Some were serious human rights violations; others were seemingly petty but still threatening in a fragile new democracy — “they destroy our signs,” “they hand out money to buy support,” or “they harass our volunteers.”
To these last complaints, I replied, “We had this problem in Michigan”, or “In Philadelphia, they call it ‘walking around in the money'”, or “We have seen this kind of harassment from of the party establishment.
When my escort at the embassy was questioning, I said, “I’m not going to pretend that we’re perfect, because then why would anyone try to imitate us?”
I noted that although imperfect, the American system provides the opportunity to hold offenders accountable, correct our mistakes, and rectify abuses.
I don’t think I can say that today.
While some Americans still cling to the belief that we are “the city that shines on the hill,” the model for emerging democracies around the world, what is becoming increasingly clear is that American democracy is in danger.
We project to the world that free and fair elections and the protection of personal and political rights are the foundations of a democratic order. And we judge other countries by the extent to which they provide both.
While these may be the foundations, it is accountability and mutual respect between winners and losers that is the mortar that holds these building blocks in place. Without them, the whole edifice risks collapsing.
Unfortunately, the corrosive effects of lack of accountability and civility are taking their toll in the United States today.
After 9/11, we saw fabrications justifying the war in Iraq, laws and executive orders violating the basic rights of legal immigrants and citizens, and “legal” documents authorizing torture against captured prisoners. There was no responsibility for fabrications, lies or torture.
The January 6 insurrection and the incitement to crime that preceded it demand accountability. Yet a divided Congress has rejected a full bipartisan investigation, forcing Democrats to pursue with a few brave Republicans to uncover the truth about this unprecedented threat to American democracy.
What could have been a unified quest for accountability is now being challenged by Republicans as a mere partisan ploy.
As leading Republicans argue the 2020 election was stolen, their cronies are running for sensitive posts overseeing future elections. New legislation in many states will make voting more difficult, jeopardizing free and fair elections.
Equally damaging is the polarization of politics. In the past, despite their differences, parties would unite to pass laws in the national interest and defer to the White House for presidential nominations.
Some Republicans supported civil rights legislation and passed budgets, while Democrats supported some tax cuts and education reforms. Both parties endorsed high-level appointments by opposing party presidents.
A new order in American politics began with the appointment of Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House as Congress became a partisan club used to bash the Clinton administration.
This partisan dysfunction has only worsened over time – today reaching such dire proportions that Congress is unable to muster the votes needed to pass an appropriation for vaccines against new variants of the coronavirus.
Instead of being a “city on the hill”, we have become a lesson in what can happen without accountability or political courtesy. Our dysfunctions mimic those of Lebanon where sectarianism blocks responsibility for the assassination of a prime minister or a deadly explosion in a port. Or like Israel, where a former prime minister on trial for corruption and influence peddling thwarts legislation favored by his supporters to prevent his opponents from winning. Or like Iraq, where losing parties block the formation of a government and frustrated winners seize parliament, demanding a new election.
We are not yet like Lebanon, Israel or Iraq – where criminal behavior goes unpunished, ideological divisions create paralysis and discourtesy leads to chaos. But unless we take a long look at ourselves in the mirror, recognize the crisis we face, and take corrective action, this is where we are heading.