As reporters struggled to describe the events unfolding at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, more than a few referred to images of armed insurgents in other countries, taking over a small democratic country’s seat of government – images that are also associated with American intervention to restore order.
Former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer is the author of “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change, From Hawaii to Iraq.” He has witnessed many scenes of takeover and anarchy. Kinzer told Texas Standard that what he saw in Washington looks very much like what he has seen the U.S. government do in other countries.
“For more than a century, the United States has been actively intervening to destabilize other countries, to overthrow foreign governments, remove leaders who we don’t like and place ones in power who will support our projects,” Kinzer said.
He says Americans, who take their own democracy for granted, are often unaware that authoritarian forms of government have been far more common throughout history.
“Democracy is a rebellion against all of history,” Kinzer said. “To sustain democracy requires constant effort because it’s a very unnatural form of government. And when you start to take it for granted, it tends to collapse.”
Kinzer says that even countries that have made strides toward democracy have slipped back in recent years. He cites Nicauragua, Poland, India, the Philippines and others – all of which have elected democratic governments that eventually gave way to autocrats.
“It’s an ordinary human instinct to want to be governed by strong leaders,” he said. “And if you want to establish democracy, you’re rebelling against that, and you have to work very hard every day to fight against the forces of nature deep inside human beings that lead many of them to want a strong ruler, rather than a messy, participatory democracy.”
Kinzer says nationalism is also an aspect of human nature; people want to be part of a larger group, with common goals and aspirations.
“And demagogues take advantage of that,” he said.
“I hope this serves as a kind of a wake-up call for Americans – that democracies can lose their legitimacy when they are not seen as serving the people,” Kinzer said. “And the United States is in a position where our democratic fabric is fraying.”