Former Deputy Staff Director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Steady State member Melvin Dubee argues that the 2020 election and the events thereafter serve as a cautionary tale for what could come next in 2024 and beyond if we fail to take swift action to restore our institutions and combat the age of disinformation over the next four years.
A new president is inaugurated, democracy has prevailed, and the republic will continue. But we should not cheer too loudly. Our nation is injured and it is unclear how long it will take, or even if it will be able, to heal. The forces of authoritarianism that sought to topple our 244-year experiment have exposed deep flaws in our governmental institutions, and unsettling realities about the soul of our society.
Many will say the system worked, and ultimately it did — an election was held and a would-be tyrant was removed, but not before doing serious, long-term damage. It is now clear that the much-vaunted checks and balances of the American constitution are too dependent on the good intentions of the those participating in the process. This should not surprise us; John Adams noted in 1798, “Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious People.”
Over the past four years, individuals who put self-interest ahead of public good easily trampled the norms of behavior that we had taken for granted in the modern era. Even when offenses were blatant, far too many elected leaders placed their own political ambitions ahead of the good of the country and above the oath they had taken to the Constitution. This was clear in the buffoonish attempt to overthrow the election results that led directly to a violent insurrection at the Capitol, but it has been the pattern through four years of rampant criminal behavior. The supposedly independent institutions of justice were subverted for political and personal motives — legitimate investigations ridiculed or blocked with impunity and pardons doled out for friends and political allies. The legitimacy of the democratic process was attacked resulting in the alienation, perhaps permanently, of a large chunk of the citizenry.
Perhaps more worryingly, the 2016 election, and subsequent development of a cult-like following, have shown us how easily a large portion of our population can be manipulated by an amoral demagogue. As with other demagogues, this one fed people’s fears rather than their hopes — fear of losing something, fear of the “other,” fear of what they don’t understand. A population so easily misled does not bode well for the future of democracy. This phenomenon goes well beyond the aberration of the recently departed occupant of the White House. We no longer have a common understanding of reality. Modern communication has created bubbles in which people hear what they want to believe. Facts are dismissed if they don’t align with preconceived notions. Expertise is mocked. Unscrupulous politicians, often abetted by some in the media, prey on ignorance and fear with no regard for the truth.
As we work to shore up the governmental institutions that have been damaged, we must also reflect on how we address this deeper sickness. If we cannot return to a society based on truth and reality, we will lose the freedoms we hold so dear. We dodged a bullet because the demagogue in question happened to be incompetent. The next one likely won’t be.
Former Deputy Staff Director, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
Member, The Steady State