That democracy is messy can be blamed on one reality: the very thing that enables it also undermines it. There can be no democracy without politics. Yet, it is politics that batters the soul of democracy with its seemingly inherent cynicism.
That was certainly the case last week’s Saturday when the US Senate fell short of the 67 votes required to uphold the House of Representative’s impeachment of then President Donald Trump. The evidence for a “Yes” vote was overwhelming that Trump engineered the assault on Congress as members certified the electoral votes. And the House impeachment managers masterfully made the case. Yet 43 of the 100 Senators — all of them members of Trump’s Republican Party — still voted against conviction.
Several of the “Nay” voters had viscerally blamed Trump for the insurrection right after it occurred. Yet when it came time to make that condemnation official, they balked. The unsavoury aspects of politics had superseded democratic ethos.
Former Senate Majority Leader (now Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell epitomises the cynicism. After the attack on Congress, McConnell blasted Trump for instigating it. However, when the House impeached Trump and requested a Senate trial before his term ended, McConnell refused. Before and during the Senate trial, he claimed that he was keeping an open mind. Yet, after he joined 42 fellow Republicans to vote against conviction, he offered an explanation that foreclosed conviction: Trump was no longer in office. Then he issued a blistering statement against Trump for instigating the attack. That’s politicking at its most transparently disingenuous.
But that’s nothing new with McConnell. As Senate Majority Leader, he refused to bring President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court for a vote in 2016. His rationale was that the nomination should be left to the next president, though the next election was more than nine months away. Yet, when Trump made a nomination two years later to the same court, McConnell fast-tracked the confirmation to limit scrutiny that might have derailed the nomination.
At a campaign rally in Iowa in 2017, Trump boasted, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Even as a metaphor, it was still an insult to his tens of millions of devotees. He was saying, in effect, that their devotion to him transcended their rationality and compassion. That’s at odds with the ethos of democracy. Yet, the continued devotion to Trump after the bloody insurgency suggested that his statement may have been more literal than metaphorical.
The insurgency caused the death of seven people, including three police officers, two of whom died by suicide. Yet the few Republicans who voted to impeach or convict Trump have faced censure by their state committees and harassment by other Trump devotees. It is widely conjectured that Trump would have been convicted by a wide margin had the Senate used a secret ballot. Harassment aside, the fear is that Trump would galvanise his followers to defeat members of Congress who voted against him. For many, that fear superseded conscience.
The Trump phenomenon is actually quite prevalent in the politics of many countries. In Nigeria, it is in the form of ethnic and related loyalties. Quite a few Nigerian politicians could rightly say what Trump said of his devotees. But while they know and act like it, they don’t say so because they are not as lacking in inhibition. The reality still explains why the most corrupt and inept leaders still have the staunch support of their ethnic and religious groups.
The bright side
Before all this gives rise to despair and even cynicism about democracy, here are some words of wisdom from then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise,” Churchill said in November 1947, about two years after the end of World War II. “Indeed … democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
What just transpired in America’s governance bears him out. Trump may have exercised sway over tens of millions of Americans, but he was still impeached by the House of Representatives. The Senate failed to sustain the impeachment, but at least the senators had the opportunity to do so. In pressing for conviction, the House managers aimed to send a message to Trump and other politicians who might want to emulate him. More specifically, a conviction could have barred him from seeking office again. The first objective was essentially met by the trial itself. And even without a conviction, the second objective was substantially met as well.
“By escaping conviction Saturday, (Trump) avoided official disqualification from holding public office in the future,” writes David Axelrod, a CNN analyst and former adviser to President Obama. “But the story laid out in the trial — which was powerful and convincing — will disqualify him in the eyes of a majority of Americans. He was spared today. But this trial has ensured that Donald Trump won’t escape the verdict of history.”
The basis for Axelrod’s assertion was articulated in the mid-19th century by President Abraham Lincoln, one of the most influential philosophers of democracy: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
In so saying, Lincoln encapsulated both the fragility and resilience of democracy. While democracy is constantly in flux, it generally moves in the right direction when the people are freely informed and allowed to decide. A majority of the people will ultimately recognise the light and gravitate toward it. That’s why democracy is the worst form of government except for everything else that has been tried.< p style="text-align: justify;">
Biden’s victory and Okonjo-Iweala’s history
Nigeria’s former finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is one person who will always remember the Trump-Biden transition in the White House. For months Trump held up her selection as the director general of the World Trade Organisation. That impediment to history was cleared when Biden was inaugurated president. On Monday, the WTO formalised appointment, making Okonjo-Iweala the first woman and the first African to head the WTO.
But she doesn’t have time to revel in that history. She is taking the helm at a time of economic difficulties around the world and uncertainties in global commerce — all resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s been a long and tough road, full of uncertainty, but now it’s the dawn of a new day and the real work can begin,” she said in her inaugural speech. “The challenges facing the W.T.O. are numerous and tricky, but they are not insurmountable.”
Much of the developing world surely hopes that the “new day” will bring about more equitable terms of international trade.
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