America is the greatest democracy on Earth not because of its size and power but in large part because of its vigorous protection of the right to free speech.
Speech does carry responsibility. Inciting violence is both morally wrong and counterproductive to rational debate. The events on Capitol Hill were tragic, not only because of the loss of life to protesters and law enforcement but also because a symbol, in Congress, of unity and rational debate was disrespected.
A similar event took place in 2019 in Hong Kong, where protesters stormed government buildings in response to controversial extradition laws. Though the outcome of that benefited protesters with the eventual suspension of those laws, it is clear that, at least in the short term, no benefit will come of this to the Capitol Hill protesters and may instead lead to more authoritarian laws.
Incitement of violence was given as the reason for the president’s ban on Twitter. But while he may have sowed the seed of doubt in the presidential election among protesters, there hasn’t been any clear incitement of violence on his part. At times, he even explicitly advised against violence during the unrest.
This contrasts sharply with the riots, burning of buildings, and looting that took place in the summer of last year in response to perceived police brutality, which also resulted in loss of life. Many politicians were slow to condemn the violence, and many media commentators even went so far as to defend non-peaceful avenues of protest. Yet their Twitter accounts remain open.
Social media may have a right to ban whomever they want in their privileged position as private companies. But selective censorship will only pour fuel on flames as those without a voice (in this case 74 million voters) will feel increasingly alienated in their own country.
Although President Trump has been a polarizing figure in politics, it is regrettable that he has to leave office under these circumstances. Many of his achievements were positive. These included avoiding entering foreign wars and having presided over the country’s best economy and lowest unemployment rate in 50 years. But these have become overshadowed by threats of further impeachment articles, which are unlikely to materialize with any supermajority in the Senate and which instead promise only to humiliate and divide further.
America has long been a divided country, but its democratic principles and revolutionary spirit have meant that it has always progressed with unity as a nation. Currently, with feelings of disillusionment on one side and ill-will on the other in the context of a pandemic that has already brought reduced freedoms, there is a worry that those democratic principles will erode away.
The next administration will have the difficult job of diffusing civil unrest while ensuring that basic democratic freedoms, especially the freedom of speech, are protected. If democracy in America falls, it does not leave much hope for the rest of the world.