Democracy only works with the consent of the governed

Democracy only works with the consent of the governed
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Democracy was in trouble in the US before Trump, demonstrated by a foreign policy poll last July that showed three in 10 Americans would rather have “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress and elections”. Now democracy lies battered and bleeding in intensive care.

I got up in the small hours of Thursday morning to watch the inauguration, and thought I detected the first tentative steps towards recovery – a fluttery but nevertheless beating pulse. This was manifested in the absence of expected violence around the nation and particularly in President Biden’s inauguration speech.

Biden showed a strong double faith, his Catholic faith in God and his patriotic faith in America. His irenic speech, even conservative commentators admitted, was what the nation needs right now. But nevertheless it will take great faith in America’s capacity to heal to follow it up, for there are hardliners on both sides with no interest in ending the divisions.

It is trite but true to observe that democracy only works with the consent of the governed, unlike other models of society in the modern world. Ultimately, people have to trust the institutions and processes, so rebuilding a workable level of trust is the biggest challenge.

Biden’s inauguration is the first step in an important sense: Trump’s insurrectionists battered and shook the walls of democracy – but they held. The US does indeed have a new president.

Everyone lives by faith to a large extent – we can’t empirically test every fact or claim we encounter; it would be absurd to try. So faith is a necessity. What America’s travails show is that it is the object of faith that really matters.

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

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