What makes a democracy? Is it simply that people get to vote for their political leaders and their policies? Well, not quite. Even dictators are fond of plebiscites (the traditional reason given by older politicians against the use of referenda) and some of the most brutal and corrupt regimes officially have elections. Those tend to be the kind where 99.5% of the population vote for our dear leader and the other 0.5% find themselves in prison the next day.
No, there is something else that is fundamental to healthy democracies and that is The Rule of Law. It is what ensures that those in power are constricted by rules and ethics. It is what has acted as the guarantor of a peaceful transfer of power between administrations. For many years in the UK we have been able to go to bed confidently on election night knowing that in the morning the Prime Minister would either return triumphantly to Downing Street or if they lost to head to the Palace and submit their resignation. For a few hundred years we knew the rules, the US Election would be called on a November night for one candidate, the other would concede graciously. Then the Electoral College would meet to confirm the vote, this would be signed off by Congress and in January POTUS would be sworn in.
Yet right now, those assumptions are under attack. We have been shocked at the terrible scenes at the Capitol Building in Washington as protestors invaded it and prevented Congress from certifying the vote. There is grim news. Far from the peaceful transfer of power, we have seen riots and bloodshed with one person dying and others being taken to hospital. The trigger was a speech from President Trump to demonstrate. The implication was that he would march with his supporters. Later after many appeals for him to condemn the violence and intimidation he spoke again. To be sure he said that the protestors should go home and that we needed peace but those calls were alternated with further baseless claims that the election was stolen and that some sinister “they” were doing it. His statement was equivalent to winking whilst speaking or shaking his head. After all, who goes home when a shadowy power has stolen your democracy?
The reality is of course that despite claiming to have won a landslide, Trump never has. He scraped into power by winning the electoral college against Hilary Clinton whilst losing the popular vote. The opinion polls this time suggested he never got close to Biden never mind ahead of him. It is not as though the result on election night was a surprise. He has claimed election fraud but that would actually require such a level of corruption that his own supporters in power around the states would have to have been complicit or hoodwinked. The courts have rejected his claims. He has failed to deliver any serious evidence. He tried to bully his Republican colleagues into supporting him by overturning the result but they refused. His own vice-president has refused to participate in what would effectively be a coup on his part. The demonstrations were not popular outcry with hundreds of thousands marching but they were violent and disruptive.
And this is why it matters. What we are seeing is a wholescale attack on the rule of law that if allowed to succeed will deeply damage democracy. Yet, this attack did not start yesterday. Some of you may remember that even back at the last election, Trump was throwing around the same slurs about the process and threatening to lock his opponent up, the very sort of thing that tinpot dictators do after elections. Except last time he won and his concerns about the vote were quietly forgotten. Yet things were not one sided. Rather there were protests and boycotts of the inauguration by Hilary supporters as the hashtag #NotMyPresident took off. The idea that the president was also the constitutional head of state representing all Americans and that you respected the office if not the person was already under attack. I remember saying at the time that this did not bode well for future elections.
But we have seen that attack in other ways. British politicians and journalists were quick to condemn events in Washington DC conveniently forgetting we would not be shocked to see such violent scenes outside our own legislature. We seem to have forgotten that our own PM was found to have acted unlawful a year and a bit ago when he prorogued Parliament. Opposition politicians failed to mention that isn’t that long back that we had a shadow chancellor whose political philosophy saw the ballot box as only one part of the toolkit for revolution and who called for people to take to the streets to remove the lawfully sitting government. It isn’t that long back that the leader of the opposition was a man with a history of supporting and giving a platform to those who preferred the gun and the bomb to the ballot box. We have nothing to be that proud about.
Then there have been the evangelical leaders and opinion formers who a few years back would have said that moral character was crucial to holding office and yet supported a president with a reputation for unfaithfulness, greed and narcissism Those men showed little concern for the damage that their political pronouncements did to evangelical unity.
Similarly, we have seen celebrities, commentators and even church leaders throughout the COVID lockdown increasingly argue that it is okay, our duty even to disregard regulations implemented by our democratically elected government and pass into law by Parliament. We have been told that we can and should pick and choose the laws we obey, those we consider to be fair, reasonable and beneficial. This is another way of saying that the rule of law does not matter and we can do what we want.
Others in the pandemic have spread conspiracy theories. That’s another way of telling people not to trust the democratic process and to respect those in authority.
Last night the chickens came home to roost. Yes, we should condemn the violence and criminality but we also need to reflect on how we got to this stage. Others need to shoulder some of that responsibility.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”
 Romans 13:1-5