The U.S. is a failed democracy

It will take a long time before America can again strut the world stage and lecture about the values of democracy, poking its finger in the eye of every authoritarian or dictatorial government it has the desire to show up. A former president, no less, is going to use every occasion into the distant future to tell the world that this election of 2020 was illegally hijacked.

The election has shown up the deficiencies in America’s “democracy”. We again learnt that winning a handsome majority of votes wasn’t enough and that for President-elect Joe Biden to win he had to garner 270 votes in the electoral college which is biased towards the under-populated, rural, states such as Wyoming with only 600,000 people. We are hearing now how difficult it will be for Biden to get passed in Congress important legislation- such as a widening of Obamacare, the health insurance scheme for low income patients, nuclear arms reduction agreements with Russia, trade deals, and also the appointing of senior judges. The Senate has almost an inbuilt Republican majority. On rare occasions the Democrats dominate it but after most elections we find that the smaller and rural states, all Republican most of the time, have tipped the scales. A little populated state like Wyoming gets two senators, just as does the state of New York. 90% of congressmen are re-elected. Over the years congressional boundaries have been jiggled so that it is difficult for incumbents to loose. 

Then there is the role of the Supreme Court that can on occasion cement the bias- as it did when it overrode presidential candidate Al Gore in favour of George W. Bush. It is a court where justices are appointed not always for their legal skills but for their political convictions. 

Is this American system better or worse than Russia’s? That would be difficult for honest, detached minds, to prove. Is the UK’s, France’s, Brazil’s or Canada’s better and fairer than Russia’s. Yes, they are. 

But surely, you say, this is countered to some extent by a free press. Indeed, there are good news outlets like the New York Times and the Public Broadcasting System.  But even then on key occasions, such as during the Vietnam war and at the onset of the first war against Iraq. With Iraq the Times did not give much space to either its own reporters or its editorial contributors to question the paper’s pro-war line. During the Vietnam War the Times in an editorial attacked Martin Luther King for his opposition, saying, “The war in Vietnam and civil rights don’t mix”. His speeches were not covered seriously.

The respected journalistic organization, Reporters without Borders, publishes an annual press freedom index. The US ranks 45th.

Freedom House, a conservative-leaning organisation I’ve long respected for its honesty, once ranked the US, out of a hundred, 94, almost the most democratic in rankings. But by 2009 it had fallen to 22nd place. By 2016 it had fallen to 28thplace, with a score of 82. Over the years of President Trump it has fallen to 33rdplace. Also notable is Freedom House’s separate index on the question of inequitable treatment for different groups. The US gains only two points out of maximum of four. This is almost unheard of among democracies.

Other measuring organisations such as The Economist Intelligence Unit and Civicus Monitor, come up with similar figures.  

Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, once said, “The United States is the indispensable nation”. But, as James Traub has written in Foreign Policy, “The US remains indispensable because it is the world’s greatest military power- but not because other nations look to it for guidance”.

All this should prompt us to think how important democracy is. For all its failings, the world has no better idea, as Winston Churchill famously declared. The 20th century saw all sorts of experiments, including fascism, socialism (not to be confused with social democracy), anarchism, monarchism, Marxism and theocracy. All came undone. Out of the ferocious competition of rival ideas democracy came out on top. 

Professor John Dunn of Cambridge University in his magisterial study of democracy writes, “The term democracy has become (as the Freudians put it) too highly cathected: saturated with emotion, irradiated by passion, tugged to and fro and ever more overwhelmed by accumulated confusion. To rescue it as an aid in understanding politics, we need to think our way past a mass of history and block our ears to many pressing importunities”.

We need to know far more about democracy than we do. President George W. Bush declared that “the reason I’m so strong on democracy is that democracies don’t go to war with each other”. Indeed, much academic research has proved his point and it is an important and good one. But democracies have a terrible record of going to war against non-democracies, often on the flimsiest excuse. 

Look at America’s war against Spain in the nineteenth century or against Cuba and Nicaragua in the last century. Britain has gone to war more times in the last 120 years than any other country in the world.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that Plato was against the democracy of his home city, Athens. Plato believed that in the best form of government philosophers should rule.

Historians have wondered why he was so against democracy. Was it because he was from a wealthy family and Athenian democracy seemed to favour more equal income distribution? Or was it because a democratic state had sentenced to death his teacher, Socrates, falsely accusing him of impiety and trading on Greeks’ religious sensibility? Regardless of the reason, Plato saw democracy as the rule of the foolish, vicious and always potentially brutal. Look how, as a senator, Biden and his congressional contemporaries voted into being a law that judges must incarcerate the convicted for long terms, even for minor offences, if this was their third conviction. The result is the US has 2 million people in jail, mostly young black men. No other country in the world, even authoritarian or dictatorial, has such numbers, or anywhere near it. 

Athenian democracy flourished but then the idea faded away for the best part of 2000 years. The Romans had little time for it. It returned in the struggle for American independence.  

A few years later it became the central rallying cry of the French Revolution. Only after 1789 did people start to speak of democratizing societies and it was the French spirit, not the America one, that was its potent exporter. We must never forget that democracy would never have achieved the promise it did without the vision of Robespierre, this figure of “reptilian fascination” who organized the mass executions of those thought to oppose the path of the Revolution.

Over the next 150 years the cause of democracy edged forward gradually, but it only triumphed after 1945. 

Today some of us like to think, as Pericles did in his great oration on the subject, that democracy gives society its sobriety of judgment, respect for wisdom, the pride necessary for its economic energy, generosity and even its respect for taste and responsiveness to beauty. But at the same time we are engaged in a perpetual fight against its worst elements.

America has moved from being its modern day founder to being its saboteur. Why should the authoritarians and dictatorships seek to emulate it when it is making such a mess of the concept?

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Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power has been an international foreign affairs columnist for over 40 years and has interviewed over 70 of of the world's most famous and influential presidents, prime ministers, and political and literary icons including Ignacio Lula Da Silva, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Willy Brandt, Julius Nyerere, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Paul McCartney, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eldridge Cleaver, Jimmy Carter, Olusegan Obasanjo, Georgio Arbatov, Dilma Rousseff, Olof Palme, Helmut Schmidt, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Jose Saramago, Ben Okri, Manmohan Singh, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Barbara Ward, Valeria Rezende, Pranab Mukherjee, Ben Mkapa, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Pervez Musharraf, Imran Khan, George Weah and Angela Davis. Many of these were full-page broadsheet interviews. For 17 years Jonathan Power wrote a weekly column on foreign affairs for the International Herald Tribune. He has also been a frequent guest columnist for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. He has written eight books on foreign affairs and, in his early days as a journalist, made films for the BBC, one of which won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. Previous to his journalistic career, he worked on the staff of Martin Luther King. Jonathan has probably been printed more times in American newspapers than any other European. He is also listed in Who's Who.

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