Seldom in our recent history has the United States engaged in such a profound and urgent discourse on the meaning, significance, and relevance of our shared values as a nation. Since the appalling assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, our urgent reflection about our identity as citizens of a mature democracy – on what we share and value most – has embraced fundamental moral issues of accountability, truth, public trust, virtue, decency, responsibility, citizenship, patriotism, duty, honor, reciprocity, legitimacy, humility, sacrifice, caring, and democracy itself.
The attempted insurrection that we witnessed has also challenged us to take the measure of some deep moral failures by many of our political leaders and some members of our society: unbridled ambition, callous disrespect of voters’ preferences, extremes of arrogance, attempts at political manipulation, reliance on deceit and dishonesty, and a sobering demonstration of White privilege. It is not too dramatic to consider that we have before us, right here in the United States, undeniable evidence of sedition and possibly treason. Such realities are not new to many societies in the world, but our comfortable myth of American moral exceptionalism has now been shattered.
Already some conclusions are crystalizing. Democracy in the United States is indeed vulnerable, and despite our 244 years of experience in the practice of democratic ideals and processes, we have been humbled. Even with decades of evidence of structural injustice and silenced voices – voices that proudly and largely peacefully took to the streets in last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests – many Americans have held on to our ideals of exceptionalism. Now the truth is laid bare: we can no longer stand so proudly as a global exemplar of good governance. Critical questions of political accountability and justice remain unanswered. The integrity of our democratic institutions is no longer presumed, and the oaths of a very large number of elected officials to protect and defend our Constitution have been flagrantly broken. Throughout our history, many Americans have given their careers and even their lives to protect and defend that Constitution, yet their deeply held moral commitments and sacrifices have now been swept aside so readily, so suddenly, and often with no remorse.
For those of us who labor on the global stage in the world of international relief and development, a critically important set of lessons must be learned from this historic failure. Values matter, and they must not all be dismissed as being “relative” and hence irrelevant. Public trust matters. Truth matters. Democracy matters. Preventable human suffering and grinding poverty matter. We can – and must – do so much better, if the principle of universal human dignity is to mean what it ought to.
Development must be about building a world, both here and abroad, where human rights, decency, equity, accountability, truth, caring, environmental justice – and all the morally defensible values that each society claims as their own – are recognized not as superfluous to our relief and development work, but as central to it. To achieve this, the values discourse must continue, deepen, and expand, not just “over there”, but also right here at home. Every country is a developing country. Every society hosts communities of struggle. In response to the tragic events of the past week, the Center for Values in International Development reconfirms our commitment to strive as diligently as we can to help move international relief and development toward this goal.
Chloe Schwenke, Ph.D.
President and Founder