On a US Embassy-sponsored speaking tour in Yemen before its 1993 national elections, I met with the leaders of various political parties and heard complaints about the ruling party’s repressive and anti-democratic behaviors. Some were serious human rights violations; others were seemingly petty but still threatening in a fragile, new democracy—“they're tearing down our signs,” “they're passing out money to buy support,” or “they’re harassing our volunteers.”
To these latter complaints, I responded: “We’ve had that problem in Michigan,” or “In Philadelphia they call that ‘walking around money’,” or “We’ve seen that kind of harassment from the party establishment.”
When my embassy escort was quizzical, I said: “I’m not going to pretend that we’re perfect, because then why would anyone try to emulate us?” I noted that though imperfect, our system provides the opportunity to hold violators accountable, to correct our errors and rectify abuses.
I don’t think I could say it today.
While some Americans still cling to the belief that we are “the shining city on the hill,” the model for emerging democracies worldwide, what’s becoming disturbingly clear is our democracy is in danger.
We project to the world that free and fair elections and protection of personal and political rights are the foundations of a democratic order. And we judge other countries by the extent to which they provide for both. While these may be the foundations, it’s accountability and mutual respect between winners and losers that are the mortar holding these building blocks in place. Without them, the entire edifice is at risk of crumbling. Sadly, the corrosive effects of the lack of accountability and comity are taking their toll on the US today.
Post-9/11, we saw fabrications justifying the war in Iraq, laws and executive orders that violated fundamental rights of both legal immigrants and citizens, and “legal” documents allowing torture against captured prisoners. There was no accountability for the fabrications, lies, or torture.
The January 6th insurrection and the criminal incitement preceding it cry out for accountability. Yet a divided Congress rejected a full bipartisan investigation, forcing Democrats to proceed with a few brave Republicans to uncover the truth about this unprecedented threat to American democracy. What might have been a unified quest for accountability is now challenged by Republicans as a mere partisan ploy.
While leading Republicans maintain that the 2020 election was stolen, their acolytes are running for sensitive posts overseeing future elections. New legislation in many states will make it more difficult to vote, putting free and fair elections at risk.
The polarization of politics is equally damaging. In the past, despite their differences, the parties would unite to pass legislation in the national interest and defer to the White House on presidential appointments. Some Republicans supported civil rights legislation and passed budgets, while Democrats supported some tax cuts and educational reforms. Both sides approved nominations to high office by presidents of the opposing party.
A new order in American politics began with Newt Gingrich’s becoming Speaker of the House as Congress became a partisan club used to pummel the Clinton administration.
This partisan dysfunction has only grown uglier over time—today reaching such disastrous proportions that Congress is unable to muster the votes needed to pass an appropriation for vaccines against new variants of the coronavirus.
Instead of a “city on the hill,” we’ve become a lesson in what can happen without accountability and political comity. Our dysfunctions mimic those of Lebanon where sectarianism blocks accountability for a prime minister’s assassination or a deadly port explosion. Or like Israel, where a former prime minister on trial for corruption and influence peddling stymies legislation favored by his supporters to prevent giving his opponents a victory. Or like Iraq, where the losing parties block the formation of a government and the frustrated winners seize parliament, demanding a new election.
We’re not yet like Lebanon, Israel, or Iraq—where criminal behavior goes unpunished, ideological divisions create paralysis, and the lack of comity results in chaos. But unless we take a long hard look in the mirror, recognize the crisis facing us, and take corrective measures, that’s where we’re heading.