Democracy only works with the consent of the governed

Barney Zwartz reflects on faith, democracy, and the 2020 U.S. election.

There were two faiths on display by Republicans between the November 3 US election and Wednesday’s inauguration of President Joe Biden.

There was the monstrous bad faith of Donald Trump in trying to subvert the election, abetted by Republicans in Congress and the Senate and the hard-core Trump-cult fantasists. A YouGov poll showed fully 45 per cent of Republican voters supported the rioters storming the Capitol on January 6.

The third-ranked Republican in Congress, Liz Cheney, rightly said “there has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the constitution”.

Then there was the immensely courageous good faith shown by ordinary Republicans at the state level who resisted pressure ranging from death threats to calls from Trump demanding corruption and, instead, ran the election according to the constitution and the law. You could hardly find a finer example of political and moral courage than Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, who resisted almost intolerable pressure to change the result.

Democracy was in trouble in the US before Trump, demonstrated by a foreign policy poll last July that showed three in 10 Americans would rather have “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress and elections”. Now democracy lies battered and bleeding in intensive care.

People have to trust the institutions and processes, so rebuilding a workable level of trust is the biggest challenge.

I got up in the small hours of Thursday morning to watch the inauguration, and thought I detected the first tentative steps towards recovery – a fluttery but nevertheless beating pulse. This was manifested in the absence of expected violence around the nation and particularly in President Biden’s inauguration speech.

Biden showed a strong double faith, his Catholic faith in God and his patriotic faith in America. His irenic speech, even conservative commentators admitted, was what the nation needs right now. But nevertheless it will take great faith in America’s capacity to heal to follow it up, for there are hardliners on both sides with no interest in ending the divisions.

It is trite but true to observe that democracy only works with the consent of the governed, unlike other models of society in the modern world. Ultimately, people have to trust the institutions and processes, so rebuilding a workable level of trust is the biggest challenge.

Biden’s inauguration is the first step in an important sense: Trump’s insurrectionists battered and shook the walls of democracy – but they held. The US does indeed have a new president.

Everyone lives by faith to a large extent – we can’t empirically test every fact or claim we encounter; it would be absurd to try. So faith is a necessity. What America’s travails show is that it is the object of faith that really matters.

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.