The anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol has come and gone, and many Americans are deeply depressed that the country’s political divide has only deepened. Though most Republican Party leaders condemned the attack at the time, the GOP has since internalized Donald Trump’s web of lies and falsehoods about the 2020 election, which he lost by about 7 million votes. Republicans have largely refused even to participate in the congressional investigation into the matter.
A year after a sitting president tried to overturn the results of a fair and lawful election, the effort to identify and prosecute those responsible now must compete for attention with other security crises: Russian troops massing near Ukraine; Iran approaching the threshold of nuclear breakout; and humanitarian catastrophes in Afghanistan and Yemen. Faced with all this, American leaders will be tempted to draw a bright line between home and abroad. But doing so would be both risky and wrong.
America’s profound polarization reflects a society whose members no longer share a core understanding of what it means to be “secure.” Americans tend to have widely divergent experiences — across racial, religious, and gender lines — with US domestic security institutions. Trust in the US military and security forces used to be consistently high; now, it is falling, alongside trust in the rest of America’s government institutions. Americans no longer agree about who or what constitutes a threat, with Democrats much more likely to cite internal cohesion and political violence, and Republicans more concerned with traditional nation-state foes. Moreover, Americans are divided by ideology and age over whether people and ideas from elsewhere are an opportunity or a threat.
These divisions, and the resulting policy gridlock, would be bad enough in isolation. But the rest of the world is watching, and it sees a society that cannot agree on what democracy is. In the World Bank’s Combined Polity Score index, the United States has been downgraded from a longstanding score of 10, the highest for a democracy, to a 5, meaning it is on the verge of anocracy: a democracy with authoritarian characteristics.
Around the world, those who have been inspired by leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., are now haunted by images of the Confederate flag being waved in the halls of Congress. Allies whose ties to the United States go back to World War II now see US elected officials embracing Holocaust deniers. Neither friend nor foe believes that the United States can or will deliver on its long-term promises anymore, whether in the realm of vaccine distribution, climate accords, or nuclear deals.
Americans need to recognize that the erosion of their democracy is as much a foreign policy matter as it is a domestic one. Those Republicans and Democrats who are still willing to work together on key international issues need to accept that this also requires working together to shore up core democratic norms at home.
Those norms are foundational to everything the United States wants to achieve abroad. At a minimum, they include a rejection of violence and hate speech, strong protections for voting rights, and nonpartisan election administration. Conservatives who urge the Biden administration to act tougher abroad should stop to consider what constant right-wing harping on the Big Lie about the 2020 election looks like to the rest of the world. US leaders from across the political spectrum could send a far more compelling message by demonstrating a willingness to repair the cracks in American democracy. The capacity to do that has historically been one of America’s greatest strengths.
After all, we have been here before. A half-century ago, American democracy was tested by a president who was forced to resign and by a security establishment that had misled the country into a catastrophic war. This prompted a broad effort to address systemic flaws. And while the solutions were imperfect, they nonetheless succeeded in restoring the prestige of US institutions for the next four decades — both at home and abroad.
What might such an effort look like now? Senator Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota, recently mustered the courage to buck Trump, telling ABC News: “The election was fair, as fair as we have seen. We simply did not win the election, as Republicans, for the presidency.” That is a good start. But without progress in tackling the full range of problems with US elections — who gets to vote and how the votes are counted — neither Republicans nor Democrats can hold their heads high in the court of global public opinion.
The responsibility doesn’t lie only with Congress, of course. In its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, published in March 2021, President Biden’s administration made clear that “our role in the world depends upon our strength and vitality here at home.” Since then, Biden has signed bills and implemented policies allocating billions of dollars to research and development in strategic industries, physical infrastructure, and better social infrastructure.
Again, that is a good start. But suppose the administration took its own logic a step further and declared openly that threats to our democracy are also threats to our security? The Director of National Intelligence has already warned that violent political extremism — a euphemism for domestic terrorism — poses a greater risk to Americans than Islamist terrorism does.
With America’s crumbling political norms and violence-tinged factionalism, is it any wonder that only 17 percent of the world’s democracies view the United States as a country to emulate? It is time for Americans, or at the very least those who aim to represent the United States in the world, to see themselves as others do, without excuses or rationalizations.
Anne-Marie Slaughter is CEO of New America. Heather Hurlburt is director of the New Models of Policy Change Initiative at New America. © Project Syndicate 2022.