If it can happen in Washington, it can happen anywhere

The coup attempt of January 6 serves as a somber reminder that Western democracy is sick and cannot be cured without addressing the root causes. 

© Tyler Merbler

Charlotte is an intelligent woman in her forties. She works as an urban planner in a small town, is heavily involved in the local arts scene, and actively supported a progressive candidate during the last election. Charlotte also believes that cancer can be cured by “resolving your inner conflicts”, a method which “Jewish doctors try to hide from the public in a new form of mass genocide”. One day she votes for the Greens, the next she marches through Berlin with the same people who tried to storm the Reichstag building last summer.

Benedetta is a middle-aged doctor. She works for a local health authority operating serological tests for passengers landing in Pisa’s airport. She is genial, affable, and undeniably effective at carrying out her task. Benedetta is also convinced that COVID-19 is nothing more than a flu exploited by the “media circus” in order for “them” to control “us”. When, after around 15 minutes, the test result shows that you haven’t developed any antibodies, she informs you that you are “negative” as if it’s a joke that you just don’t get.

What unites these examples is that they are still considered atypical. The truth is that they’re not.

© Tyler Merbler

Asymptomatic Treatment

We associate cultural and socio-economic affluence with an inherent resilience to the virus that is fake news. The reality however is that dangerous conspiracy theories are not a fringe phenomenon. Even if their most fertile breeding ground is still found in those lacking access to reliable information and cut off from upward social mobility, the forces that tear democracy’s fabric apart seem to have transcended economics and culture. Instead, they have become their own ideology.

We don’t know how the median household income of the rioters who raided and looted the Capitol compares to the rest of the country. What we do know is that they were overwhelmingly White men, and that they all heeded the call of the same figure: US President Donald Trump. They are not merely Republicans or conservatives: they are Trump supporters, or, to be more precise, they are Trump acolytes. Because the extent to which they are willing to fight―and even sacrifice themselves―for their leader cannot be described as anything less than cult-like. 

Trump didn’t only manage to divide and polarize the country, but he even succeeded in dividing his own party, with 45% of Republican voters supporting the riots, 58% believing that the protest was mostly peaceful, and 73% claiming that the election was rigged. Even Vice President Pence realized that enough is enough when certifying the Electoral College vote count just before the chamber was breached. But the game that Trump plays is not one of facts. It’s one of narratives, and as long as his voice is not just the loudest but the only one that his followers hear, claims of a “fraud on the American public” will continue to flourish.

America is more polarized, more weaponized, and more divided along regional, ethnic and social lines than most of Western Europe, but both regions share the same underlying maladies, reflected by the same well-known symptoms. Populists offer an easy solution for complex problems: charismatic leaders, sensationalist claims, a rejection of any form of compromise, and, more broadly, of everything the establishment stands for. 

What this reckless formula leaves us with are the same ailments as before, but even less competent, less tested, and similarly corrupt politicians to deal with our morose schools, understaffed or overpriced healthcare systems, and our rupturing remnants of social cohesion. 

But what we need isn’t more real politicians; what we need is more real politics. Joe Biden is on the right track when he talks about “healing the nation”. The question remains how this healing can come about, but the guiding principles are clear: genuine inclusivity, mutual understanding, and the eradication of social inequality.

© Tyler Merbler

Maladies and Remedies

We witness the creation of parallel societies. More and more people have come to adopt beliefs which are not tenable in mainstream society. In response to being shunned, they create their own communities, often virtual enclaves, where they can develop, reinforce and radicalize their world view as they step further and further into their private echo chamber. 

Instead of simply dismissing their opinions as nonsense, we should treat them like a cancer. Similarly to preventing a metastasis from growing, we should confront them whenever they sprout up until they have nowhere else to spread. Moreover, much like a disease, the source of the symptoms has to be sought within the system, and not outside of its boundaries. 

At the same time, offering the unbelonging a credible way back into the society that once ostracized them is the only way to win their hearts and minds. Only when we break the circle of in-group self-gratification will we be able to move beyond the ever-escalating struggle of “us” vs. “them”.

The key to Trump’s success lied in his ability to draw in Hillary’s notorious “basket of deplorables”—those who felt excluded, neglected, and muted by society—and to bestow them with a purpose by elevating them to the backbone of modern Americanism. Similarly, the cure to Western democracy’s illness lies in its ability to re-enfranchise those who feel uprooted by his departure. 

If we cannot integrate our adversaries into the political system, history is doomed to repeat itself. 

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