A presidential election between an anti-establishment candidate and a representative of the political elite is decided in favor of the latter. Noting the initially narrow gap between both candidates expand against their own, the supporters of the former claim fraud and act on their fears, deciding that their democracy can no longer be trusted. As a result, nefariously motivated and heavily armed thugs seize the house of a branch of government, not too far away from the presidential palace.
All of this has happened before. Just not in the United States of America.
I write today as a Colombian and a passionate observer of my country’s own history. Anyone remotely familiar with said history will notice that we have faced no shortage of political violence, the quelling of which has been, and continues to be, the defining challenge to our democracy since its foundation over 200 years ago. Yet, while Colombia’s worst days now appear largely behind her, what happened this Wednesday in the U.S. Capitol was, to the best of my knowledge, completely unprecedented in American history, and a sign of worse days to come if its root causes are left unaddressed or even exacerbated. Therefore, as a foreigner who is deeply concerned about our friends and neighbors in the United States, but nonetheless free from the visceral passions any politically engaged, responsible American must justly feel right now, I can only invite you to learn from our history in an attempt to repair the damage and move forward.
The Twin Sieges
On the night of November 3, 2020, as I saw Donald Trump’s electoral lead fueled by rural, in-person votes quickly vanish in the face of Democratic-leaning mail-in-ballots, I felt a mix of relief and distress. Relief from Biden’s victory, distress because it seemed so similar to the Colombian election of April 19, 1970, when the predominantly urban votes counted first tended to favor the anti-establishment candidate, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, while the rural votes that rolled in later ultimately delivered a narrow victory to the mainstream Conservative leader, Misael Pastrana Borrero, with 40.6 percent of the vote against Rojas Pinilla’s 39 percent.
I quickly texted several of my friends—this is how the M-19 started. In a country already teeming with more strictly Marxist guerrilla groups such as FARC and ELN, the M-19 were a nationalist, ambiguously socialist, and above all, anti-elitist organization built on the denial of the 1970 election results and the wholesale rejection of Colombia’s political institutions. Just as the mob desecrated the Rotunda beneath which George Washington rests, the M-19 stole the sword of our foremost founding father, Simón Bolívar, in 1974. Just as the mob stormed the halls and hemicycles of the Capitol, disrupting the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory and resulting in four dead civilians, the M-19 stormed Colombia’s Palace of Justice in 1985, disrupting the work of our Supreme Court justices and resulting in the death or disappearance of 54 civilians and 11 Colombian soldiers.
There are obviously limitations to this comparison. The worst atrocities of the M-19 took place over the course of two decades, while the Trumpist mob that struck on Wednesday did so only weeks after the election, and the death toll of the siege of the Palace of Justice dwarfs that of Wednesday’s events. Political tensions in the United States today are very clearly amplified by social media misinformation, a weapon the M-19 agitators did not have available to them. Most crucially, no president of Colombia has ever encouraged or supported these acts of violence, while it is undeniable that President Donald Trump was the driving force behind the storming of the Capitol. Yet, both crises are instantiations of the same sort of problem—a crisis in the credibility of existing institutions coupled with a political culture that encourages direct action as the response, especially on the part of a furious and mobilized minority that feels cheated and humiliated.
If Colombian history is any indication, the priority of the United States in the foreseeable future must be the restoration of goodwill in politics, national unity, and institutional trust. Such a restoration would, in my opinion, require three crucial steps.
First, Republicans and Democrats alike must increasingly embrace a political narrative that shows reverence for the American political project, both as it has existed historically and as it stands today. To be clear, this does not mean that the country’s flaws should be ignored. One can, for instance, acknowledge that the United States took longer to abolish slavery than most republics in the Americas, continued to explicitly discriminate against Black Americans well into the 20th century unlike most of its neighbors, and has yet to take the measures necessary for those scars to heal. One can acknowledge that self-serving actors have used the powers of the U.S. government for their own benefit and continue to do so. But at the same time, one must acknowledge that the democratic institutions of the United States are, and in some ways were from the very start, a precious rarity in a despotic and unjust world history, and that people of good will have and still can work to correct its flaws constructively.
Joe Biden showed signs of this mentality in his response to the siege at the Capitol, claiming that “this is not who we are.” Donald Trump, for all of his self-proclaimed patriotism, spoke against it when he implied that the U.S. government was morally no more innocent than Vladimir Putin’s, while Georgia Senator-elect Raphael Warnock spoke against it when he described the legacies of both Castro’s Cuba and the United States in the same terms. Regardless of the intentions behind these words, producing a general climate of institutional mistrust, whether on the left or on the right, is destructive of both the benefits said institutions yield today and the benefits they could yield if judiciously reformed. This is why, in the depths of Colombia’s crisis in the 1980s and 90s, our country’s leaders continued to hold their heads high, praising our democracy as the oldest in Latin America and our capital, Bogotá, as the Athens of South America.
Second, and more concretely, the Biden administration, soon to fully control the federal government, must show signs of bipartisan cooperation with those Republicans who have distanced themselves from Trump in the past few days. I fully understand the temptation by the American Left to pursue every policy Senator Mitch McConnell has worked to obstruct for the past decade and crush the Republicans politically for their intransigence. Yet, regardless of whether these policies are good for the country, the fact remains that if the government acts unilaterally, the toxic narrative that the Democrats care only about their constituents’ goals and will do anything to impose their will on the Republican population will only grow more potent and persuasive. This would in turn encourage further extremist right-wing violence, and potentially left-wing violence in response—a despicable outcome not only in itself but also because it would fuel the polarization that originated it. The Biden administration must be magnanimous, not because Senate Republicans deserve to be rewarded for their obstructionism, but because it is the only way to break this vicious cycle. Colombia once had a two-party system, featuring the Liberal and Conservative Parties (both older than the GOP), and historical Colombian statesmen of both parties understood this, even when faced with much more dire circumstances. In 1904, following a bloody civil war where the Conservative government, representing the majority, defeated a Liberal-minority uprising, Conservative President Rafael Reyes established a government with a 40 percent Liberal cabinet, paving the way for about 30 years of peace and reconciliation. Just over half a century later, in 1958, by which point the country’s majority was Liberal and a decade of bipartisan political violence had ravaged Colombia’s countryside, Liberal statesman Alberto Lleras Camargo led a more formal pact with the Conservative Party. A 16-year period known as the National Front was instantiated, guaranteeing the alternation of the Presidency between both parties and the equal allotment of all government positions between both. This ended the Liberal-Conservative tensions that had tormented the country for decades, both among politicians and, by virtuous example, the general population. While I by no means expect such a drastic arrangement in the United States, I do believe that restoring goodwill between Republicans and Democrats will require measures of a similar nature in the short term.
Yet, the most attentive readers will notice that the rise of the M-19 happened long after the National Front began, by which point the first two conditions were already central to Colombian political culture. This brings me to my third and most radical suggestion—the abolition of the two-party system. In such a system, as long as there remain decidedly inflammatory and insurrectionary political actors, there can only ever be one of two states of affairs. Either the members of each party will view the other with suspicion and over-emphasize their more unsavory positions (whether real or perceived), whereby the Democrats all bear the label of socialists and the Republicans all bear the label of white supremacists, or the mainstream political parties, by collaborating with each other rather than acting on the demands of their most radical members, give the impression of holding an unjust and exclusionary monopoly on power, as was the case in National Front-era Colombia and, to a much lesser extent, the pre-Trump United States. Acknowledging these destabilizing tendencies, in 1991, Colombian Conservative leader Álvaro Gómez and his Liberal counterpart Horacio Serpa agreed to a new constitution which, among other reforms, enforced a system of national proportional representation for Congress, encouraging the rise of alternative parties. Our first President from outside either party was elected in 2002, and today’s Colombia is a vibrant multiparty democracy where, at least on the congressional level, hardly anyone feels that they have to vote for the lesser of two evils. The successor movements to the M-19, demobilized in 1990, currently hold just 8 of the Senate’s 108 seats. We could just as easily imagine a far-right, Trumpian party in a multiparty United States occupying a much less impressive space in the country’s political life than his faction has garnered through the Republican Party. Moreover, we could imagine a series of currently underrepresented positions, including those of environmentalists, libertarians, labor advocates and Christian democrats, all holding an independent voice much more proportional to their base of support. As of now this may seem impossible, but I will remind you that Colombia’s two-party system was older and arguably even more entrenched than that of the United States today. Ultimately, what American leaders and politically engaged citizens need is the will to pursue, as the venerable Álvaro Gómez famously put it, “an agreement on the fundamentals.”