Written by Matthew Oulton
Like the night out that finally causes a family intervention for an alcoholic, the events at the Capitol on 6th January were a wake-up call for the US. It’s now obvious that the USA has a democracy problem. In the face of a President explicitly challenging the peaceful transfer of power, party loyalties have triumphed over the national interest. It’s easy to be fatalist, to just throw up our hands and abandon any hope of America as a functioning Democratic Republic. But is this the beginning of the end of democracy in the USA?
The answer is probably not. The storming of the Capitol was the largest threat to American democracy in decades, but it’s not an isolated incident. It comes atop repeated waves undermining democratic institutions in the US and has been followed by further attempts by the Republicans to get back into power without winning over any more voters. If the system was durable enough to withstand this, it’s not on the brink of collapse.
Nevertheless, for a democracy to flourish, democratic institutions have to lie outside the fray of conventional politics. Challenging democracy has to be a third rail of politics; if politicians are empowered to act as the referee as well as players, it’s only a matter of time before ‘rule-by the people’ crumbles. Now that supporters of democracy have reclaimed all the levers of power (except, perhaps, the Supreme Court), the Democrats face a scramble to encode democratic norms into law.
It’s important to note that this isn’t unprecedented. Democracy in the US, as in most countries around the world, began its life in an incredibly diluted form. When the Republic was founded, the overwhelming majority of Americans couldn’t vote. Foreigners, slaves, and women were excluded out of hand, as well many Catholics and Jews. Since then, movement towards universal suffrage has been by no means a straight line. The Fifteenth Amendment to Constitution enshrined the right to vote to all men, regardless of race, and the Nineteenth allowed women to vote. However, Jim Crow Laws meant that, until the 1964 Civil Rights Act, there were continued widespread attempts to prevent black people from voting. Voter suppression and disenfranchisement, both explicitly and implicitly, has always been part of the American system.
The storming of the Capitol, however, was something different. Where most efforts to infringe voters’ rights are somewhat subtle – requiring an ID at the polls or adjusting a district boundary – this was explicit. What couldn’t be taken through persuasion would be taken by force. Again, this is far from unprecedented in the US, there’s a long history of violent rebellion, but it was shocking. Whilst Americans remain divided, Biden now has an opportunity to implement vital reforms.
What can the Democrats do to protect democracy?
The ‘For the People Act’, a Democratic proposal championed by the Biden Administration, is a good start. Partisan gerrymandering – the practice of redrawing district boundaries to benefit one party over another, despite being an arcane and fairly boring topic to the general public, is a substantial and threatening degradation of voters’ rights. The federal government must step in to prevent incumbents, both Democrats and Republicans, from enshrining minority rule.
The Democrats must also go further.
Firstly, the democratic deficit in the federal government should also be addressed. The Democrats have won the popular vote in all but one presidential election in the last 30 years but had only half of the presidencies. Whilst the political system is two-party, the public is not. There’s a serious misalignment between the institutions of the US and the will of the people and this needs to be addressed. The exposure of the Republican Party to populism is a product of the fact that the Republicans don’t need a majority to win; they can survive by activating a loyal base. The best way to address this would be to abolish the Electoral College.
Accepting that the constitutional amendment required to remove the Electoral College is probably a bridge too far, the Democrats should also seek democratic balance in a number of other ways. The most pressing is statehood for both Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Washington DC has a larger population than both Wyoming and Vermont, whilst Puerto Rico has more inhabitants than 20 existing states. The complete lack of federal representation for these voters, collectively around 1% of the US population, is a democratic travesty. It’s not right to exclude these people from the federal franchise, and it also skews American politics against their interests. It’s a clear example of the disenfranchisement of majority-Democrat voters, which distorts the system.
Moves such as this are likely to consume a huge amount of political capital. Biden would be unlikely to get much else passed during his term and would probably face considerable pushback in the midterms. However, the longstanding political misalignment in the US is a permanent threat to democracy, unless it’s dealt with. The Republicans have no incentive to back down on their high-octane authoritarian rhetoric because they need only to appease a narrow base. Divisive politics is the product of a broken system.
Ultimately, whether these changes are possible is down to the public. If the people of America are happy to tolerate authoritarianism, if they are willing to allow anti-democratic capture of their institutions, or if they prefer to see an autocrat in power over someone who they disagree with politically, democracy will continue to be damaged in the US. However, if the people decide that they prefer a functioning democracy, the Republican Party will be forced to cast out its dictatorial tendencies. The 2022 midterms, then, will be a crucial battleground. Republicans will put to the test the idea that Americans are not motivated to defend their democratic institutions. We’ll see which side the public choose.
Photo source - Unsplash (Element5 Digital)