The Fragility of Democracy: Now Everywhere and Anywhere

Homi Bhabha

During the presidential election, Joe Biden made frequent references to the fragility of democracy. In his inaugural address, Biden returned to the subject. In the days between these repeated warnings of the perilous state of democracy, all Americans, and much of the rest of the world, witnessed the pageantry of the vandalism of the US Capitol on 6 January. Is the fragility of democracy any different from our ongoing apprehensions about the fate of democracy or the future of democracy? Does the phrase “the fragility of democracy” strike a different note of alarm?

I believe it does. The value of words lies in using them cautiously and reading them carefully. Phrases like the “future of democracy” anticipate the next chapter of the democratic experiment, however dark and difficult it may be. It may not be business as usual, but there is little doubt that our view of democracy is still in business. “The fragility of democracy” expresses the anxiety that, for the present moment at least, democracy, as a political idea and a repertoire of normative practices may not only be losing ground but losing the plot altogether. Well into February, three quarters of Republican voters still believed the lie that the election was stolen.

This has, of course, happened before, but each time it happens we have to rethink it in the moment by holding on to the shock of its iteration and interruption, rather than relegating the short moment to the long-known lessons of history.

There are moments in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life where Friedrich Nietzsche suggests something similar. Our reverence for monumental history and its longue durée, he argues, might prevent us from taking our place on “threshold of the moment,” standing on a single “point,” and hence recovering a necessary feeling of strangeness and “astonish[ment]” in confronting and conceptualizing the history of the present.[1] Without occupying the temporal threshold of strangeness and astonishment, contemporary history is in danger of becoming presentist, while monumental history is vulnerable to celebrating the archaic and the anticipated.

On 6 January, the Make America Great Again mob mounted an assault on electoral rights and democratic institutions in the name of “all Americans”—threatening to hang the vice-president in the process. They were responding, as the case for Donald Trump’s impeachment made plain, to a carefully crafted call to arms: “we fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Trump beat the war-drums to egg his followers on to fight the courts with frivolous petitions, to fight the constitution with fraudulent actions, to fight the election with insurrection.

The story doesn’t end there. Trump’s 6 January speech contains a dark racial conceit that suggests that America is now in danger of sinking to the status of a “third world country”—those nations that he had once called “shit-hole” countries: “It’s a disgrace. There’s never been anything like that.” Trump hollers: “You could take third-world countries. Just take a look. Take third-world countries. Their elections are more honest than what we’ve been going through in this country. It’s a disgrace. It’s a disgrace.” After ranting against his bêtes noires—Biden, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton—Trump turns on those Black Americans, faux Americans to a person, as he sees it, who are most responsible for America’s impending “Third World” doom: “And then I had to beat Stacey Abrams with this guy, Brian Kemp. I had to beat Stacey Abrams. And I had to beat Oprah, used to be a friend of mine. . . . And I had a campaign against Michelle Obama and Barack Hussein Obama.”

The devil lurks in the details. You can almost hear Trump’s disdain: Are Black Americans really American citizens at all, or are they more like Third World peoples? Does Barack Hussein . . . Hussein . . .Hussein . . .even sound American to you? Trump never tires of asking. As I watched the insurrection in real time, the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer were never far from my mind. Why? Because the MAGA mob had chosen as their totemic symbol—their monument—the lynching gallows. The gallows and the Confederate flag were the standards they raised against the election result; it was the gallows and the confederacy that they associated with Trump’s restoration.

While the attention of the world was focused on the violent break-in at the Capitol, it was the gallows with its twisted, hanging noose, and its dire history of racial death, that caught my eye. “Hang them” and “Stop the Steal” were meant for Senate Democrats and Republican “Never Trumpers”; but the dire reality of American racial death haunted the MAGA monument of gallows and noose.

Black death by lynching or police chokeholds or shots in the back; and Native American death by genocide and territorial dispossession. Trump protesters mockingly appropriated “I can’t breathe”—Floyd’s dying words—to express their discomfort at being teargassed as they broke into the Capitol. In a tableau macabre, two MAGA members enacted Floyd’s death beneath a Black Lives Matter banner displayed at the National City Christian Church in D.C. before participating in the storming of the Capitol. “The racism structured into every aspect of the coup attempt is a call to heed our own history,” Timothy Snyder writes in The American Abyss, his remarkable account of that January day.

The United States of America is by no means the only country vulnerable to the fragility of democracy. The insurrection at the Capitol signals the fragility of democracy in other ethnonationalist regimes across the world—most recently in Myanmar and repeatedly in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, Israel, and Brazil. There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all model for authoritarian regimes, but what they share are tyrannical leaders whose principal line of attack is an assault on minorities, migrants, and dissidents—a world of enemies. These leaders, populist narcissists to a man, share a political ideology that Hannah Arendt once described as “tribal nationalism”:

Tribal nationalism is introverted, concentrates on the individual’s own soul which is considered as the embodiment of general national qualities. . . . Tribalism . . . starts from non-existent pseudo-mystical elements which it proposes to realize fully in the future. It can be easily recognized by the tremendous arrogance, inherent in its self-concentration, which dares to measure a people, its past and present, by the yardstick of exalted inner qualities and inevitably rejects its visible existence, tradition, institutions, and culture.

Politically speaking, tribal nationalism always insists that its own people is surrounded by “a world of enemies,” “one against all,” that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man.[2]

While the world’s press was counting Trump’s lies—30,573 “misleading claims” in four years, The Washington Post reports—Trump’s rhetoric of untruth was loudly and restlessly doing its work. The untruths uttered by tribal nationalists—to whom majoritarian ethnonationalists bear a striking family likeness—have no real epistemic stakes in making a political argument; their ambitions are more performative than epistemic. To describe a public discourse as generating untruth or post-truth (Snyder’s term) does not mean that you affirm, in contrast to it, an absolute or universal realm of the truth. To shortcut this complex argument, let me resort to a common phrase—“to arrive at the truth”—that catches something of what I mean. To arrive at the truth is to acknowledge the long and hard journey of judgment: map reading; consulting a GPS, making decisions en route, starting the journey all over again. To arrive at the truth is as much duration as destination: a process of arguing, reflecting and judging on the grounds of evidence, facts, interpretations, and interventions. Self-doubt and epistemic uncertainty are essential parts of the process. Arriving at the truth is to subscribe to the verifiability of a framework of facts and values that commits you to making up your mind and to standing your ground. This is as true of the judicial process as it is of philological procedures and psychoanalytic practices. Untruth resists this difficult journey; its unverified end point exclusively serves its own interests; it rushes to allege and accuse because it refuses the duration that it takes to arrive at the truth.

To accuse tribal nationalists of not telling the truth is to miss the point that their arrogant self-concentration is only committed to selling themselves. Their public images and political brands are constructed to transgress party systems and transcend national interests. This, I think, is what Arendt means when she considers tribal nationalist leaders to be “introverted,” elevating themselves as “embodiments of general national qualities” at the cost of the multiethnic, interfaith traditions of a people’s “visible existence, tradition, institutions, and culture.”

Leaders who resist press conferences, who demand lofty platforms to rally the people as massed bodies, seek to turn citizens into sycophants and the people into partisan mobs. These leaders are arbiters of power who thrive on the arbitrariness of governance to keep citizens and residents in states of anxiety and unpreparedness in times of emergency. The Chinese government concealed the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan for weeks, leaving vulnerable inhabitants exposed to the virus, unprepared for the pandemic. The Indian government gave migrant workers and wage laborers four hours between 8 p.m. and midnight on 24 March to de-densify cities and head to their hometowns and villages to be locked down without any provision of food, money, or transport. Ethnonationalist rhetoric, in its rabble-rousing recruiting mode, is based on “non-existent pseudo-mystical elements”: COVID-19 will disappear like a miracle in April, Trump prophesied; Light a lamp for nine minutes on 5 April to ward off the pandemic, India’s Prime Minister Modi advised, and join in Vedic prayer: “Lead us from unreal to real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.” Death, be not proud, just be untruthful, is the tribalist leaders’ adage.

When truths and facts are pitted against untruths and conspiracies, populist leaders and their followers brazen it out. Untruth disregards evidence, science, deliberation, and due process, because the tribalist promise to its own unique people—one against all—is the achievement of a racially pure and culturally homogenous nation in the future. Populist power, articulated in the language of untruth, wagers the perils of the present against a promised, yet provisional, future. There is always a political and psychic risk involved in such a promissory bet on an uncertain future—like Trump’s loss in the 2020 election— so the anxiety associated with future risk requires a blind belief in untruths uttered in the present moment. Time is as much an instrument of the tyranny of tribalism as it is the political manipulation of place and people. When the promise of the present doesn’t come to pass, then all hell breaks loose, and the intimidatory maneuvers of the police force assume a directly political role. In some countries the army is called in at this point and democracy dies. In others, the violence of electoral autocracy makes its symbolic presence felt in the hanging gallows and the swinging noose.

Make America great again; make India Hindu again; take back control and make Britain a sovereign nation again—it is the futurity of the again and the yet to come that drives tyrannical leaders to take risks with inflationary cycles of untruth and that put the lives and livelihoods of their followers at risk—over 315 members of the MAGA Capitol mob are facing criminal charges to date; over 500,000 Americans have died of the little flu that Trump insisted would not, and should not, change the way we live. This is to say nothing of the everyday risks faced by ethnic minorities, whom White supremacists see as a “world of enemies.” The January riot does not reveal the sudden fragility of American democracy; it is symptomatic of structural failures within American democracy. This is the American nightmare from which the American dream never fully wakes.

The shadow of death does not enter the corridors of power uninvited. When a political system hinders the people’s right to speak truth to power by alleging that dissent is sedition and protest is antinational—and that peaceful demonstrators are antipatriotic anarchists—then dogmatism and demagoguery destroy the checks and balances of representative democracy. The silencing of public voices and the devaluing of public reason open the door to untruths and conspiracy theories. Snyder puts his finger on the dangers of “pre-fascism” that lurks within ethnonationalist “tribal” democracies: In Snyder’s view:

Post-truth is pre-fascism. . . . A joint statement Ted Cruz issued about the senators’ challenge to the vote nicely captured the post-truth aspect of the whole: It never alleged that there was fraud, only that there were allegations of fraud. Allegations of allegations, allegations all the way.

Allegations of allegations, allegations all the way. . . . Allegations define the lifeworlds of minorities mauled by indignity, inequality, and psychic injury. Allegations attached to skin color and race; allegations exploiting inequalities of caste and class; allegations against religious and political affiliations; allegations related to the embodiments of gender and sexuality. The content of conspiracist allegations may seem outrageously out of touch with negotiated realities, but conspiracists, amongst whom I include racists, set their clocks by these “facts”; they read the weather by these facts; they interpret causes and consequences in the light of these facts. To oppose conspiracy theory with the ballast of reason serves only as a foil for its own game of denial and victimhood, which is wired into the repetitive logic of allegation, allegations, allegations all the way. The content of allegations of allegations may seem outrageously untruthful but, as the poet Claudia Rankine writes, these “fantasies cost lives” as the American record of recent police killing of Black people attests:[3]

From Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, 2014), p. 134.

Systemic racism leans heavily on legal justice and policy reform, but the phenomenology of everyday traumatic racism—violent, iterative, interruptive, erratic—plays out on streets and neighborhoods: the quick stab of hate speech; the precarious moments of “stop and search”; the eight minutes and forty-six seconds it takes to kill George Floyd on the side of a public throughfare in Minnesota. These risky moments in which life and death hang by a thread—these risks to minority living that end up as a risk to minority life itself—find their voice in the haunting evocations of Rankine’s call to poetic justice. Because white policemen, protected by the legal doctrine of qualified immunity, cannot police their imaginations, Black people are dying. Black Lives do not Matter. This is a condition we might conceptualize as the burdened life, not Giorgio Agamben’s bare life.

Short measures of traumatic time, as the lyric form demonstrates, have an intense and encrypted existence. Institutional incidents of systemic racism are recorded in linear or evolutionary narratives of the progress of policy or the failure of political will—or vice versa. The risky uncertainty of traumatic racism takes a different form of time and place, which was perfectly captured by W. E. B. Du Bois over a century ago: “Now seldom, now, sudden; now after a week, now in a chain of awful minutes; not everywhere, but anywhere—in Boston, in Atlanta. That’s the hell of it.”[4]

Rankine’s poetic enactment of a Black encounter with the police is narrated in the temporality of the traumatic “chain of awful minutes; not everywhere, but anywhere—in Boston, in Atlanta.” It happens in that brief, sudden moment of stop-and-frisk, before the police statement is written, before the union intervenes and the judge accepts the plea of reasonable doubt. Generations of cases filed against police officers accused of unlawful killings of Black men and women fail because of the legal provision of qualified immunity,  which inevitably determines the “truth” in favor of the police. Qualified immunity, granted by the courts and protected by police unions, has led to a situation that Noah Feldman makes no bones about: “The Supreme Court wants few lawsuits against the police to go forward”:[5]

A force within whiteness is forcing the whiteness

What is the feeling that pulls, that is pulling, that pulls it out, what sensation uncivilized the utterance. . .

Then the black person is asked to leave to vacate to prove to validate to authorize to legalize their right to be in the air in air in here and then the police help help the police is called help help

. . .

“NYPD Union Lawyers Argue That Eric Garner Would Have died Because He Was Obese,” New York magazine. . . . “Were he not overweight and asthmatic, they argue, he would have survived the violence to which he was subjected.”[6]

Post-truth kills: Allegations of allegations, allegations all the way.

Traumatic racism keeps you anxious and uncertain, but it also keeps you vigilant in the cause of freedom and the witness of justice. James Baldwin knew this only too well, which is why his life and work were built around psychic and social risk. This is how he saw it:

[If] we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements and transform them. The price of this transformation is the unconditional freedom of the Negro; it’s not too much to say that he … must now be embraced, and at no matter what psychic or social risk. He is the key figure in this country, and the American future is precisely as bright or dark as his. And the Negro recognizes this, in a negative way. Hence the question: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?[7]

James Baldwin’s ethic of psychic and social risk is a mode of repair and reparation across races and ethnicities; it is picked up as much on the suddenness of the street as from narratives of literature and history. Whatever the psychic or social risk, White Americans must pay the price of giving Blacks unconditional freedom, now anywhere and everywhere, today in Boston, tomorrow in Atlanta, for that’s the price of the ticket. And Black Americans, as Baldwin says, must take the psychic and political risk of learning how to use the past, not drown in it—”to accept the fact . . . that the Negro has been formed by this nation, for better or for worse, and does not belong to any other.”[8]


Homi K. Bhabha is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the English and Comparative Literature Departments at Harvard University.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis, 1980), pp. 9, 8.

[2]Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, 1976), p. 227.

[3] Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation (Minneapolis, 2020), p. 329.

[4] W. E. B. Du Bois, “On Being Black,” The New Republic, newrepublic.com/article/130290/black

[5] Joanna C. Schwartz, Yale Law Journal 127, no. 2 (2017): 6.

[6] Rankine, Just Us.

[7]James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York, 1993), p. 94.

[8] Ibid., p. 81.

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