By Paul Tiyambe Zeleza:
Continued from Monday
Americans are used to getting their projected election results instantly on election night. I teased my African American wife to exercise patience as is common in African and many other countries where election results are often announced several days, even weeks, after the elections.
The apparent slowness in declaring the winner of the US presidential election revealed a lot more than American impatience. It reflected the enduring dysfunctions of American democracy. As a member of the new African diaspora in the US and student of international political economy and comparative politics, I have always been struck by the following four structural deficits of the American democratic system.
First, the electoral college is an instrument of minority rule that has primarily benefitted Republicans over the last 20 years, first George W. Bush in 2000 in which Al Gore won the popular vote by 500,000 while losing Florida’s electoral college by 537 votes and second Donald Trump in 2016 who lost to Clinton by nearly three million votes but clinched the electoral college by a whisker in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Altogether, in American history five presidents, three in the 19th century (John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888) won the presidency while losing the popular vote.
Over the past 30 years only once, in 2004, did a Republican President win the popular vote, but they have been elected three times. Republican minority rule by the presidency and Senate are baked into the system. The US Senate “gives disproportionate power to older, whiter, more rural and more conservative interests.
“Right now, states representing just 17 percent of the nation’s population could elect a majority of senators. By 2040, the 15 most populous states will be home to 67 percent of Americans yet represented by just 30 percent of the Senate. Add up the actual votes received in the winning election of every sitting US senator, and Republicans haven’t won a senate majority since the mid-1990s. Yet they’ve controlled the Senate for 10 of the last 20 years, and used that advantage to shape the ideological balance on the federal courts.”
The Electoral College system, writes Bob Carr in the Guardian, represents an unenviable form of American exceptionalism. “It confirms the proposition that the US is simply not a democracy, not in the sense Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are democracies.”
If America’s systematic voter suppression and rigged elections “were practised against, say, Caribbean or Asian communities in the UK or Sicilians in Italy or Māori in New Zealand, its peculiarity would be a subject of domestic scandal and international embarrassment. The American electoral system is a shambles defying democratic norms.”
Second, American democracy is haunted by the spectre of voter suppression, which goes back to the nation’s founding. In the constitution enslaved Africans were not only deemed three-fifths of a human being, they could not vote, nor could women of any race. After the right to vote was extended in the Fifteenth Amendment that enfranchised all men, but not women, culminating in the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, new voter suppression strategies were devised, which were especially targeted at African Americans.
During Jim Crow poll taxes and literacy tests were used to disenfranchise African Americans in the South. In the post-Civil Rights era, voter suppression encompassed the disenfranchisement of ex-felons in some states, purging of voter rolls, placing limitations on early and absentee voting, rampant voting procedures, disinformation, and imposing discriminatory voting identification requirements. Trump’s angry denunciations against absentee voting are rooted in the tattered undemocratic playbook of voter suppression.
Voter suppression makes a mockery of America’s self-image as the world’s leading democracy. Sam Levin laments: “To understand how voter suppression is shaping the 2020 election, just look at Texas. While many states do not require voters to have a reason to vote by mail, Texas only allows voters to do so if they are 65 or older or meet other conditions.
“The state does not allow people to register to vote online. Even with a flood of Covid cases, Texas has successfully fought tooth and nail in federal and state courts to uphold those restrictions. Last month, Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, a Republican, abruptly issued an order that limited each county in the state to offer one ballot drop box.
“The move meant that Democratic-friendly Harris County, which covers more than 1,700 square miles and is home to 2.4 million registered voters, could only offer one place for voters to return their ballots. The state of Rhode Island, which is smaller than Harris County, will have more drop-off locations this year… The battle playing across America is in some ways a continuation of a centuries-long fight over access to the franchise.”
Third, the establishment of electoral boundaries and constituencies through gerrymandering is deployed as a powerful weapon to dilute the voting power of an opposition party and concentrate that of the ruling party in a district. In America’s first-past-the-post electoral system, gerrymandering has been used by the two political parties to reduce competition by maximising the voting power of supporters and minimising that of opponents often segmented on the basis of race, class, religion, or ideology.
In effect, in the absence of a neutral or cross-party agency, the party in power that draws the electoral boundaries chooses its voters. It does so by spreading groups of known or likely opposition voters among several districts or concentrates them in one district to dilute their votes across the state, what political scientists call the wasted vote effect. Gerrymandering is designed to bolster the electoral prospects of incumbents and it undermines descriptive or proportional representation.
Fourth, the American judicial system is highly politicised. At the federal level, the President makes judicial appointments, which are reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee before a vote is taken by the Senate. Presidents nominate individuals who fit and are likely to promote their party’s ideology and interests, while the balance of power in the Senate among the two parties often determines who is appointed. Fights over the appointment of Supreme Court justices are fierce because of the court’s extensive powers of judicial review. In 2000 the electoral contest between Bush and Gore was decided by the Supreme Court.
Trump hopes the Supreme Court will also save him, especially now that it is packed with three of his appointees, and conservatives enjoy a 6 to 3 advantage. The last appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, was nominated by Trump on September 26, 2020 six days after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a revered liberal icon, and confirmed by the Republican-dominated Senate of October 26. The same Republicans suddenly forgot their injunction against considering a nominee in a president’s last year directed at President Obama who sought to replace Justice Antonin Scalia who died eight months before the 2016 elections with Merrick Garland.
The renowned economist, Paul Krugman wonders, “Is America becoming a failed state?” His answer is not reassuring. Even with a Biden victory, “it seems likely that the Senate — which is wildly unrepresentative of the American people — will remain in the hands of an extremist party that will sabotage Biden in every way it can… Every state, of course, has two senators — which means that Wyoming’s 579,000 residents have as much weight as California’s 39 million… An analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight.com found that the Senate in effect represents an electorate almost seven percentage points more Republican than the average voter.”
Larry Diamond, a theorist of democracy, warns in Foreign Affairs, “A new Administration Won’t Heal American Democracy” because the “rot in U.S. political institutions runs deeper than Trump.” He argues, “the broad signs of political decay are familiar—and alarming—to comparative scholars of democracy: the growing polarisation, distrust, and intolerance among supporters of the main opposing parties; the increasing tendency to view partisan attachments as a kind of tribal identity; the intertwining of partisan affiliations with racial, ethnic, or religious identities; and the inability to forge political compromises across partisan divides—and hence to mount effective policy responses to national issues.”
Baskar Sunkara concludes ruefully, “America is a failing state… In 2020, America has shown itself to be exceptional in the worst possible ways… Winning mass support for a programme of Medicare for All, green jobs, affordable housing, and more seems within reach. But the left must find a way to not just popularise our goals, but secure the means – institutional reform – to achieve them…
“But we can’t just stop at the abolition of the Electoral College and the Senate filibuster, or even full Congressional representation for Washington DC residents. We must more fundamentally fight to transform the pre-modern political system that we’ve grafted on to our modern economy and society. For progressives, that’s a battle far more daunting than just getting Trump out of the White House – but it’s just as necessary.”
Trump will of course do everything to subvert the will of the people, including inciting his tens of millions of supporters. As one columnist in The Washington Post put it, there was no “resounding rejection of Trump and Trumpism.” Even with Trump evicted from the White House, “Trumpism will not have been swept into the dustbin of history; it will remain all over the furniture. It’s part of the furniture. Unsweepable.” Another commentator in The Atlantic reminds us, “A large portion of the electorate chose the sociopath. America will have to contend with that fact.”
Zeynep Tufecki warns, compared to Trump who was ineffective and easily beaten because of his incompetence, “America’s next authoritarian will be much more competent” like the current politically talented autocratic populists of India, Brazil, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey and elsewhere who have mastered winning elections. Trumpism, which represents the reincarnation of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy reconfigured to incorporate digitalised angry populism, and the laager of white supremacy and racial capitalism, is likely to survive and cast a shadow over the Biden presidency.
Others are more hopeful that American democracy has survived “its brush with death.” Nell Irvin Painter, the distinguished African American scholar, concedes the election shouldn’t have been this close, but she sees hope “in the long lines of voters,” in the indelible images of “Americans in 2020 re-enacting the South African voters of 1994” as they voted the ghost of apartheid into the dustbin of history.
Jonathan Freedland notes sadly, “It’s a form of progressive masochism to search for the defeat contained in a victory… Yes, in a high-turnout election, Trump got more votes than he did in 2016 – but Biden got more votes than any presidential candidate in history, more even than the once-in-a-generation phenomenon that was Barack Obama. What’s more, Biden looks to have done something extremely difficult and vanishingly rare, taking on and defeating a first-term president. That would ensure that Donald Trump becomes only the third elected president since Herbert Hoover in 1932 to try and fail to win re-election. Trump would take his place alongside Jimmy Carter and George Bush the elder in the small club of rejected, one-term presidents.”
America’s return to the world
Biden’s victory has been greeted with great relief by many democracies around the world, and some consternation by authoritarian populists and autocratic rivals who revelled in America’s democratic recession and descent under Trump. “U.S. allies stressed the need to rebuild ties and multilateral cooperation after President Trump’s ‘America First’ approach upended decades of US foreign policy. For traditional allies who endured sharp criticism, unpredictable behaviour and new tariffs under Trump, the election of Biden offered a return to normalcy.”
In the global environmental movement and health sector, many anticipate the quick return of the US to the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organisation to combat Covid-19 and other long-standing and future global health threats. Multilateralism seems poised to enjoy a new burst of diplomatic energy. But the hegemonic rivalry between China and the United States is fated to continue, and the decline of the American model is unlikely to be reversed. The Trump saga and his expulsion from power have exposed both the fragility and resilience of American institutions. In that sense, it has made the United States ordinary.
For Africa, the US can be expected to return to its traditional diplomatic preoccupations of economic development, human rights, anti-terrorism, and competition with China. But the Biden administration will encounter a different continent from that of the Obama years, one that has lived without serious engagement with the departing Trump administration and demands more respect, a continent whose economies have been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic and require productive and transformative relationships.
For me personally, it has been fascinating to watch the elections in the two countries whose citizenship I carry, Malawi and the US. Earlier this year the Malawi High Court, sitting as a Constitutional Court, annulled the Presidential election of May 2019 because of irregularities by the Malawi Electoral Commission. The opposition proceeded to win the election rerun in June. What I have learned from the two elections is that the notion that American democracy is more mature than that of an African country like Malawi is false.
The Malawian Supreme Court exercised judicial independence unlikely to come from the highly politicised American Supreme Court. Moreover, the losing ruling party demonstrated maturity not demonstrated by the infantile, irascible and entitled Trump administration and his unprincipled Republican sycophants. This underscores a sobering and empowering fact: democracy is not a monopoly of developed countries and it is always a work in progress that needs to be jealously guarded.