As matters calm down after the bloody events preceding the transfer of power in Washington, one conclusion is palpably evident. Many Americans have lost confidence in the political leadership and democratic system. Their disenchantment with liberal democracy poses a deadly threat. It has created fertile ground for populist demagogues to tap into deep-seated grievances.
A most alarming development is that a minority of extremists have resorted to mob violence to overturn the verified results of free and fair elections. Their crude attempts to subvert the rule of law have created a volatile environment. Those individuals and organizations involved in unlawful activities must face the full force of the law.
The spectacle of the ransacking of the bastion of American democracy by anti-democratic forces will linger for some time. America's claims of being a model democracy are in tatters. It is a disturbing development for pro-democratic forces throughout the world.
But mere populist slogans or violence won't address complex political, economic, and social problems. These problems need sober analysis and concrete actions.
According to a report in 2020 from the University of Cambridge Center for the Future of Democracy, 55% of Americans are dissatisfied with the system of government. The report suggests that the deep democratic malaise is due to the government's failure to manage financial crises and growing inequality.
Partisanship and gridlock in Washington add to democracy's woes. Convincing Americans who feel that democracy is a luxury that they are on the wrong path is increasingly difficult. Politics divided by left and right extremes, unable to find common ground, just isn't working. But the alternatives are authoritarianism and autocracy, a slippery slope to disaster.
Since the 1990s, the globalization of manufacturing jobs has hit some key areas and industries in the US and other western democracies. The primary reason is that multinational corporations, eyeing increased profits, moved operations to lesser developed countries.
Globalization is blamed for stagnating incomes and job losses in developed economies. It has left an insecure workforce and caused deep divisions in society between the winners and losers. They include rural and urban voters in the US spread across generations.
The losers see globalization as a big win for multinational businesses and their shareholders, the Wall Street fat cats. A large group of voters blames Washington politicians for unfair trade deals and their reduced standard of living. As income inequalities rise, these dis-grunted voters support politicians who advocate a return to protectionism and imposing curbs on immigration.
Advocates pitched globalization as a win-win strategy for both rich and poorer countries. That consumers in rich countries could access inexpensive products made by workers in developing countries at a lower cost. And as trade barriers dropped, economic expansion and global political cooperation would ensue.
There's no doubt that globalization has helped lesser-developed countries to export low-cost products to new markets. The downside is the exploitation of cheap labor and abysmal working conditions in many developing countries.
But many working people in rich countries, long pampered by consumer capitalism, have lost out. They see globalization as a negative wealth transfer and fear for the future for themselves and their families. This crisis of confidence is hard to manage in a democracy as economic issues impact voting decisions.
While it is too late to stop globalization, it is possible to mitigate its excesses through fair trade agreements and competition, and more innovation. Another way to lessen its impact is the partial reinvestment of corporate profits earned through globalization. Such investments can help in the revitalization of industries, leading to the creation of new jobs, in affected areas in the US.
At the same time, the hardening of the social and class divide is another crucial challenge to liberal democracy. It is not just less well-off Americans, losing out to globalization, who are questioning the value of democracy. Richer Americans, fearing policies that favor a redistribution of wealth, are growing increasingly impatient with democratic institutions.
There is no simple way out of the mess that liberal democracy finds itself in the US and elsewhere. Unlike dictatorships, democracies can't force unity at gunpoint to counter alienation. Visionary leadership, Democrat and Republican are needed to bring around angry voters. Americans need a powerful message of renewal in the shared purpose and common destiny in the liberal democratic system.
Most importantly, the pillars of American democracy: an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, the rule of law, and civil associations (secular and religious) need safeguards. It would be a grave mistake if America allows the erosions of these vital democratic institutions.
The best hope is a revival of the original promise of liberal democracy, where working people feel part of the system. A refreshed commitment towards a fairer society, human rights, and justice. Otherwise, liberal democracy, unable to deal with political, economic, and social challenges, faces a perilous future.