Editor’s Note: Ariel Dorfman is the author of “Death and the Maiden.” His most recent books are the novel “Cautivos,” “The Rabbits’ Rebellion,” a children’s story, and “The Compensation Bureau,” a forthcoming novella about the apocalypse. He lives with his wife in Chile and in Durham, North Carolina, where he is a distinguished emeritus professor of literature at Duke University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
What happens to a nation incapable of healing itself?
I ask as an American citizen concerned about our damaged democracy but also as someone with roots in Chile, which after many years of dictatorship suffered the harmful consequences of failing to fully complete its democratic transition.
It is just such a major transition that the United States needs today.
Most of my fellow Americans may find this idea puzzling, even insulting. Our country has no restrictions of freedom of speech or assembly. It just carried out an election that the sitting President lost decisively, despite his and his supporters’ many desperate efforts to overturn the result. It seems clear that by Wednesday, when Congress meets to officially acknowledge Donald Trump’s defeat, we should no longer be worried about the transfer of power, the successful transition, in effect, between administrations.
It is true that Trump continues to deny his loss and to recklessly try to undermine his successor, President-elect Joe Biden. He may yet inflict more havoc and pain on our country and the world before he is gone, but at least this specific nightmare will end on January 20, when Biden is sworn in as the 46th President.
Congratulating ourselves on the stability of our democratic foundations should not blind us to the fact that Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are inheriting a grievously wounded democracy. It is not just that our laws and norms failed to prevent a raging demagogue from winning the presidency, enriching himself and his family, pardoning convicted murderers and perjuring sycophants, and trampling on the Constitution with quasi-dictatorial behavior.
The inability of our nation’s institutions to have blocked, let alone prosecuted in the courts, such malfeasance and venality is a symptom of deeper problems that a changing of the guard, however encouraging, cannot ultimately resolve.
After all, if slightly more than 40,000 voters in three states had changed their minds — or had their ballots suppressed or thrown out — the result would have been different, creating a tie in the Electoral College that would have thrown the question of who should be President into the House of Representatives. In that scenario, each state would only have a single vote in the House of Representatives, and it is possible and indeed probable that Trump would have been elected, thwarting the will of the majority — more than 81 million people. It is the sort of trouble we do not need — and it stems from the absurd Electoral College, devised in the 18th century to appease slave states desperate to keep their human chattel.
This is an America where, as we have seen demonstrated in only the past few years, just a handful of Supreme Court justices, anointed by a flagrantly unrepresentative Senate, can undo the rights obtained through decades of struggle by women, patients, workers, minorities and unions — and too often contravene the rights recognized and protected by their wiser colleagues and predecessors on the high court. We have seen how justices can allow the earth to be ravaged for profit and open the door to corporations to influence elections and legislation with enormous infusions of money.
It is an America where an indecent accumulation of wealth at the top leads to breathtaking inequality and despair in vast sectors of the population, with millions of disaffected men and women looking to some faux populist savior to rescue them. This is an America that gerrymanders districts, disenfranchises minorities and tolerates racial hatred and anti-immigrant sentiment. An America that, unwilling to rein in police brutality and gun violence at home, has supported dictators and autocrats abroad as part of a foreign policy that was the de facto consensus for most of our history, no matter which party was in power.
An America where a startling number of ordinary men and women, in thrall to serial mendacity, mistrust the electoral process when their candidate loses.
It would be all too easy to postpone confronting the structural causes behind this state of affairs, given that the nation — including its lawmakers and the incoming Biden-Harris administration — must cope with an unrelenting economic recession, volatile international relations, ecological catastrophes, a polarized public and, above all, a criminally mismanaged pandemic.
But Americans, awakened by the traumatic Trump experience to the more permanent frailties and limitations of their governing system, should not waste this unique opportunity to simultaneously tackle a festering crisis of democracy itself, which, if left unaddressed, will continue to endanger the republic.
If we think of Trump’s reign not as an outlier but the extreme expression of a morbidity that has been accumulating since the birth of the country, rooted in the tangles of our collective history and DNA, then true healing can only begin if we the people decide to make an open-ended transition to an all-inclusive, all-embracing democracy, one that dares to reimagine the nation’s broken identity. A new Constitution would be ideal, but if that is unfeasible, let us at least start a wide-ranging conversation about how to face this crisis with our eyes, hearts and intellects open.
Perhaps due to my Chilean origins, I am convinced that we urgently need drastic solutions and radical reforms, not piecemeal and partial ones. Americans should heed the cautionary tale that Chile sends us. In 1990, after 17 years of dictatorship, Chileans regained the right to determine their own destiny, but they were unable to take the crucial next step of pressuring their leaders to right the wrongs of the past and move forward to a full democracy. Remnants of the old regime survived, and strangled attempts at indispensable economic, political and social reforms.
Without those reforms, a majority of the people felt left out of the mainstream of public life, discourse and consensus, and became more cynical about democracy itself. They got ever angrier as they watched their land riven by economic disparity, with one system for the privileged and another for those without the means or power to be really heard.
Only now, 30 years later, fueled by last year’s popular uprising that almost toppled the government, has Chile started on the road to a constitutional convention where the people will determine how they wish to be governed and, just as crucially, how the justice and equality they crave can become a reality.
Let us hope it does not take 30 years, and immense additional suffering, for the sovereign American people to recognize that it is time to achieve a higher form of democracy that will finally fulfill the promise of a more perfect union.