I ask as an American citizen concerned about our damaged democracy but also as someone with roots in Chile, which after many years of dictatorship suffered the harmful consequences of failing to fully complete its democratic transition.
It is just such a major transition that the United States needs today.
Most of my fellow Americans may find this idea puzzling, even insulting. Our country has no restrictions of freedom of speech or assembly. It just carried out an election that the sitting President lost decisively, despite his and his supporters’ many desperate efforts to overturn the result. It seems clear that by Wednesday, when Congress meets to officially acknowledge Donald Trump’s defeat, we should no longer be worried about the transfer of power, the successful transition, in effect, between administrations.
It is true that Trump continues to deny his loss and to recklessly try to undermine his successor, President-elect Joe Biden. He may yet inflict more havoc and pain on our country and the world before he is gone, but at least this specific nightmare will end on January 20, when Biden is sworn in as the 46th President.
The inability of our nation’s institutions to have blocked, let alone prosecuted in the courts, such malfeasance and venality is a symptom of deeper problems that a changing of the guard, however encouraging, cannot ultimately resolve.
It is an America where an indecent accumulation of wealth at the top leads to breathtaking inequality and despair in vast sectors of the population, with millions of disaffected men and women looking to some faux populist savior to rescue them. This is an America that gerrymanders districts, disenfranchises minorities and tolerates racial hatred and anti-immigrant sentiment. An America that, unwilling to rein in police brutality and gun violence at home, has supported dictators and autocrats abroad as part of a foreign policy that was the de facto consensus for most of our history, no matter which party was in power.
An America where a startling number of ordinary men and women, in thrall to serial mendacity, mistrust the electoral process when their candidate loses.
It would be all too easy to postpone confronting the structural causes behind this state of affairs, given that the nation — including its lawmakers and the incoming Biden-Harris administration — must cope with an unrelenting economic recession, volatile international relations, ecological catastrophes, a polarized public and, above all, a criminally mismanaged pandemic.
But Americans, awakened by the traumatic Trump experience to the more permanent frailties and limitations of their governing system, should not waste this unique opportunity to simultaneously tackle a festering crisis of democracy itself, which, if left unaddressed, will continue to endanger the republic.
If we think of Trump’s reign not as an outlier but the extreme expression of a morbidity that has been accumulating since the birth of the country, rooted in the tangles of our collective history and DNA, then true healing can only begin if we the people decide to make an open-ended transition to an all-inclusive, all-embracing democracy, one that dares to reimagine the nation’s broken identity. A new Constitution would be ideal, but if that is unfeasible, let us at least start a wide-ranging conversation about how to face this crisis with our eyes, hearts and intellects open.
Let us hope it does not take 30 years, and immense additional suffering, for the sovereign American people to recognize that it is time to achieve a higher form of democracy that will finally fulfill the promise of a more perfect union.