The problems of US democracy run deeper than Trump

By Mike Phipps

‘A dark day for democracy’ seems to be the consensus verdict on the events of Wednesday January 6th, when a far right rabble invaded the US Capitol. But if Donald Trump was planning to launch a fascist coup, it was as inept as everything else he has attempted. This was more farce than tragedy, and the real fear among the US elite is that the ‘beacon of democracy’ could become an international laughing stock.

The Venezuelan government, for example, was quick to issue a statement: “With this unfortunate episode, the United States is suffering the same thing that it has generated in other countries with its policies of aggression.”

More tellingly, civil rights activists pointed out how much more lethal the response would have been from law enforcement agencies if it had been black protestors who invaded the Congressional building. African-American rapper Willie McCoy, they remind us, was shot 55 times and killed by Californian police officers after being found sleeping in his car.

Former Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade posted a photo of Trump supporters walking around inside the building mostly undisturbed, along with the caption: “Black people get pulled over and don’t make it out alive. We can’t sleep in our own beds without being killed. We can’t jog without being killed. We can’t walk down the street with our hoodies up without being killed but they can do this???”

The invasion of the Capitol highlighted a double standard all the more glaring given the attempts to criminalise peaceful protest in recent years. Remember that at Trump’s inauguration four years ago, police arrested 234 people, including legal observers, medics, reporters and other bystanders. Prosecutors  targeted even people who weren’t physically at the protest, arguing that just livestreaming a protest was tantamount to aiding and abetting a riot. Contrast the way the police opened the gates and took selfies with the 2021 protestors.

What now? Amid rapidly growing calls, from a range of lawmakers and civil society groups, to impeach, arrest or remove Trump under the 25th amendment of the US constitution, the spotlight is also on Republican members of the legislature who incited the pro-Trump mob to invade Congress. Newly sworn-in Missouri Progressive Democrat Representative Cori Bush announced that her first formal act will be to target her colleagues who incited the invasion.

Many people will breathe a sigh of relief that Trump appears to have finally accepted defeat. But there remains something rotten at the heart of America’s democracy. As Ariel Dorfman noted:

“Congratulating ourselves on the stability of our democratic foundations should not blind us to the fact that Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are inheriting a grievously wounded democracy. It is not just that our laws and norms failed to prevent a raging demagogue from winning the presidency, enriching himself and his family, pardoning convicted murderers and perjuring sycophants, and trampling on the Constitution with quasi-dictatorial behavior. The inability of our nation’s institutions to have blocked, let alone prosecuted in the courts, such malfeasance and venality is a symptom of deeper problems that a changing of the guard, however encouraging, cannot ultimately resolve.”

He also highlights the fundamental problem of America’s antiquated electoral college system by which Trump won the presidency in 2016, despite losing the popular vote by millions. In 2020, the electoral college result coincided with a popular vote victory for joe Biden, but only just. One of the motives for Trump’s determined attempts to get the certified vote in some states overturned was that if just 40,000 voters in three key states had voted differently, then the electoral college would not have delivered Biden’s win – despite his lead of 7 million votes over Trump in the popular vote nationwide.

There are other concerns about the state of US democracy. Firstly, the capital city, despite being the centre of US government, elects no Congressional representatives or senators and never has, although it has over two thirds of a million inhabitants, making it bigger than some states. But Washington DC, not being a state, gets no national representation – nor is there much likelihood it will be granted statehood in the near future, and this for purely partisan reasons.

Secondly, the Senate itself, with two members per state irrespective of the state’s size, is a wholly undemocratic institution. When the US constitution was written in 1787, the largest of the then 13 states, Virginia, had a population around twelve times bigger than the smallest, Delaware.  By 2010, the largest state, California, had a population of over 34 million people, making it over sixty times larger than the smallest state, Wyoming, with under half a million. Yet both states elect two senators each.

This also distorts the electoral college, over-representing the smallest states.  And the smaller states, being less urban, less diverse and more rural, tend to be more conservative. Thus conservative and rural interests are over-represented in the US senate – not just in party terms, helping the Republicans, but also in terms of lobby interests – guns, agri-business and the extractive industries.

The power of corporate lobbying further distorts US democracy. The cost of running in a presidential election has pretty much doubled every four years since the turn of the century, and other elections too have seen the scale of expenditure – and donations -rise exponentially. Members of the House of Representatives, elected every two years, are almost continuously engaged in fund-raising and in the process fall under the influence of iron triangles – the closed circuit between corporate lobbying, lawmakers and executive agencies – or the military industrial complex, first highlighted by President Eisenhower sixty years ago this month, and the increasingly pervasive power of dark money.

There are further threats to the democratic process. The US is a country where the politicians choose their voters as much as the other way around.  In many states, it is the state legislatures that draw the boundaries of the state’s electoral districts. While districts need to have roughly the same number of voters, computer programmes have been designed to create the most favourable mix of voters within a district to ensure success for a given party. The result is some bizarrely shaped constituencies: gerrymandering. Black voters, for example, are often packed into a single district, or spread out across several, in order to minimise the impact of their vote. The Supreme Court, politically polarised for years, has been reluctant to interfere much in this scandalous arrangement.

Minimising the black vote, or that of other broadly progressive demographics, takes other forms. While the Democrats have proved adept at mobilising new voters in recent elections, the Republicans, the relative weight of whose natural supporters is shrinking, have resorted to voter suppression.  There are a number of tricks available. Many states bar convicted felons from voting for the rest of their lives, a rule which disproportionately affects black voters. A 2020 analysis estimated that one in 16 African-American voters was disenfranchised in this way.  In some states, voters who happen to have the same name as a convicted felon have also been thrown off the electoral roll by the computer programme and have been told to cast a ‘provisional’ ballot that may be counted only if the result is close. Thousands of votes are degraded in this way.

Others insist on photo ID for all voters, which disproportionately impacts on poorer voters who are less likely to own a driving license, let alone a passport. In 2008, ten retired nuns in Indiana were barred from voting because they lacked the requisite photo ID. To add insult to injury, offices where such ID might be obtained have been closed in poorer, largely black, rural areas in many southern states, necessitating a 40 mile round trip for many would-be voters just to obtain the right documentation. This is despite the fact that voter fraud, as organised by ordinary voters, is virtually non-existent.  Beware: this is something the Tories are planning to roll out in the UK for exactly the same reasons: to discourage poorer voters from exercising their democratic right.

In clearly won elections, these issues rarely come to light. But in the closely contest presidential poll of 2000 – where again the electoral college awarded victory to George W. Bush, despite his Democrat opponent winning more votes – the spotlight was shone on Florida. It uncovered a host of undemocratic practices, from deliberately confusing ballot papers, to police stop and search operations in black areas on polling day, designed to discourage black voters from going to the polls.

These profound flaws in US democracy pre-date Trump and will outlast him. They help explain how an anti-democratic charlatan of his ilk could be ’elected’ in the first place. And since these failings are unlikely to be remedied in the near future, it’s entirely possible that someone like him – or even worse – could again occupy the office of the most powerful person in the world. Beyond the short-lived invasion of the Capitol Building, that’s what should really worry supporters of democracy.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Donald Trump. Source: Donald Trump. Author: Gage Skidmore, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Follow us!
To receive regular updates about Labour Hub articles, sign up here.