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Five lessons from mobbing the US Capitol

When a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters storms the US Capitol and disrupts the confirmation of Joe Biden’s electoral victory, it’s time to take stock of uncomfortable realities. This is the type of angry reaction that usually happens somewhere south of the Rio Grande, where drug cartels run amok, politicians can be cheaply bought, millions live poor and uneducated while the elite drive bulletproof SUVs, and where social mobility is almost nonexistent. Surely Americans can’t be that angry? They are, and this leaves us with some key takeaways:

1) It can happen again. The people who stormed Congress did not even feel the need to hide their faces, which means they are deeply zealous, motivated, and could not care less about the consequences of doing what they did in a country of laws. Here’s a lesson from the tropics: In times of unrest or war, the guy who doesn’t care about getting hurt can do a lot of damage, again and again. In other words, the risk of radicals (from the right and the left) clashing in the streets, violently protesting, rioting or otherwise impairing the business of governing will remain very real in the foreseeable future.

2) If you want boring politics back, forget it. Members of Congress these days can’t even have lunch with someone from across the aisle without being denounced by party colleagues for treason. Americans have been segregating themselves into enclaves of likeminded people for years. Radical democrats are already unhappy with Biden’s early cabinet choices for being too right wing or too close to business interests. They’re unhappy even though now Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House. Meanwhile, for millions of Trump-loving conservatives who feel cheated, Biden brings a “cosmopolitan agenda” that is contrary to their interests. For them it’s a time of war.

3) Appealing to reason won’t be enough. When people feel deeply slighted and trapped, with no way out, reasonable democratic norms, and a gradualist approach to political change doesn’t cut it. The Biden administration will need a firm hand with right-wing radicals, and will have to resist left-wing pressure for a populist response to redress the Trump years. A strong law and order approach will be necessary at times (to contain radical troublemakers right and left), even if it’s unpopular with Biden’s own party. Defunding the police, a common chant from the radical left, will look like an increasingly bad idea.

4) Americans need perspective, thick skin, and humility. There’s a bigger problem at play here than just looking like a banana republic. Polarization in America is fed by a severe case of freedom misunderstood. The far left believes it is the role of a democracy to redress every wrong and even deliver equal outcomes to citizens. The radical right sees the government as overbearing, and considers wearing a mask during a pandemic as an affront to basic liberties. There is a sensible role for the government to play in a democracy, and it does not involve doing it all, nor doing nothing. As Americans, we also need to be less quickly offended by ideas we might dislike. A dose of perspective is needed here to understand that these are mostly rich country problems, and that democracy is all about accommodation.

5) Private sector leadership is more important than ever. When politics resembles a high wire circus act, people look to the private sector for rationality and reassurance. No, business cannot take on the role of the state, but it does have a role to play. Engaging with and helping strengthen communities and their institutions, like their police departments, is one way to go. With so much distrust of business prevalent among young Americans, companies will have to work hard to be seen again as solid corporate citizens. To achieve this, companies would do well to maintain high compliance and transparency standards, and they should be seen as caring for workers, clients, communities, and social needs, not just the bottom line.

We would all like to think that Trump’s defeat signals that a strong democracy is finally coughing up a hairball. For the sake of our politics, our businesses, and our lives, we need to be prepared for the likely scenario that “Trumpismo” will remain a more dangerous phenomenon for now. As Thomas Hobbes wisely pointed out in Leviathan: “Prudence is a presumption of the future contracted from the experience of time past.”

What I’m (Re) Reading 

I am actually in the middle of Part 1 of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes these days. The 729-page classic written during the English Civil War (1642-1651) is a dense read, but required for anyone mildly interested in how power works, and the nature of human beings when laws cease to be obeyed (sound familiar?).

In the book, Hobbes argues that the natural condition of mankind is perpetual competition for supremacy over others, a kind of “war of all against all”. And to control our basest inclinations we require the strong hand of a sovereign or government to keep society together, and avoid what he considers the ultimate evil, death.

Hobbes’ opus is famous for his quote describing human life in the absence of government as “nasty, brutish, and short”. What most appeals to me about the book is Hobbes’ argument that people living in prosperous, rational societies never come close to experiencing this natural state of man, unless they face civil war. This is something we tend to forget living in advanced societies.

But when you have the chance to experience life in poor countries this dysfunction, this Darwinian reality, becomes very real, very fast. The positive aspect of firsthand experience with war, poverty, and corruption is that it keeps you grounded, it makes you appreciate life and rationality more than you do when you are surrounded by abundance, security, and solid institutions. We should all keep that in mind.