Is democracy worth fighting for?
The eyes of the world are on Ukraine as its citizens fight to uphold their democracy in the face of Russian aggression. But how many people are aware that American democracy is similarly under grave threat?
America has long been considered an exceptional land, where democracy thrives and people of different backgrounds all have a chance at prosperity. This optimistic view of America has, admittedly, always been questionable given the country's embrace of slavery, its imprisoning of a higher percentage of the population than any other country in the world, its refusal to ratify important treaties including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and its odd clinging to the electoral college, which allows the loser of the popular vote to become president.
The United States also has a unique (among democratic countries) system of lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices, meaning that there is no rhyme or reason to how many justices any single president can appoint. Of the nine justices now on the Supreme Court, five were appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote (George W Bush and Donald Trump). Barack Obama, despite winning the popular vote twice, only appointed two justices, while Trump, who lost the popular vote twice, was able to appoint three.
While America's 100 senators are currently split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, those 50 Democratic senators represent nearly 40 million more voters than their Republican counterparts. Meanwhile, thanks to the filibuster, it requires 60 out of 100 votes to pass laws, meaning that the Senate cannot pass major legislation. This suits the Republican Party, which is dedicated to blocking virtually all legislation. In the words of the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, "100 percent of our focus is on stopping [the Biden] administration." McConnell also famously publicised his intention to ensure that Barack Obama would only serve one term. He failed—but he did make it extraordinarily difficult for Obama to get anything done.
Donald Trump, the very definition of a sore loser, continues to deny that he lost the 2020 election. The Big Lie has taken over the Republican Party and has been used as an excuse to make it harder to vote if you are poor or not white. In 2021, 19 states enacted 33 laws that will make it harder for Americans to vote. Some Republican-led states are considering laws that would allow the state legislature to overturn election results. Crazy fantasy? Well, look at Trump's claim that Mike Pence, as vice president, could have overturned the election.
In any case, however democratic or not the US has been in the past, now for the first time it has been demoted to the status of a "backsliding" democracy by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) think tank.
I don't mean to make Republicans out to be the only bad guys in the system. Then Senator Joe Biden drafted, and President Bill Clinton signed, new legislation that dramatically increased the prison population in the 1990s, particularly increasing the number of Black and brown prisoners. Politicians of both parties are more beholden to their corporate sponsors than to the public, and the results show in the nature of the bills they draft and in their votes. But while Republicans literally have no platform (other than to lower taxes on the rich, ban abortion and various books, and make it harder for people of colour to vote—none of which are popular among the masses), the Democrats, to some degree at least, are trying to pass voting rights legislation, universal healthcare, and various other policies that would make life easier for the poor and middle class.
A country that regularly elects the loser as president, is now veering into autocracy in terms of believing that the president is above the law and that elected officials rather than the electorate should determine elections, and that is grossly skewed in its representation—and then makes it almost impossible to pass legislation—is hardly a model democracy. Factor in its treatment of Black, indigenous, and other people of colour, and it never has been one.
And I haven't even mentioned the January 6 insurrection.
So while we watch Ukrainians fight heart and soul to save their democracy, some pundits are asking just how hard Americans are willing to fight to save theirs.
Debra Efroymson is executive director at the Institute of Wellbeing.