A defining trait of a democratic system is its ability to self-correct. Individual freedoms, systemic checks and balances, and ultimately the win-lose electoral processes are all mechanisms that help. So, it is difficult to understand why that self-correction has become so difficult for the United States of America, the proverbial “City upon a Hill” and a beacon of democracy and hope for the world.
India complains about the unfairness of the latest Freedom House index which depicted a steep decline of its democratic credentials, but it needn’t fret. The US, too, has slipped eight points from its 2009 score of 94. Now it is behind Greece and Mauritius.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that last week Republican legislators defended those who stormed the US Capitol on January 6. Representative Andrew S Clyde of Georgia said in a formal meeting that they were on a “normal tourist visit”. Actually the violent mob sought to prevent the certification of the November 3 presidential election and so it was nothing less than an attempted coup, one that was encouraged, if not abetted, by the outgoing president.
Today, 66% of the Republican Party believes that the 2020 election was “stolen from Donald Trump”. Refusing to accept the result of the election has now become the litmus test of a true-blue Republican. Those who disagree are being hounded.
The real illness of the country is racism. As historian Michael Todd Landis has noted, since 1776, “a minority of wealthy white men has always ruled, using legal and extralegal strategies.” White and black Americans arrived in the US at the same time in the 1620s, though the latter came involuntarily. Slaves were formally emancipated in 1863, but it took the social upheavals of the mid-1960s for the blacks to be given the right to vote.
A variety of means such as gerrymandering, purging voter rolls, limiting early and absentee voting, putting discriminatory ID requirements, are used to deny or suppress non-white votes. There are systemic features, too, that are the hallmark of the US-style democracy: Use of an electoral college to block popular outcomes in the presidential election, arcane voting rules in the Senate to kill and delay legislation that benefits ordinary people.
The whole system rests on money, large amounts of it, for fighting elections or lobbying and manipulating the judicial system. The 2020 election cost $14 billion, more than twice that was spent in 2016. The US has fitfully attempted to reform its election spending but Big Money has found a way around all rules and today large donations comprise 71% of total election fundraising and despite rules, election spending is increasingly opaque.
One dysfunction that stands out is the inability of American democracy to deal with repeated mass-shootings. Last year a record 20,000 people died because of gun violence. And 23 million firearms were bought by Americans, a 64% jump over the previous year. Politicians claim that the right to bear arms is to enable citizens to defend democracy. But that was for the 18th century. In the 21st century all we have seen those guns do is kill innocents in ever larger numbers.
There have been heroic attempts to reform the system, but the oligarchs always end up winners. Today’s US has regressed from the mid-1960s when it gave blacks voting rights, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programmes spent money not only to eliminate poverty and racial injustice but to promote education, medical care and transportation. Now, the Republicans’ ideologically-driven agenda looks down on public spending, whether it is on roads, bridges, education, or to give poorer and less-privileged Americans a leg up.
The challenge before the US is not an ordinary one. The world is in the midst of a huge contest between authoritarianism and democracy. As the world’s leading power and, yes, democracy, the US needs, in the words of Chas Freeman, to show that it is “better governed, better educated, more egalitarian, more open, more innovative, healthier, and freer society”.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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