Jeffrey McCarthy: Learning democracy from Jan. 6

We can lose our democracy gradually, and then suddenly.

FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, rioters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. People charged in the attack on the U.S. Capitol left behind a trove of videos and messages that have helped federal authorities build cases. In nearly half of the more than 200 federal cases stemming from the attack, authorities have cited evidence that an insurrectionist appeared to have been inspired by conspiracy theories or extremist ideologies, according to an Associated Press review of court records. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

A nation can march itself toward destruction just the way F. Scott Fitzgerald marched into bankruptcy, “Gradually, and then suddenly.”

Look to Germany in the 1930s, look to Rome under Caesar, for societies that ruined themselves first gradually, and then suddenly. Their wealth, and culture and electoral systems were no match for political jealousy and for the cynical manipulation of popular discontent. Sure, you can find reasons for cultural reinvention, but overthrowing those voting orders left smoking ruin.

American democracy is threatened now by reactionary voices on both sides of the aisle. This week, the right is covering up the January insurrection, and the left is vicious with its own propaganda of righteousness. If we forget that democracy is about compromise, we will let partisan politics undermine two centuries of the American experiment.

Democracy functions by consent of the governed, and democracy functions by awkward compromise between rational interests, and the whole grand machine is oiled by faith. If you have faith the game is more important than the player, it follows that your cause is less important than the democracy that holds it.

For instance, more people in Georgia voted for Joe Biden than for Donald Trump; deal with it. For instance, Joe Manchin can vote against Biden’s Build Back Better and still be a Democrat; deal with it. Uncivil violence in response to votes are cracks in the foundation Americans can repair.

Functioning democracy looks like a messy working through of differing priorities — think of the Constitutional Convention. It does not look like occupying the capitol, or silencing dissent — that road leads to authoritarianism.

If the civic values of compromise and understanding are extinguished by partisanship, and if that partisanship expresses itself in attacks on the legitimacy of actual elections, the consequence will be collapse. Each side claims the other is undermining democracy, then uses that claim to undermine democracy. This shows that obedience to a particular party is not the answer, democratic process is the answer. Blind fealty to a cause will deliver America to our Nero, to our Reichstag fire.

Saint Francis prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. / Where there is hatred, let me sow love; / Where there is injury, pardon.” On the anniversary of America’s Jan. 6 insurrection, let’s reach out in understanding on either hand. America’s “City on the Hill” promised freedom and opportunity, and has wrestled with itself to get closer to those ideals.

The partisan divide here in Utah and in Washington, D.C., foments totalitarian domination, not freedom. Other political experiments have failed in chaos and rage, and ours can too. The shameful anniversary of the capitol riots should spur, instead, civil discourse and honest efforts to bolster democracy.

Jeffrey Mathes McCarthy

Jeffrey Mathes McCarthy, Ph.D., is director of environmental humanities and affiliate faculty of the Global Change and Sustainability Center, University of Utah.