Eternal Vigilance: The Price of Liberty

November 21 , 2020
By Christian Tesfaye ( Christian Tesfaye ( is a researcher and Fortune's Deputy Editor-in-Chief whose interests run amok in the directions of political thought, markets, society and pop culture. )

There is a saying for almost any event, behaviour or phenomenon in Amharic. Many are hard to translate into English without being too literal or losing the contextual or poetic flair.

“A gold bar at hand is akin to a piece of brass,” this one goes. It is close in meaning to the term, “You don’t know what you got ‘til it's gone.”

It is a profound saying when applied to the concept of democracy. Here in Ethiopia, our political history is an example of the struggle to realise justice, impeded by several moments of shock that send us back reeling for submission (or at least reticence) to authority. We are well aware of the price it exacts and cognisant of the fact that transition toward democracy would require the sort of sacrifice that we have time and again proven that we are unwilling to pay.

It is thus with immense astonishment that we regard the state of US democracy in the context of the 2020 presidential election, which saw President Donald Trump lose to former Vice-President Joe Biden. There is a rather widespread agreement among observers that the country will indeed see a smooth transition of power come January 2021 and that Trump will grudgingly vacate the White House following Biden’s swearing-in.

But there is no denying that Trump’s claim that the election was stolen from him and his refusal to concede are unprecedented. It is no small matter. The US may not be new to contested elections –- there was the whole Gore-Bush controversy over vote counts in Florida just two decades ago –- but what is happening now is no small matter.

Yanis Varoufakis, one of the original and independent thinkers of our time, once said that democracy is not a piece of furniture we can reliably expect would be there every time we turn around to take a seat. It is only to a populace that has become used to democracy as the default state of political order that there is no absolute panic at even the remotest odds that Trump may refuse to hand over power.

Consider this. There are currently only a handful of Republican senators now acknowledging Biden as president-elect. More worryingly, the president-elect and his team have not been allowed access to secure communications and classified briefings, at least by the middle of last week.

"There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also recently said, appearing to give credence to Trump’s taunt that he was actually re-elected, a baseless claim as far as any reasonable person can see.

Sure, all of this could be a case of the Republican Party not wanting to antagonise Trump, considering how he could energise Republican supporters to vote. The Georgia state run-off for the Senate, which is yet to come and will decide which party controls the chamber of congress, may explain this.

It also may not. An indicator of this was the rather large demonstration in Washington, DC a week ago by Trump supporters. They backed his refusal to concede to Biden.

What explains this? Are they also hoping that he would help out with the Georgia elections?

It is unlikely. It is a sign of how severely impacted trust in institutions has become that millions now believe Trump’s allegations without any meaningful evidence. If there is one thing that we Ethiopians, living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, can coroborate, it is that once the institutions are gone, there is little else remaining to ensure democracy. If there is a lesson that can be taken from our state of political affairs, it is that none of the different types of nationalisms or political movements and organisations are reliable guardians of democracy.

There is a good chance that Biden will be sitting in the Oval Office in a few months to come. But there is also a terrifying possibility that, without remedy, the days of American democracy are numbered. The Greeks lost their democracy, and the Romans their republic after that. The Americans are just another empire.

“The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance,” John Philpot Curran, Irish lawyer and judge, once said.

They are words that those lucky enough to have liberty and democracy should heed.

PUBLISHED ON Nov 21,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1073]

Christian Tesfaye ( is a researcher and Fortune's Deputy Editor-in-Chief whose interests run amok in the directions of political thought, markets, society and pop culture.

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