America’s fork in the road

That the U.S. might slide into civil conflict is a realistic fear. A free and trusted press can stop it.

By: /
17 February, 2021
A protester holds a sign reading "the media is the virus" in front of the Pennsylvania State Capitol last April. Paul Weaver/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

A city is in lockdown. Two sides jockey for power. As tensions rise, a fight breaks out outside the main government building. Violent images rage across social media. Those in power impose a curfew.

This scene is not Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, January 6. It’s Juba, the capital of South Sudan, on July 7 and 8, 2016.

In the South Sudan version, at least 300 people died within 24 hours. The incident sparked a brutal civil war that, to date, has killed more than 50,000. The United States is an established democracy that has weathered much over many years. What it’s built should not slip away as easily as did peace in South Sudan. Yet, the signs are concerning.

On inauguration day, militarized extremists called for armed protests in D.C. and at every state capitol with the goal of preventing Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th president. Their threats compelled the deployment of 25,000 National Guard troops in Washington, D.C. and inside the Capitol. In the end, the feared widespread violence did not materialize. And yet, this was a very different inauguration — one in which armed security outnumbered spectators, and not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

This was not the smooth transition of power on which a well-functioning democracy depends. Donald Trump, the outgoing president, refused to even take part. Why would he? He poured scorn on the legitimacy of the election throughout his campaign. Seventy-four million Americans voted for him anyway. He then urged on insurrectionist rioters who assaulted the symbol of America’s democracy. The president of the world’s greatest democracy revealed his authoritarian heart, and, even so, many in his party and among his supporters refused to abandon him.

Joe Biden’s inauguration doesn’t change this. That America may be sliding toward civil conflict is a genuine risk. Bringing America back from this brink will take the effort of a generation.

The good news is that the U.S. can get off this track. That work begins with a clear-eyed understanding of how America got to this point.

Authoritarianism starts, as the preeminent historian of totalitarianism Timothy Snyder put it in a recent essay, in a “post-truth” environment in which the would-be dictator wages a relentless attack on the free press. Recall how often Donald Trump called journalists “enemies of the people.” That designation has long roots, but the most enthusiastic user of the term was Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Trump’s adoption of the slur reflected something far more sinister than bitterness or even hatred toward those who wrote and said unflattering things about him. Authoritarianism is a form of government in which the ruler’s power is unchecked by a constitution, judiciary or legislative branch. But it begins with a ruler discrediting other checks on their power, starting with a free press. As the dictator’s version of reality decouples from verifiable facts, tensions spill into violence. To reassert order, he or she suspends the constitution and declares martial law.

“Before all other barriers between a would-be authoritarian and outright dictatorship — courts, legislatures, legitimate elections — stands the press.”

I have witnessed this dynamic around the world, growing up in Lesotho and today through my work with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), an international media development organization. JHR trains journalists and citizens to fight authoritarianism and safeguard democracy by strengthening democracy’s first line of defence. Before all other barriers between a would-be authoritarian and outright dictatorship — courts, legislatures, legitimate elections — stands the press.

We often intervene in places that are either in, or recovering from, civil war. JHR’s managers understand the path to civil conflict and authoritarianism well. A decision to set up shop in a country is a carefully made decision. We conduct needs assessments, and we weigh two key data sets: the Global Peace Index, a report measuring a country or territory’s peacefulness that is produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, a global think tank; and the Press Freedom Index, another global report produced by JHR’s partner Reporters without Borders.

After the events in Washington of January 6, we compared South Sudan and the United States on both indices. South Sudan sits at 161 out of 163 countries and territories on the Global Peace Index and at 138 out of 180 countries on the Press Freedom Index. The United States is ranked 121 on the Global Peace Index. It’s well ahead of South Sudan but is still in the bottom third of countries surveyed. America is ranked 45 out of 180 countries on the Press Freedom Index. That’s a 13-point plunge from its rank of 32 in 2013. Ordinarily, such metrics would be grounds for international intervention.

But there is reason for optimism. America’s citizens are engaged. Over 159 million Americans, or 60 per cent of adult Americans, voted in 2020. Congress is becoming more representative, with a record number of women and women of color. Kamala Harris, a woman of colour, is vice-president. This broadening of representation indicates some democratic fundamentals, while severely tested, remain strong.

Even so, the path ahead is fraught. The riot on the Capitol showed the dangers posed to democracy when citizens are misinformed. The mass sharing of dangerous lies, such as those questioning the election results, needs to stop. In its place, journalists must regain the public’s trust and be empowered to do their vital work of scrutinizing and challenging those in power. A country whose citizens are guided by unchallenged lies will not remain democratic for long.