WASHINGTON — The United States — once a shining example of democracy's virtues, now a glaring case study into its hair-trigger fault lines — hosts like-minded countries from around the world Thursday to explore ways of defending the western way of life.
Government officials from 110 countries, including Canada, as well as business leaders and civil-society advocates and activists will gather for a two-day virtual "Summit for Democracy" aimed at slowing the march of authoritarianism.
Joe Biden's promise to host the summit predated the presidential election in November 2020, but took on an entirely different hue after his victory came under attack during the Jan. 6 assault on Capitol Hill by supporters of his defeated but still-defiant rival.
That's why Thursday is likely to feel a little like singing the praises of smoke detectors from inside a smoking ruin.
"It's a really dangerous time," said Polly Mackenzie, the CEO of Demos, a British research firm focused on bridging the gaps between ordinary people and political institutions in public policy areas like economic inequality and climate change.
Mackenzie describes democracy as a "vast act of compromise," a social contract among a country's voters that demands they act in the best interests in the collective group, rather than selfishly prioritizing their own wants and needs.
"If you're compromising with other citizens within a society, you need to feel that they are people who are worth compromising with," she told a panel discussion Wednesday hosted by the Pew Research Center.
"We've over-promised democracy as being perhaps the idea that because you get to vote, you get what you want. But actually, democracy is not about getting what you want. It's about getting what we can live with."
That's a contract a great many Americans have abandoned, Pew's own research suggests.
A staggering 85 per cent of U.S. participants in a survey earlier this year said they want either total reform or major changes to their country's political system. In Canada, only 47 per cent said the same, with only eight per cent calling for a full overhaul.
"Voting itself has become a fundamental partisan dividing line in the United States," said Carroll Doherty, Pew's director of political research. A majority of Democrats consider voting a right, while most Republicans consider it a privilege, he said.
And twice — once in January, then again in June — Pew surveyed Americans about the outcome of last year's presidential election and found fully three-quarters of Donald Trump's supporters refuse to accept Biden as the legitimate U.S. president.
Despite the urgency, however, few serious people in Washington or Ottawa seem to expect the summit will accomplish much, let alone garner any significant public attention.
"I do not think that the summit will be a major event in domestic politics. In the long run of events, it will go unnoticed," said Daniel Stockemer, a political studies professor at the University of Ottawa.
One potentially important outcome could be a show of international solidarity around the U.S. decision to mount a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics this February in Beijing, he added.
"Even if domestically few people care about this summit, internationally this might portray to other countries that the U.S. is back in the game when it comes to the defence of democracy and human rights."
In the meantime, China has been amassing plenty of ammunition with which to discredit the U.S. argument — and defuse the likely message out of this week's summit before it has even begun.
"The U.S. claims that the so-called Summit for Democracy is aimed at upholding democracy. Then we have some questions for the U.S.," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said during his daily news conference Wednesday.
Zhao proceeded to rattle off a laundry list of black marks — from the extent of the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. to its torturous reckoning with racial unrest and inequality to ineffective military operations in the Middle East — as evidence of a failed experiment.
"Is the U.S., a country that disregards democracy, qualified to hold a summit on democracy?"
Meanwhile, evidence continues to mount, almost by the day, that the real existential threat to the U.S. political system is coming from the inside the house.
Jan. 6 "was practice," the latest issue of The Atlantic proclaims in a deep-dive cover story that alleges Republican operatives, informed by the experience of 2020, are engineering a more concerted, ironclad effort to short-circuit an election loss in 2024.
"There is a clear and present danger that American democracy will not withstand the destructive forces that are now converging upon it," author Barton Gellman writes in a chilling 13,000-word opus.
"Our two-party system has only one party left that is willing to lose an election. The other is willing to win at the cost of breaking things that a democracy cannot live without."
The summit's three primary themes include strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption and advancing human rights. Topics up for discussion will include supporting a free and independent media, using technology to advance democratic reform and protecting free and fair elections.
"This summit is not a single event in itself," said Allison Lombardo, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for international organization affairs.
"We are using it to spur a year of action where governments can announce new reforms and commitments and go home and work on them domestically and internationally."
A followup event is expected in 2022, the hope being that next year's summit will be an opportunity to assess the progress made over the intervening year.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2021.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press