President Ronald Reagan was fond of rallying the American public to pride in country by invoking the “city on a hill” motif originally uttered by the Puritan preacher John Winthrop in 1630. In Reagan’s words: “Americans (are) proud of what for them is still a shining city on a hill.” In true bipartisanship, this metaphor was similarly summoned by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. The shining city to which these presidents were all referring was the noble example to the world of America’s democracy.
Fair enough, but Winthrop’s original reference was religious. He spoke of a New England that “shall be a city upon a hill (where) the eyes of all people are upon us, (so we must) live by obeying the voice of Christ.” His inspiration, of course, came from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he spoke of his followers: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14).”
With the end of the Cold War in 1989, a wave of optimism over a potential tide of democratization swept across the globe, affecting even academia. In 1991, Harvard political scientist Sam Huntington published his “The Third Wave” in which he observed that from 1974-90 a democratic wave had added 30 countries to the democratic fold. He made three main points. First, many of these “conversions” were made under American influence and example. A global audience saw the United States as the winning geopolitical team and attributed our success to our democratic government. Second, he said that the key to any successful transition to democracy lay in a set of compromises among a country’s principal political groups.
But Huntington’s third point was the kicker. He warned that for these democratic gains to endure, these newly democratic countries would founder unless they developed a political culture of common values that would enable a “loyal opposition” to form around each elected government. By this he meant that governments built on democratically elected majorities had to accept political outcomes whereby today’s electoral minorities could become tomorrow’s majority and peacefully assume the reins of government. America, of course, was the stellar example of these transfers of power. From 1972 to 2008 there were five peaceful exchanges of the presidency from one political party to another.
Sadly, now not even 30 years after the end of Huntington’s “Third Wave,” there have been too many countries that have been unable able to develop this political culture, and are backsliding. Too often the pattern has been for leaders to be happy about gaining power through democratic elections, but then becoming utterly unwilling to give it up in subsequent elections. Military officers gained power by the ballot in places like Algeria, Egypt and Thailand only to assume dictatorial powers thereafter. Other countries — like Venezuela and Nicaragua — have seen leaders come to power by fair elections and then, through military force, stay in power with a series of rigged elections.
Recently, this backsliding has taken a new turn: Leaders lose a vote that is accepted as free and fair, but simply refuse to abide by the results. This happened last year in Kenya, and left its politics paralyzed. In April this year, elections in Indonesia that were deemed fair by international observers returned President Wedodo to another term.
But his opponent has refused to accept the result and his supporters continue to riot in the capital. Similarly in Turkey, the party of President Recep Erdogan lost the mayoral elections in Turkey’s two largest cities. He has refused to accept the results and has ordered an electoral re-run because “My citizens tell me that this election must be renewed.” Put simply, when you can ignore the “other citizens,” you no longer have a democracy.
It is hard not to recognize that since the American presidential election of 2016, the shining light of our city on the hill has gone out.
With the Mueller report’s failure to indict President Trump on any charges of collusion or obstruction of justice, it seems that his remaining “high crime and misdemeanor” (the constitutional grounds for impeachment) was to have been elected president in 2016 in the first place.
To be honest, had Hillary Clinton won in 2016, Tea Party Republicans would still be trying to “lock her up” over her missing classified emails. In brief, since 2016, no one is willing to accept the role of “loyal opposition” anymore, and our politics have turned vicious.
To reclaim our shining city on the hill, we need to move beyond Reagan’s patriotic city to Winthrop’s 1630 religious revival of the Sermon on the Mount, recommitting us to the enduring values that Christ inspired.