by Mauro Casarotto |
Today is the inaugural day for Joe Biden, 46th President of the USA. This is also one of the most delicate and crucial passages in the history of the United States of America. His predecessor Donald Trump will be forever remembered as one of the most controversial US Presidents and one of the most controversial leaders of any democratic state.
Not only the last incendiary weeks with the Capitol Hill riots, but the entire Trump presidency and his two electoral campaigns pose a very serious reflection on what democracy is and can be in the 21st century.
This sequence of events can teach us some remarkable lessons.
Lesson 1 – Democracy and rule of law are fragile
What happened in Capitol Hill can happen in any democracy. The thirst for (limitless) power is part of human nature, or at least of some particular individuals. This cannot be eliminated, or at least it cannot be eliminated just because we think it’s not good. There are many ‘Trumps’ in the world, in democratic countries and in non-democratic countries. But a democratic system can make the difference when you face the thirst for power of an autocratic individual or of an oligarchy, that is basically a group of individuals taking care only of their own egoistic interests.
As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government… except for all those other forms that have been tried before!
Democracy is the only form of government that can prevent the rise of autocrats and the only form of government that ensures that the rule of law is not merely the law of the strongest or the law of jungle. But democracy is dramatically fragile, imperfect and it coexists with a number of internal contradictions.
What would have happened if the rioters had captured or killed the congressmen, say Nancy Pelosi or Vice-president Mike Pence? Or if President Trump had exploited the situation to complete the insurrection? May be a civil war? We will never know.
The worst possible situation with democracy is when you have to face an autocrat who also suffer from mental issues. In those terrible moments you can understand if your democracy is really strong and well-structured or if it’s weak and exposed to even greater risks.
Lesson 2 – USA Constitution saved American democracy
American democracy can be traced back to the end of 18th century. In 1776, thirteen British colonies decided that they would no longer be ruled by the British monarchy and declared their independence together with the willingness to create their own political regime, based on democratic principles. In 1783 the war with England was over and they became thirteen independent states.
Just a few years later, worried by the possibility of a return of the British king (or another of the European monarchies) that could frustrate the results obtained with the war of independence, they decided to avoid this risk by making their union closer, stronger and more efficient.
They also decided that the only way to make this possible was to write down a Constitution and to submit it to the people of each state for ratification. This was done with the Convention of Philadelphia of May-September 1787 and a ratification process that was concluded in 1789.
This Constitution established a federal government. It was the first time this had happened in world history. More than 230 years later, the USA still represent the oldest of modern democracies.
Since its invention, the American Constitution became an inspiration for a huge number of countries and a lighthouse for any new democracy, including Switzerland, the model-country for federalism in Europe. Result: at present 40% of the world population is living in 27 federal states.
This does not mean that the USA did not have to face phases of deep crisis, such as the Civil War of 1861-1865 between South and North, or the existence, despite a democratic and highly advanced Constitution, of enormous contradictions such as bloody conflicts with Native Americans, slavery, racial segregation and discrimination, just to name a few.
It’s self-evident that some of those contradictions are still not completely solved, as Black Lives Matter protests have clearly demonstrated. And this is among the causes that triggered the Capitol Hill riots.
Nevertheless, the USA Constitution has been a political success. The number of member states continuously grew and, in 1959, reached the present 50. In the meanwhile, the USA became an economic, cultural and military superpower.
What made this political innovation of the end of 18th century so powerful was the possibility to keep different peoples and different nations together. That is the core of the federal system and the key of the American success in the world.
This system, despite the high risk experienced in the latest days, has allowed the termination of the presidency of an autocratic and mentally unstable individual, making almost certain his definitive removal from the main public offices for the future. This despite the significant popular support that Trump had obtained – as always happens with autocrats – with the unscrupulous use of lies, deception and threat.
What gives the political structure invented by the Philadelphia Convention founding fathers enough resilience to resist four years of Trump presidency and the Capitol Hill siege is an extremely refined system of checks and balances. This had been shaped around the trias politica concept (best developed by French philosopher Montesquieu) according to which any of the three separate government branches – legislative, executive, judiciary – has enough legal instruments to push back the attempt of one power to invade the field of another. That is exactly what happened with the battle between Congress and President Trump.
But this can work, after more than 230 years, only because USA Federal Constitution is inscribed in the brain and heart of every American who has received a decent education, as a sacred Bible of democracy and an act of love and respect for the country.
Simplicity is certainly among the keys to this success. The US Constitution has only 7 articles, plus 27 very brief amendments that were adopted in its lifetime.
In our Europe – despite more than 70 years now, Altiero Spinelli and other eminent federalists and federalist movements – we still don’t have a federation and this is essentially because we don’t have a European Federal Constitution.
We have the Treaty of Lisbon, instead, a legal monster of more than 400 articles, plus dozens of protocols and declarations by the member states. Nobody can really understand this legal hotchpotch, except a niche of legal experts.
Isn’t a shame when politicians write laws that cannot be understood by the people? Is this serving the common interest? The USA Constitution begins with the words, written in the original paper in capital letters, ‘ We the people ‘ so it is something that is made for the people and belongs to the people to serve general interest.
Treaties, like the Treaty of Lisbon, born behind closed doors negotiations between national governments, serve national interests and faction’s egoisms, that’s why they are complicated, that’s why they are obscure to the great majority of the people.
Remember, at the very end, Vice-president Pence and the majority of the Republican Party chose to stick to the Constitution and stop following Trump. This came very late and this is a serious matter that should very rigorously be debated and analysed in the coming years by Republicans; but at the end Trump was isolated with a handful of loyalists … and of course still a lot of popular consensus!
Lesson 3 – Lies are not opinions
Another matter lies in the chain of events that permitted Donald Trump to become a creeping pathogen inside American democracy. Conspiracy theories, fake news, false accusations without any evidence are basically all lies raised in order to capture the attention, the devotion and the vote of a considerable part of the people. Divide et impera is his way of operating.
Social networks are the new global ‘agora’, especially in pandemic times when people cannot easily meet otherwise. But they are, as we all know, the ideal field to have all this misinformation and lies grow and spread. This of course also includes the intervention of hidden or foreign agents.
Massive human and economic resources must be deployed in order to overcome fake news and forgery. There must be a clear transnational binding regulation for it, involving at least countries with a working democracy. What has been already done – essentially self-regulation of each social network, tighter after the Cambridge Analytica case and other similar scandals – is evidently not sufficient.
Freedom of thought and speech are sacred in a modern democracy. But lies are not opinions and cannot be treated as such. Saying that an election was stolen because of frauds and violations without any evidence and when all courts have rejected any appeal is not an opinion. It is a lie. Arguing that Vice-president Pence has the possibility to prevent Congress from certifying the electoral results without offering any juridical or constitutional reason is a lie.
Imagine democracy as a common house under which all members of a community have to live. Removing lies from politics is just keeping that house in order and clean.
Lesson 4 – Intellectuals are the first fact checkers
So, the question is who can help keep the common house in order and clean? How can we distinguish fake news from argued opinions based on recognizable facts?
First, let’s separate the rules of debating from the rules of voting. Living in a democratic political regime in which one person is granted one vote in elections or referendums does not mean that any expressed opinion has the same value of all others. For instance, I cannot express a valid opinion about the functioning of a nuclear reactor because I’m not a physicist or a nuclear engineer nor I can express a significant judgement over the way in which a medical doctor treats an infection because I don’t have a degree in medicine that took him or her a decade of studies at University. Only experts in their specific fields can ultimately verify the correctness of information.
If you eliminate intellectuals and experts from a public debate and you let everyone speak about everything, you will only generate chaos and fake news. That indeed is the goal of many politicians at the beginning of the 21st century!
Intellectuals are the first fact checkers. They have the arguments to intercept and rebut lies and they must be granted the possibility to use their power – the power of knowledge.
What about politics? Please note that President Trump has been the first USA President without a career in public offices before his presidential election in 2016. He completely skipped the course of honours. Did this happen because he is a very well prepared and cultured man with specific knowledge of politics, sociology, public offices management? No. This happened because he is a very rich and influential tycoon, son of an already very rich family. This is not merit, this is influence and power of money.
Lesson 5 – You cannot have anybody doing anything
Thinking that anybody can do anything, that anybody can rule a complex and powerful country like the USA, is one of the misconceptions that some people have in their heads when they speak about democracy. Only a fool would send a baker or a carpenter to oversee if a nuclear reactor is working properly or if a cancer must be operated on or treated in a different way. Like all the other professions, politics needs competence and specific knowledge.
In 21st century it’s essential that we finally understand and state that, in a democracy, you need a professional political class.[] At the same time, it is necessary that citizens are enabled to better understand the functioning of the political system and the consequences of the decisions taken by political leaders and institutions. Only in this way they can properly exercise their right to supervise and participate in political life.
That’s why laws, and first of all the mother of all laws – the constitution – must be understandable to common people.
In a healthy democracy, the right / power to vote is not sufficient in order to have citizens participating and supervising. Citizens should have access to multiple instruments to have their voice heard and to be able to exercise control of the policymakers they have elected.
Lesson 6 – The role of parties is fundamental
That’s why the role of parties is fundamental. Parties are the only organizations that can really take care of selecting the best and most competent individuals for political offices. This should include putting aside mentally unstable persons and those who may develop autocratic tendencies.
The willingness and ability to select conscientious and well-prepared individuals is among the main differences between a democratic party and a party that can evolve into an oligarchy or a dictatorship at any time.
In the case of Trump it’s self-evident that the Republican Party failed to select among it ranks respectable leaders. And when an ‘alien’ like Donald Trump, with no public office experience, decided to run for President, using the Republican Party as a personal tool, they failed to prevent this. Moreover, they failed again when it became clear that Trump was a threat for American democratic system. When this happened, if the Republicans had immediately united against Trump, through the impeachment procedure or by triggering amendment 25, there were legal ways to get rid of him, before having riots in the capitol and putting the lives of congressmen and congresswomen under threat.
But this means losing all the electoral consensus raised by Trump, and this leads to the last lesson.
Lesson 7 – Majoritarian systems are a threat for democracy
It’s quite easy to prevent the rise of autocrats during good times when the economy is performing well, and you don’t have large social or external conflicts. But when you go through dire moments, like the Covid19 pandemic today, or when we come to the final stages and the dire consequences of the deterioration of the natural environment caused by overpopulation and industrial activities, Trump-type individuals are like poison for a grand, complex society like the USA, or like Europe.
Autocrats living in a democratic system find their best opportunity to acquire virtually unlimited powers when they have a majoritarian electoral system. The nature of this electoral system is to treat the ‘ major minority ‘ as if it were a true majority among the voters by guaranteeing it many more seats than they would acquire in a proportional system.
Another possible effect of majoritarian systems is the natural selection of very large parties. Those parties act as agglomerations of completely different parts of a complex society and, in some cases like currently in the USA, they are reduced to two in a de facto bipartisan system.
So you will have a Republican Party in which politicians like Mitt Romney or John McCain have to co-exist with ‘ aliens ‘ like Donald Trump.
The history of third parties in US elections of the last decades is not a successful one. The last important third party was the Ross Perot Reform Party. Ross Perot ran as an independent in 1992 reaching a very high 19% of popular vote and another 8% in 1996 after his Reform Party was launched (despite being excluded from Presidential debates). These electoral results were not sufficient to acquire any delegate in the Electoral College. It’s very difficult for minority parties to become represented in US institutions even if they acquire important popular consensus. Result: a lot of people are underrepresented or not represented at all in American politics.
This leads to bipartisanship and the possibility that, in one of the two parties, an extremist minority acquire enough influence to prevail over the other branches of the party, if they don’t manage to operate together to limit the influence of the extremists. Then the path can be lead to an autocrat in power.
Look at what happened in the United Kingdom, where a majoritarian system is in place too. They had the Brexit Referendum in 2016 and they voted 52 % – 48 % for Leave. When, with Prime Minister Theresa May‘s attempts to make a deal with the EU, the British discovered how difficult and problematic Brexit was, public opinion changed and Remain returned to having an advantage, according to several polls.
When a snap election was called by the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, after he was not able to gain a majority in the parliament for his withdrawal agreement, the Conservatives acquired a clear majority in the House. This occurred even though the parties in favour of Remain (Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalist, Greens, etc.) had a clear majority, according to the popular vote. So, a minority de facto decided that the UK had to leave the EU, once the leaders of the Remain parties, selfishly, did not even seriously try to find an electoral agreement. The winner was the largest minority, as always happens in majoritarian systems.
If they had had a proportional electoral law, instead of the first-past-the-post system, the parties in favour of Remain would have had a majority in the House of Commons and they would have created a coalition government, presumably calling for a second referendum to check if the British still wanted to leave the EU or if they had revised their position.
Why do I say that majoritarian systems are a threat to democracy? First, because, speaking of the composition of parliament, they always offer an unrepresentative picture of complex societies in which different political cultures and traditions coexist. Second, because they trend to treat minorities as majorities. Third, because they are vulnerable to the so called ‘gerrymandering’, the practice of manipulating district boundaries in order to make re-election more likely. Fourth, because extremists and autocrats have more possibilities to win a general election: they just need to acquire power in a single party, they often don’t need to make deals and look for compromises with other parties, create coalitions, etc. especially when you have a bipartisan situation. That is basically what happened with Trump who was the last man to arrive in the 167 years of the Great Old Party, but was able to absorb the consensus of the Tea Party faction and capture the votes of the rural / suburban white population.
Final Question to Europe
Could a Trump situation with insurrection in the parliament occur also in Europe? The answer is of course yes, this is always possible.
The question for Europe is: would European political systems be stable and resilient enough to push it back? Well, indeed this depends on the specific system and situation in every individual European state.
The European Union, 27 independent states, is in a completely different situation than the USA. It still does not have a Federal Constitution. So, the EU is not a federation and will never become a federation without implementing a federal constitution, thus permanently overcoming the intergovernmental system.
Europe is already experiencing the existence of illiberal democracies in East Europe, countries with individuals and parties with autocratic tendencies like Viktor Orbán in Hungary and the ” Law and Justice ” party in Poland. This obviously affects also the EU as a whole, but still keeps the influence of autocrats mainly within the boundaries of national states.
On the other hand, the price of not having a European Federation is that the every day the small European countries are weaker and less influential on the world scene, dominated by superpowers like the United States of America and China and continental powers like Russia (a federal state, even if an unusual one, without political freedom) and India (another federal state). No European foreign policy, no European defense system, a common currency that has not even been adopted by all the countries of the Union, insufficient coordination during the pandemic, disruptive conflicts among the states when it’s the time to face the migrant crisis are just a part of the many things lacking from the current intergovernmental treaty-based European Union. This is literally preventing Europe from taking its rightful place in the world together with the other great world communities.
Federations are powerful structures, and the USA Federal Constitution has proven to be strong enough to resist an insurrection. Does this mean that all the problems that lead to the Trump situation are already in the rear-view mirror? Of course not. Trumpism is a symptom of a number of problems and contradictions that are part of American culture and history. Biden will have a very difficult and dangerous 4 years mandate. And it still has to be verified if the Republican Party will resist autocratic tendencies.
The USA with its Constitution and its legal system also has other weak points like, to quote two, the majoritarian electoral law with the obsolete system of the delegates of the Electoral College and too many military powers in the hands of the President. Those provisions were elaborated in the framework of the 18th – 19th Century, in a world still without nuclear and other mass-destruction weapons, without internet and Twitter.
The problem with an ancient constitution is just that’s it’s ancient. But there is a clear way to amend the USA Constitution, keeping it as up-to-date as possible, and this has already been done 27 times, from 1789 to today.
The true opportunity for Europe is to learn as many lessons as possible from what happened in the last months in the USA and learn also from about 230 years of its history. This can be useful to finally elaborate a Federal Constitution for Europe, taking inspiration from already existing federations like the USA, Canada, Australia, Switzerland just to quote a few, and adding to the already invented and functioning provisions in those constitutions, elements that are more suited to European cultural and social peculiarities and traditions.
In this way, F.A.E.F – Federal Alliance of Europe, the organization that I co-founded with other European citizens, already has a draft for a European Federal Constitution of only 10 articles. You can read this draft here: https://www.faef.eu/a-draft-federal-european-constitution-of-ten-articles/ .
 Read on this subject Paper n. 14 of the European Federalist Papers, 2013 ( http://www.europeanfederalistpapers.eu/index.php/en/papers/separate-papers/53-nr-14-klinkers-october-2012 ), by Leo Klinkers and Herbert Tombeur.
 Compare Donald Trump to all previous USA Presidents by reading ” Donald Trump is the only US president ever with no political or military experience ” article by Zachary Crockett, published on Vox on Jan, 23rd 2017. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/11/13587532/donald-trump-no-experience .
 In order to better understand why the intergovernmental EU is not a federation and cannot be upgraded to a federation through the manipulation of the intergovernmental Treaty of Lisbon read: ” Brexit’s trauma and Europe trapped between opposing conservatisms ” article published on Europe Today on December 24th, 2019 by Mauro Casarotto ( https://www.europe-today.eu/2019/12/24/brexits-trauma-and-europe-trapped-between-opposing-conservatism/ ) and ” What the Trump experience demonstrates to Europe in terms of federal state construction ” published on Europe Today on November 26th 2020 by Leo Klinkers and Mauro Casarotto ( https://www.europe-today.eu/2020/11/26/what-the-trump-experience-demonstrates-to-europe-in-terms-of-federal-state-construction/ ).
Mauro Casarotto – General Manager Europe Today