes, in a way, politics by other means. I think it’s worth discussing the degree to which English-Canadian politics is untethered from history. Dan’s comparisons with 1849 are interesting, but the parallels can only be taken so far, before we’re back to talking (or not talking) about where we are today and how we got here.

    My point yesterday is that we should have that conversation, as much as possible, on our own terms. What’s going on in Washington this morning is certainly about democracy — what is it, how can it be protected, improved, obstructed, or replaced? — but it’s debate in and about the United States. What’s happening in America will always shape our own debates about our own democracy; my point is that those debates should pay attention to differences as much as similarities.

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