Democracy in the US is in trouble with voter suppression, an outdated and flawed electoral system and overly influential lobbyists, writes Henry McLeish.
Democracy recognises the importance of universal suffrage and the benefit of treating citizens as equal when casting their votes in fair and free elections. Voting should be made as simple as possible with the minimum of restrictions if democracy is to thrive. The protection of human rights and the rule of law should apply equally to all citizens. From the Greek republics to the present day, democracy should mean “power of the people”.
This is not the case in the US today. Every aspect of democracy is under attack.
While voter suppression is the most obvious example of political corruption, it represents only one aspect of a much wider assault. Representative government is weakening. The rise of corporate elites and organised money is replacing the power of the vote. Lobbying and special interests are driving policy on Capitol Hill.
The often-malign influence of right-wing evangelical Christian groups and capitalism are pushing transactional politics. And the Supreme Court and the Republican party are leading the charge to marginalise and monetise politics under the bullying and intimidation of President Trump.
The military and economic dominance of the US, and its global reach, conceal a deeply flawed democracy and an emerging oligarchy.
In an election year, it is worth spending some time to understand what is going on in US politics and how events will be shaped by a democracy in which the idea of the “power of the people” is at best a lie and, even worse, a cruel and misleading betrayal of the American electorate.
Damning electoral integrity report
Much to the dismay of progressives in the US, Trump could win another four years because power and influence no longer lie with the people. The inspiring idea of democracy itself is being undermined and replaced by concentrations of power and wealth rarely seen in western democracies.
Worryingly, no one seems overly concerned about the dismantling of electoral and institutional processes. The Democratic Party is distracted by Washington and Capitol Hill. Sadly, the Republican Party is the cheerleader for a great deal of what is harming America’s politics and government.
To assess US democracy in an international context, it is worth referencing the work of the “Electoral Integrity Project”, produced annually by Harvard University and the University of Sydney. This report looks at elections in different countries and builds an index of how issues such as falling turnout, voter suppression, electoral malpractices, intimidation, disinformation, public dissatisfaction and party polarisation impact on outcomes and democracy.
In terms of electoral integrity, the US scores well behind the top seven countries in north-west Europe, including the Nordic countries with Denmark top on 86 out of 100. The US scores 61 in the Americas, placing it behind Costa Rica, Uruguay and Chile! The report concludes that America is pulled down because of “electoral laws, voter registration and district boundary issues”. This damning report captures the weakening integrity of America’s democracy and the fact that it is falling well behind other countries who take more care of their electorates and who see positive benefits from power and the people being more aligned.
Suspicions about the ‘mob’
A conspiracy of powerful interests is now at work destroying democracy in America and the potential power of the vote. This decline is accelerating, partly because of the complacency and weakness of the two parties, but mainly because both are being overwhelmed by forces they have unleashed and have collectively refused to confront.
As a result, much of the electorate think this is okay and that this is how a democracy should operate, especially when citizens are conditioned by ‘American exceptionalism’ and the virtues of the free market. By their inactivity, progressives are emboldening special interests but, at the same time, preserving the myth that people, politics and power are inextricably linked. In the US, they are clearly not. History tells us a great deal. The Founding Fathers in the US, who drafted the constitution in 1787, feared political parties, popular democracy and centralised (federal) government. Suspicious of the ‘mob’, their commitment to extending the vote was weak. With the passing of time, an outdated constitution and the judgements of the Supreme Court have strengthened self-interest and anti-democratic forces, enabled state-level governments to drive voter suppression and have bestowed new powers on large business interests.
States’ rights and emerging oligarch power are destroying the very foundations of democracy that the constitution and the Supreme Court were set up to protect.
The marketisation of US politics expands. Trump has made matters worse, but only because he has the street cunning to seize on the weaknesses of democracy and to exploit the very tenuous grip the voter now has on how America is governed.
Time running out
Trump is now a priceless asset for those who conspire to destroy democracy in its current form and replace it with the darker side of America: money, mammon and immorality. The Pledge of Allegiance reference to “one nation under God” could be replaced with “one nation under the market” and the Gettysburg address adapted to read “for, by and of the lobbyists”.
These are extraordinary times. This Bermuda triangle of above-the-law Trump, powerful lobbying interests and weak congressional political leadership is likely to wreck the ideals of those who wish to see a different America.
There may not be enough time to change this. The Democratic Party faces a direct and immediate challenge as November approaches. Trump’s base is solid and may remain so. Impeachment hasn’t moved the dial. The Democrats must therefore improve the overall turnout and increase their share of that vote. But everything the anti-democratic forces are doing is aimed at reducing the numbers of African American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American and poor voters – because they vote for the Democrats. Keeping your own vote sweet and preventing the opposition from voting may be Trump’s winning strategy.
America is held up as the “land of the free and the home of the brave”. But its democratic credentials look less impressive when we consider: a fragile electoral system; low levels of turnout; the breathtaking intensity of voter suppression; the outdated and discriminatory Electoral College; the role of corrupt capitalism; the power of lobbying; social media, local radio and Russian interference; dubious Supreme Court decisions; the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries; and the frightening legacy of slavery and race.
Over the next few weeks, there will be an opportunity to look in more detail at how this assault on America’s democracy is being organised and what the likely consequences are for the presidential election.
Another four years of Trump will only continue the dismantling of an already weak and ineffective democracy.