America's flawed democracy

The US system has survived four years of a norm-busting president by the skin of its teeth – which areas need most urgent attention?

23 November 2020 | International

Ed Pilkington







On 7 November, the United States pulled back from the brink of re-electing a president who has repeatedly shown disdain for democratic norms and institutions. Donald Trump has fused his own business interests with the White House, dubbed the media “enemies of the people”, embraced foreign strongmen, sidelined science and politicised the justice department, falsely cast doubt on the electoral process and is currently distinguishing himself as the first sitting president since 1800 to frustrate a peaceful transition of power.

But as great escapes go, this one came bone-rattlingly close to collapsing.

More people voted for Trump in the 2020 election – some 71 million Americans – than for any other presidential candidate in US history, other than Joe Biden himself. It took gargantuan determination to unseat him, with historically high turnout and black voters leading the way. And it happened in spite of, not because of, the unique features of US democracy.

The election exposed deep flaws in how Americans choose their leaders. Some of those flaws are as old as the nation itself, while others are more modern creations that have been weaponised by Trump and the Republicans.

Here, The Guardian looks at five of the most glaring flaws exposed during this election cycle, and asks: What hope is there for setting them right?

1. The electoral college

The US is recovering from a severe bout of stress, caused by nerve-shattering waiting for the swing states to be called. The 2020 presidential election will go down in people’s memories as unbearably close.

It wasn’t close at all.

Biden walloped Trump with a massive lead of more than five million Americans in the popular vote – the simple national tally of votes cast for either candidate.

As CNN’s Harry Enten points out, the Democratic candidate will probably end up with 52% of the popular vote, the highest percentage of any challenger since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

The popular vote is how most democracies hold elections. Not the US. The outcome is decided here by the electoral college – that arcane, twisty system by which the president is chosen not by “we the people”, but indirectly by 538 electors apportioned by state.

The electoral college is one of the democratic flaws that stretch back to the birth of the nation, when it was devised with less than pure motivations.

As Sabeel Rahman, president of Demos Action, explained: “It was intended to insulate the presidency from democratic popular control, and in particular to expand the power of the slaveholding states – so it was inequitable from the beginning”.

2. Voter suppression

Huge turnout in the 2020 election was all the more impressive given barriers to voting.

“We have seen this cycle an effort by the Republican party to make it harder, wherever possible, to vote – especially for black and minority populations,” Ian Bassin, the executive director of Protect Democracy, said.

He added: “I don’t know of another advanced democracy in the world where one of the two major political parties has invested in voter suppression as a core strategy”.

Among the tactics on display were inaccurate purges of citizens from voter rolls, Trump’s active undermining of the US postal service, and malicious robocalls in areas with large black populations such as Flint, Michigan.

3. The Senate

That Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell is likely to remain in control of the Senate is in itself a product of America’s flawed democracy. The composition of the chamber, with two senators assigned to each state no matter what its population, also has its roots in the country’s dark past.

“The structure of the Senate is an outdated, racist, Jim Crow relic meant to enshrine white landowner power in our government, by prioritising land over people,” said Deirdre Schifeling, campaign director of the progressive coalition Democracy For All 2021.

“That disparity has only grown more magnified as our population has grown and it’s really unsustainable.”

4. Judges

Brianna Brown knows what it’s like to be at the receiving end of America’s flawed democracy. As deputy director of the Texas Organising Project, which seeks to build a political voice for black and Latino communities, she has been battling against a Republican state legislature that has made Texas ground zero for voter suppression for years.

“We’ve had polling place reductions, massive voter purges, a voter-ID law – all attempts by the right wing to consolidate their power and shrink the electorate. If they can do that, they win,” she said.

On top of all that, there is now the changing composition of federal courts to contend with. Over the past four years, Trump has placed more than 200 judges, conservatives to a fault, on district and circuit courts, in addition to the three right-wingers he nominated to the US supreme court.

Such judicial activism is likely to shift the balance of the federal judiciary for years to come, with consequences on the ground in places like Texas.

5. Redistricting

One of the most disappointing aspects of election night for the Democrats was the failure of the ‘blue wave’ to materialise at state level. Republicans clung on to power in state legislatures in Florida, Iowa, Minnesota and North Carolina, and took control of New Hampshire.

Nowhere was that blow felt more keenly than Texas, where Democratic hopes of seizing the state house by storm rested on flipping nine seats. They didn’t gain a single extra one.

The flop will, like Trump’s judges, have long-term consequences. Failure to take control in Texas and elsewhere hands Republicans the gift of controlling the 10-year redistricting process in which electoral boundaries are drawn. As was seen in the last round in 2010, after the Tea Party upheaval swept Republicans to power in several states, they proved themselves to be devastatingly effective at drawing those lines in their own favour.

As Brown pointed out, this is another vicious cycle.

“Our goal is to transform democracy in Texas, and if we can do that, we can transform the country,” she said.



- The Guardian

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