America’s slow motion slide toward a political crisis

by Emrys Westacott

On the anniversary of the attempt by Donald Trump and some of his supporters to subvert the 2020 US presidential election, Joe Biden denounced those who “place a dagger at the throat of democracy.” To which one can only say: About bloody time! The threat posed by Trump and the Republican party to America’s democratic institutions–highly imperfect though they are–is so obvious that anyone who has a bully pulpit should be pounding out a warning at every opportunity.
Regarding the current situation, one can identify three main issues:

  • The historical and legal roots of the problem
  • The nature and causes of the current crisis
  • The best strategies available to protect and, ideally, extend, existing democratic norms.

On each of these, whole books could be and have been written.

The roots of the problem

The existing political system is seriously flawed in many ways. The method of electing a president through the electoral college means that the will of the majority can be overridden (as it was in 2016 when Hilary Clinton received 3 million more votes than Donald Trump). It also means that only a few swing states receive any attention from presidential candidates. In the majority of states, where the presidential vote is a foregone conclusion, voters know that their vote won’t be added to the grand total.

Ironically, the electoral college was established because the founding fathers didn’t trust the good sense of the people. They feared the prospect of tyranny emerging in just the way Plato describes in the Republic: a demagogue arises who, by misinforming and misleading the people, hoodwinks them into electing him to office, whereupon he proceeds to entrench himself in power.

The senate, too, has become increasingly undemocratic over the years. It makes some sense to have provisions to ensure that the voices of small states are not drowned out by those of the large states. But when California (population almost 40 million) and Wyoming (almost 600,000) are both represented by two senators, there is something seriously amiss. According to Vox correspondent Ian Millhiser, the 50 Democrats in the current senate represent over 41 million more constituents than their Republican counterparts; and they were elected with almost 20 million more actual votes. Yet at present the Senate is equally divided between the parties.

The House of Representatives, though not as blatantly undemocratic as the Senate, is also unrepresentative due in part to increasingly sophisticated, computer-aided gerrymandering. If the composition of the House reflected more accurately the votes cast, the Democrats, who in total received almost 5 million more votes than the Republicans, would enjoy significantly more than their current 6 seat majority.

Large majorities of the American public oppose gerrymandering. However, in 2019 the Supreme Court declined to do anything to prevent it. This is hardly surprising, though, since the Supreme Court, the most important player in the third branch of government, has recently also become unrepresentative. Five of the nine current justices were appointed by Republican presidents who lost the popular vote, and they appear clearly committed to advancing Republican party interests and ideologies.

In all these ways, American democracy is flawed. And on top of all that, is perhaps the most egregious failing of all: viz. the huge influence of money in determining the outcome of elections, the way elected officials vote, and the laws that get passed.

The current crisis
There have been countless analyses and commentaries already penned on the current crisis facing American democracy. Most tell essentially the same story. For many years now, the Republicans have found themselves facing two profound problems. On numerous issues, Democrats have by far the more popular policies (e.g. on tackling inequality, expanding Medicare, combatting climate change, controlling guns, instituting electoral reform, passing immigration reform). And as the US becomes more ethnically diverse, the white Christian base that has long been the core of the Republican’s constituency continues to shrink. The Republican response to these trends has become increasingly cynical. Their goal is to use and abuse the system so as to win and hold on to power at all costs.

Gerrymandering districts; filibustering in the Senate; refusing to process the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court; fast-tracking Amy Barrett to her seat on the court; these are all strategies the Republicans have used to keep trends and forces which they see as destructive at bay.

The nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate in 2016 presented Republicans of a certain stripe with a dilemma. On the one hand, as a vulgar, ignorant narcissist he was obviously unfit for office. On the other hand, he was popular with the base. So it was a case of either support Trump or concede power to the Democrats. For most of them this was a no brainer, no matter how contemptuous they may have been about Trump during the primaries. They are, after all, politicians. The prize of politics is power. And their eyes are always on the prize.

So they chose to ride the tiger, hoping that they could hold on tight and figuring that anything is preferable to losing their seats. It’s possible that in 2016 many of these Republican politicians didn’t realize just where the tiger would take them–namely, into depths of lying, toadying, and cynicism rarely seen in modern politics. Today, any politician who endorses Trump’s Big Lie that he really won the 2020 election is either a shameless liar or an utter fool. There really is no middle ground.

Massive disinformation centered around The Big Lie fueled the attack on the Capitol a year ago. It is also being used to justify and facilitate measures that Republicans are pursuing to tilt upcoming election their way (e.g. making it harder for minorities to vote) and, if necessary, to allow state legislatures to ignore the popular vote for president within their state when appointing electors to the electoral college.

America appears to be sliding in slow motion toward some kind of political, social, or constitutional crisis. The end result may not be the sort of authoritarianism in which elections are a complete sham and dissent is not tolerated. But the Republican party certainly appears willing to trade in certain conventional democratic norms and values, including a minimal commitment to not uttering barefaced lies–in exchange for the possibility of securing and retaining minority rule for the foreseeable future.

What is to be done?
So what is to be done? This is the question to which no one yet seems to have a come up with an adequate answer.

Joe Biden says that he will stand in the breach and will make sure that “the will of the people is heard. That the ballot prevails, not violence.” Great. But that doesn’t provide a road map for countering massive disinformation or anti-democratic political strategems.

Senate leader Chuck Schumer says he will try to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, both of which would counter some of these strategems. Passing these bills would help enormously, of that there is no doubt. But to pass them Schumer needs the support of Republicans in order to reach the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. And that just ain’t going to happen.

If the filibuster were abolished, both bills could pass the Senate on a 50-50 tie broken by the deciding vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. But Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have said repeatedly that they won’t agree to that.

Former president Jimmy Carter, writing in the New York Times, lays out his view of what is needed. We need, he says, to hold our leaders to high standards, agree on norms of civility, eschew phoney allegations against election procedures, resist polarization, protect election officials, resist disinformation…..and so on. All utterly worthy ideals, of course. But in all honesty, hardly likely to make much impression on those who rampaged through the Capitol waving confederate flags.

Cynthia Miller, a Professor at the School of Public Affairs at American University, argues that we should take a public health approach to the problem of widespread disinformation, helping people to identify it by means of programs in sports clubs or faith-based communities. This, too seems more idealistic than realistic. And more of a long term policy proposal than a wya out of the mess we are in right now.

Perry Bacon Jr, writing in The Washingtom Post, holds out the hope that perhaps the very rich will save the Republic:

While everyone in America gets to cast a ballot on Election Day, in reality rich people, corporations, foundations, politicians and other elite individuals and organizations have outsize power. The media that those people consume is telling them clearly that the current Republican Party is a threat to the nation’s future.
Let’s hope they listen — and do something about it.

One has to admit, though, that when it comes to standing up for democracy, the track record of the rich is not great.
Finally, Richard Hasen, Pof. of Political Science at the University of California, argues “all sectors of society need to be mobilized in support of free and fair elections.” This means not just political parties but business groups, churches, trades unions, and other civic organizations.

Those are some of the proposed responses I’ve come accross recently.My purpose here is not to pour cold water on any of this. It is just to observe that when one confronts the hardest question of all in the current situation–what, exactly is to be done?–it is much easier to come up with rather abstract responses–we must oppose disinformation!–than with specific, concrete, practical solutions. Richard Hansen seems to recognize as much when he advises us to start preparing now for peaceful mass protests in the event that the 2024 election is subverted either by real or imagined electoral irregularities.