Forty – four years ago I stood upon Pennsyivania Avenue, the street in Washington, DC that links the White House with the US Capitol and joined hundreds of thousands of my fellow citizens in cheering as President and Mrs Jimmy Carter surprisingly and astonishingly stepped outside their presidential limousine, held hands, and walked to their new home. This was a remarkable gesture, because in modern history, the Carters were among the first President and First Lady to actually walk upon this street, the avenue of the presidents, and to directly engage with their fellow citizens. This scene was in stark contrast to the perceived imperial presidency of Richard Nixon that ended with his being the first US president to resign from office. It was a time where literally we felt we might be moving from darkness to light.
This week we have seen the result of four years, and perhaps longer, of the cultivation of the often invisible evil and dark forces that are ever present in American life and increasingly in other societies throughout the world. These forces became highly visible this week with the storming of the US Capitol by thousands of domestic terrorists who were doing the bidding of President Trump.
Along with millions of my country men and women, I was horrified as I watched these terrorists, who were in large part white men, carrying confederate flags and defacing the people’s house. My horror soon became anger and then I was left with deep concern about the future of the US republic.
It was not always like this. In fact, the last time the US Capitol was attacked it was by foreign invaders, the British redcoats in 1814. Therefore, one wonders what we might learn from this historical moment in the American experiment?
Above the ornate front doors of the United States Archives, where the US Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence are permanently on display are carved in marble these words, “The Past is Prologue”. I suppose my fundamental and still unanswered question this week is how did the beloved country of my birth rapidly transition from an orderly transfer of power as seen during the 1977 Carter inauguration to the terrifying decline I am now witnessing with abject horror.
The answers to this question are complex, however, a comparison between the funding of the electoral systems of the United Kingdom and the United States is helpful and also a warning for our future systems. In the US state of Georgia, the United States senatorial candidates spent over 500 million US dollars for their run – off election. By comparison, in the United Kingdom, similar campaigns sonly pend thousands of pounds to elect their candidates. The US voters are increasingly aware of the huge investments required for their candidates to win elections and I believe this is a contributing factor to the national civic outrage we are seeing today. More and more, citizens feel as though they are becoming disenfranchised from the electoral process.
The second answer is the increasingly large amount of financial contributions that US former leaders receive once leaving office for delivering speeches and probiding lobbying services. As one recent example, Janet Yellen, the former Chair of the US Federal Reserve (the central bank of the United States), received 7 million US dollars over a two year period when she stepped down as chair. These funds were paid to her for delivering speeches including nine talks for a major US banking organisation.
I believe it is time to limit the amount of funds that may be spent on campaigns and that former US leaders receive when they leave office. One potential opportunity is to encourage former Presidents of the USA to forego building another presidential library and instead donate any funds received to building new schools, hospitals and other public services. A US congress person, senator and / or president upon leaving office receives a very large life time pension, personal protecton services and other staff support. They simply do not need to generate millions of additional dollars for their persona gain when these funds could be better used to support civil society.
The American patriot and founding father of the USA Thomas Paine said during the American revolution the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. The horrifying conflict that we witnessed this week must lead to a greater triumph for the American republic and indeed for all citizens throughout the world who value the rule of law and cherish their democratic institutions, no matter how fragile they have become.
As I watch the unfolding events across the pond I suddenly have a deep longing for men and women such as Thomas Paine to stand up and speak out and for their followers to listen to their wisdom and work even harder in the future to reduce conflict and promote harmony. It is my hope that at least some of the refreshing harmony that I experienced upon the avenue of the presidents forty – four years ago will return once more on 20 January 2021 when there is a transition of power in the land that I greatly love and fondly remember and we shall once again move from darkness to light.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University and was a local elected official in Washington, DC in the 1970’s. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot