Jonathan Power.

It will take a long time before America can again strut on the world stage and lecture about the values of its 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 to tell the world that the 2020 election was rigged.

The election has exposed 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 about 600,000 people. We are hearing now how difficult it will be for Biden to get passed in Congress important legislation such as widening the Obamacare, the health insurance scheme for low income patients; nuclear arms reduction agreements with Russia; trade deals; and also the appointing of senior federal officers.

The Senate has almost an inbuilt Republican majority. On rare occasions Democrats dominate it but after most elections the smaller and rural states, all Republican most of the time, tipped the scale. A little populated state like Wyoming gets two senators, just as does the state of New York. Ninety percent of congressmen are re-elected. Over the years, congressional boundaries have been jiggled (gerrymandered) so that it is difficult for incumbents to lose.

Then the Supreme Court that can on occasion cement the bias–as it did when it overrode presidential candidate Al Gore in favor of George W. Bush in 2000. It is a court where justices are appointed not always for their legal skills or supposed neutrality, but for the convictions they share with the appointing authority (President) and the majority party in the senate which confirms the appointment.

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 Iraq War, there are lapses. 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 Jr. for his opposition, saying, “The war in Vietnam and civil rights don’t mix”. His speeches were not covered seriously.

Using several criteria such as electoral process, governance, political participation, political culture and civil liberty, many organizations rate the US below full democracy. For example, the respected Reporters without Borders organization, publishes an annual press freedom index. In 2020, the US ranked 45th out of 160 countries.

Freedom House, a conservative-leaning organization I have long respected for its honesty, once ranked the US scoring 94%, almost the most democratic in ranking. But, by 2009 it had fallen to 78%. By 2016, it went down to 72%. During the Trump presidency, it fell to 67%. Other measuring organizations such as The Economist Intelligence Unit and Civicus Monitor, all rank the US below the first 20.

 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 proven 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 favor 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 offenses, if this was their third conviction. The result is that the US has 2 million people in jail, mostly young black men. No other country in the world, even an authoritarian or a dictatorial one, has such numbers, or anywhere near it.

Athenian democracy flourished but then the idea faded away for the most part of 2000 years. The Romans had little time for it. It returned during 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 when World War II ended.

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?

Copyright:  Jonathan Power.