US Capitol attack

[OPINION] The US Capitol siege: Lessons from an embattled democracy

Leila de Lima

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[OPINION] The US Capitol siege: Lessons from an embattled democracy

Illustration by Janina Malinis

'What makes [a country] great is what it does before, during, and after a disaster, whether they be natural ones, man-made ones, or political ones'

The images of the US Capitol under siege was a sight that transfixed the whole world. 

For the past century, the United States has stood on the world stage, projecting itself as the epitome of human social achievement. A nation that not only represented the pinnacle of military, economic, and political power, but one that managed to achieve those by celebrating, rather than bargaining away, the dignity, rights, and aspirations of the individual. 

To many generations who were born after it had reached its height of power, the United States was more than just any prosperous Western nation, a progression from the periods of colonialism, to industrial revolution and, inevitably, globalization. Unlike many other Western powers, the United States evokes extremes of regard: it was either an ideal which the rest of the world should aspire to emulate if not overtake, or a great big machinery for exploitative consumerism that feeds and expands itself at the expense of a world that is being bled dry. 

To those who idealized it, it was the Land of the Free, where every man and woman is equal; the modern conception of the Land of Milk and Honey, where American Dreams could become a reality for the bold and the brave; where no one who is willing to work hard would ever go hungry and neglected.

For the rest of the world, especially those who have had to suffer the wrong end of so-called American Imperialism, the image of the United States as a bastion of freedom, human rights, and prosperity is nothing more than a great big ad campaign, aided and globally propelled by the propaganda machinery that is Hollywood, that is conceived and propagated in order to make imperialism by capitalism an easier pill to swallow for its victims.

Last Wednesday, January 6, on the day when the delegates of the American People were to gather and certify the results of the free elections through which Americans of voting age were called upon to democratically elect their next President – that image shattered. 

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For those who idealized the United States, including Americans themselves who truly believed that America is the Greatest and the Best nation in the world, the events that unfolded last week were shockingly unimaginable. 

How could these images – of citizens smashing one end of a flag pole through the head of a police officer guarding the seat of governmental power and, in general, resorting to resolving their grievances and conflicts with violence – be happening in the United States of America? These are images that the world has come to expect from nations ruled by authoritarian regimes that push their own people into desperation through decades of oppression, poverty, corruption and abuses. How could this happen in and to America, a country that possesses levels of economic power, prosperity, and opportunities that most countries could only dream of? And how can the attack be levied against the very institutions that the United States has been so proud of for more than two centuries, those that have symbolized the defense of the freedoms, rights, and dignity of the individual?

They think, surely, this was the work of foreign enemies, using infiltrators and instigators who managed to dupe Americans into hating each other. This must be the work of a few bad seeds, the gullible and the easily manipulated. This is not a sign of what is wrong in America, but of the strength of America because its enemies could only succeed by trying to divide the nation and its peoples.

On the other hand, for those who see through the facade of “America the Great” and see the brewing discontent underneath that has gone unaddressed for decades and even centuries, this is but the culmination of the hypocrisy behind American domestic and foreign policies. There is no small amount of schadenfreude in seeing America personally and domestically experience the political upheavals that its foreign policies have wreaked on smaller, more vulnerable nations, and even on its own vulnerable populations.

For my part, I see things a little bit differently.  This is more than just a case of a nation getting its comeuppance. To say that every nation has its good days and its bad days is a truism. What is important to realize is that this is the logical progression stemming from a destructive dichotomy between what a country truly is (the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, the great, and the humble), and what it believes itself to be. By being obsessed with projecting “greatness,” there is temptation to photoshop away the flaws. What is left is the equivalent of an “Instagram reality” version of the image of a nation that is not only unsustainable, but also self-destructive. 

The truth is that every nation – no matter how prosperous or destitute it is – would be built upon the different experiences of different peoples. In the case of the United States, for every millionaire, there are a million who don’t have the same economic and social security. For every immigrant who realized their “American Dream,” there are rural Americans who see their local industries and, with it, their future and their way of life, dying. For every “winner” in a trade deal, there will always be a sector that will feel the brunt of the trade-off. 

The truth of one person’s experience does not negate the truth of other people’s experience. And just telling people to “deal with it” never ends well.

So there is a danger in painting all the so-called “MAGA” rioters with one broad brush stroke. The truth is that their composition crossed different classes. There are those who come from dirt-poor classes, the middle class, and even the one percenters. They each have different experiences, but the narrative they are fed is the same, and so dangerously simple. They are told that the root cause of their sufferings, the obstacles that come between them and greater riches, and the threat to their obscene wealth and power, all come from the same source: the “others,” and they are left to fill in the specifics of their definition of who these “others” are, so long as they are “not one of us.” They can be the immigrants who have come to take their jobs, the BLM protesters, or the Democrats who want to increase the taxes of the rich. 

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It may be true that the chaos in the US Capitol was fomented and instigated by enemies from without, who have used various forms of media and communications to amplify and exploit the dissatisfactions of those within. But those tactics only succeeded because the dissatisfaction is real. They were able to pry the cracks wider because they were already there. 

This just goes to show that it is very easy to create and foment hatred for imaginary enemies. 

The challenge is that creating imaginary allies is much less effective and productive. Pouring a layer of concrete over those cracks will not fix foundational issues. It may provide some aesthetic relief for a time, but eventually the cracks underneath will spread again. So each of those cracks must be patched. 

The issues of the poor in rural America have to be addressed, especially on how to help them transition away from dying industries. 

The issues of small business owners and the middle class have to be addressed as well, for they carry the weight of the nation.

The issues of the ultra rich likewise have to be bluntly dealt with, preferably with strong political will. 

The time of Capitalism and the “Greed is Good” mentality is over. That is what Americans have to realize sooner, rather than later. No one should be left behind. The progress of one need not, and does not, spell the decline of the other. Democracy is not a zero-sum game.  It is synergy at its best.

I, for one, am rooting for the United States as always. It may not be as united or as great as it projects itself to be, but it is nonetheless closer to greatness than authoritarian regimes for one simple reason: it has created a space for people to be able to live with dignity. That it is not yet perfect, or not as inclusive as it could be at the moment, is no reason to throw away the ideals it fights and stands for: Democracy, Rule of Law, and Human Rights. In fact, it is more reason to keep striving for improvement and inclusiveness.

What makes a country great is not who or what it is at a given snapshot in time. What makes it great is what it does before, during, and after a disaster, whether they be natural ones, man-made ones, or political ones. 

Keeping a democracy like the United States going is much like keeping a perpetual stew (or hunter’s stew) going. It’s a stew made up of everything a hunter can find, much like a democracy as diverse as the United States. No one ingredient is allowed to overpower the others; otherwise, the taste is ruined and it won’t be as nourishing; ultimately, it stops becoming what it is. If it is maintained well, its flavor improves with age, but it requires consistent attention because a certain temperature has to be maintained: too high, it will boil over and burn; too low, bacteria will grow and it will spoil. Similarly, a democracy survives and flourishes under the right balance of duties and freedoms: too much of one leads to discontent; too much of the other leads to anarchy. 

I am hard-pressed to identify a country that is as diverse as the United States, that has managed to maintain democracy for so long. For that reason alone, I won’t make the mistake of counting the United States out. If there is a democratic country in the world that has the capacity to restore balance and become truly great in the truest sense of the word, in the face of so many challenges both within and without, it would be the United States.  And the free world would be in a better place for it. –

Senator Leila de Lima, a fierce Duterte critic, has been detained in a facility at the Philippine National Police headquarters for several years over what she calls trumped-up drug charges.

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