Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
12 January 2021

‘Silence’, ‘siloes’, and the assault on the Capitol

Professor David Sylvan examines threats to republican democracies in Le Temps.

Last Wednesday, images of the United States Capitol pillaged by President Trump supporters shocked viewers around the world. The seat of the legislative branch of the US government, the Capitol stands as a symbol of its democratic and republican values.

This assault, however, did not happen in a vacuum: AHCD Faculty Affiliate David Sylvan, commenting in Le Temps in early January, offers useful interpretive cues. Political institutions, he argues, are facing pressure unseen since the 1930s. While the rise of authoritarian and xenophobic governments are jeopardising democracies worldwide, additional trends threaten the very heart of republican governance. Which are these, and what could be done about them?

Professor Sylvan reminds us that, originally, Cicero’s Res Publica – literally, the ‘public thing’ – stood in contrast with monarchic power. While the latter treated state matters privately, republics (in theory – in practice many were excluded) included all citizens, equal in the eyes of the law. But this Res Publica is threatened, Professor Sylvan continues, by two trends that exclude certain issues and citizens from political debate.

First, the threat of “silence”: in the last 70 years, democracies have increasingly avoided parliamentary debates on a range of issues pertaining to national security, including those relating to counterterrorism and policing. As a result, national security has eschewed republican surveillance and deliberation. Second, the threat of “siloes”: a lack of exposure to other political ideas, with media outlets and social media platforms creating echo chambers and engendering political polarisation. For Professor Sylvan, solutions range from taxing social media platforms to invest in other sources of information to reintroducing programmes relating to national security.

Interviewed last week in the aftermath of the Capitol attack, Professor Sylvan observes shifts in US politics. Trumpism has divided the Republican party, which might lead to the emergence of a new group or party. However, he argues, it is unlikely that Trump will be successfully impeached – Trump still has key allies among those who must back a presidential impeachment. What is for certain is that these unprecedented events have weakened the once-strong image of the country and its democratic institutions.

David Sylvan is Professor of International Relations / Political Science and Faculty Affiliate of the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy.


WATCH ALSO David Sylvan's lunch briefing on the US elections moderated by Christine Lutringer.

For more on Trumpism and democracy, listen to the latest episode of our podcast Democracy in Question? with Professors Timothy Snyder and Ivan Krastev HERE.