"The American Exception" Revisited
Further thoughts on just how bad January 6 really was
One of the most enjoyable things about writing a subscription newsletter is that it’s possible to develop a community for ongoing thinking and debate with an engaged audience. My Friday post about Thursday night’s televised congressional hearings from the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol generated some push-back from readers—in the comments here, on Twitter, and in private texts and emails. Today’s post will restate my thinking in light of this critical feedback, revising a few things and pushing my argument somewhat further.
In “The American Exception,” I argued that the hearings of the January 6 Committee demonstrated that “one crucial way in which the American experience with the rise of the right is different and significantly worse than” what we’ve seen in “Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Brazil” is that “only here has a right-wing populist been elected and then attempted a coup to keep himself in power.” This, I claimed, makes us an exceptional nation in a bad way.
Worse than Turkey, Poland, and Hungary? Really?
The most common objection I heard in response to this assertion is that the comparison countries were poorly chosen. Turkey, and maybe also Poland and Hungary, have fallen further away from liberal democracy than we have, even if they haven’t experienced an attempted coup. (Turkey did have an attempted coup by a faction of the military in 2016—the latest in a long line of them since 1960—but it was directed against, and put down by, President Erdoğan. That’s obviously quite different than Donald Trump’s effort to incite a coup to remain in power after losing a free and fair election.)
The Turkish objection is fair enough. My list of comparison countries is a spectrum. At one end is Germany, where the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party peaked at about 15 percent support and has drifted a few points downward over the last couple of years. It can make negotiations among the other parties more difficult when trying to form a government (because none of them will entertain inviting the AfD to join a coalition), but at the moment it has no prospects for leading the country.
At the other extreme would be Russia, which I didn’t include in my list precisely because it’s drifted so far out of the democratic orbit under Vladimir Putin (and even more so since the invasion of Ukraine in February and subsequent crackdown on dissent) that a direct comparison to the United States is inapt.
Turkey is probably closest to Russia in terms of democratic backsliding—though given its history of military coups, its democracy has never been as fully consolidated as the other countries on my list. Still, Erdoğan has been in power for 19 years (as prime minister from 2003 to 2014 and as president since), and under his leadership, the country has become significantly less free, with increasing censorship, banning of opposition political parties, and well-founded accusations of corruption. On the other hand, support for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party has softened in recent elections (it currently serves in a coalition government with the Nationalist Movement Party), and it could well lose power altogether in elections currently scheduled for a year from now.
A country in which the ruling party faces the possibility of electoral defeat is still nominally a democracy, making its inclusion on my list defensible. Though I don’t think my point about the United States would be undermined by removing Turkey, so if keeping it there is a sticking point for you, it’s fine with me if you disregard it.
I’m not willing to make the same concession with regard to my inclusion of Poland and Hungary on my list. Both countries have seen some democratic backsliding over the past decade. But not as much as Turkey. And elections in both countries are still largely competitive. If the Fidesz Party had the lost the Hungarian election two months ago and Viktor Orbán staged a coup to remain in power, or if the Law and Justice Party in Poland does the same after a loss in elections scheduled for the fall of 2023, that would approximate what Trump attempted. As it is, both parties pursue antiliberal agendas while commanding enough popular support (especially outside of both countries’ biggest cities) to win elections outright, forestalling the need for extralegal measures to seize or retain power. (I wrote about the results of Hungary’s recent election here.)
What About Israel?
But what about Israel, a country I didn’t include on my list? Benjamin Netanyahu is a right-wing populist, and he lost power in 2021 when a cross-ideological coalition of parties formed a government with the express intent of preventing him from continuing to serve as prime minister after 12 years. That makes his situation roughly analogous to Trump’s. Yet Netanyahu accepted his defeat, despite some harsh grumbling that echoed some Trumpian themes. For that reason, it probably would have made sense to include Israel on my list of countries that put the U.S. to shame. Leaving it off was an oversight.
One reason Israel wasn’t foremost on my mind when coming up with my list is that the country’s electoral system is so different than ours. As a presidential system, we have separate elections for coequal branches of government, each of which can point to independent bases of popular support, pitting them against each other. As the late political scientist Juan Linz showed in his work and as Matthew Yglesias has written about over the years (including in a very powerful piece just last week), this makes presidential systems more prone to governing crises (including coups) than parliamentary systems, in which prime ministers derive their power from parties in the legislature and presidential offices are largely symbolic.
That means the tense wrangling in Israel that led to Netanyahu’s ouster took the form of hard-fought negotiations among the country’s many parties. When it became clear that Netanyahu’s Likud Party would be unable to put together a majority in the Knesset and form a government, it was clear either that another government would be formed, pushing him out, or that the country would need to hold yet another election, the fifth since April 2019.
Israel’s struggle to produce a decisive result either for or against Netanyahu across multiple elections was a problem, albeit one that was resolved with the formation of the country’s current (precarious) government. But that problem was very different from the one that befell the United States in the two months following the November 2020 election, when a sitting president who lost claimed an independent base of popular support that made him the rightful winner.
The Future of the American Exception
Of course, no democratic system is immune to dysfunction. Netanyahu or another political actor could opt to become a mischief-maker (or worse) down the line in Israel. So could Orbán in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, or Bolsonaro in Brazil. The fact is that we don’t have many examples yet of right-wing populist governments losing elections. It’s possible, then, that what Trump attempted a year and a half ago will be repeated in various forms in other countries. If it is, the events of January 6 will come to seem less exceptional than they appear to be at the moment.
In that case, the opinion expressed in my Friday post will need to be revised. But for now, I stick by its core assertion, which is that January 6 was exceptionally bad—and categorically worse than what we’ve (so far) seen elsewhere in the democratic world.
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