American democracy is fixable – on paper


In case you haven’t noticed, American politics are a dysfunctional mess. You might be excused for missing this sad reality, as the US never tires of chiding other countries for their lack of democratic institutions or their failure to adhere to or protect democratic values.

Both were on display this past week as President Joe Biden, from the podium of the UN General Assembly, prodded other nations to join the US in defending democracy in Ukraine. And then in a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr Biden only mildly criticised the Israeli leader’s efforts to weaken that country’s judiciary.

While the US continues to advocate overseas for democracy and its values, a recent study by Pew Research shows that the confidence Americans have in their own political system has eroded to dangerously low levels – and for good reasons.

Congress is paralysed by hyper-partisanship, stubborn ideologues and arcane rules that allow for and even encourage obstructionist behaviour.

In the House of Representatives, Speaker Kevin McCarthy is held hostage by a handful of hardliners within his Republican Party who have pledged to withhold votes from his effort to pass a budget that is favourable to Republican priorities unless he submits to their demands for even greater cuts in domestic spending and foreign aid. As a result, the US faces, not for the first time, the very real prospect of a government shutdown.

Democrats have nominal (51-49) control of the Senate, but they too face problems from two self-styled “independents” – Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema – whose votes are never assured, and from rules that allow a senator to put a “hold” on approving any presidential nominations for reasons that have nothing to do with the nominees’ qualifications.

US President Joe Biden addresses the UN General Assembly in New York on Tuesday. AP Photo

Dysfunction will leave part of the electorate alienated from politics, another part frustrated and ripe for exploitation by Trump-like demagogues

As a result, a Republican senator – Tommy Tuberville – has blocked the approval of 200 military promotions and appointees because of his disagreement with a Pentagon policy on abortion.

After Republicans blocked consideration of an appointee to the Supreme Court during Barack Obama’s presidency – which was then filled by a Donald Trump appointee – and then were gifted with the opportunity to fill another slot as a result of an aged justice’s refusal to resign in time for his seat to be filled during the Obama administration, the Court has taken decidedly conservative stances on a number of key issues affecting separation of church and state, abortion, affirmative action and environmental regulations.

And while almost two-thirds of the electorate indicate displeasure with the prospect of a Biden-Trump rematch, both parties appear to be headed towards re-nominating them in 2024.

The problems don’t end there.

With the complete collapse of campaign finance regulations, elections and the entire political process are increasingly dominated by billions of dollars raised not only by the two political parties but also by political action committees and corporate interest groups. These billions are used to pay for consultants and huge negative advertising campaigns that have only served to polarise and pollute the political waters.

Add to this the very similar problems that exist in state and local governments and the role the corruption of major media outlets that no longer report news but mould it to match their particular political agendas – and you have a witch’s brew of increasingly polarised dysfunction.

The above only describes some of the problems confronting the major institutions that have, in the past, served to secure democracy in the US. As a result, it is little wonder that the recent Pew Research study finds Americans losing confidence in the country’s politics and its institutions.

Some of its findings don’t make for very comforting reading.

Former US president Donald Trump waves at the crowd after speaking during a 2024 presidential campaign rally in Dubuque, Iowa, last week. Reuters

For instance, only 4 per cent say that the US political system is working well, while 63 per cent express little or no confidence in the future of American politics. When asked to identify the strengths in their political system, 56 per cent are either unwilling or unable to identify any.

Sixty-five per cent say they are either always or often exhausted when they think about politics. On the other hand, 78 per cent say they are either rarely or never excited about politics, while a majority says are just not hopeful.

When asked to identify how they feel about the political system, only 2 per cent use a positive term, with 79 per cent using negative terms like “divisive”, “corrupt”, messy” or “chaos”.

More than 80 per cent say the cost of political campaigns are so high that it keeps good people from running and gives too much influence to big donors and lobbyists.

The Pew study concludes by asking voters to evaluate several ideas that could reform politics. Proposals that gain the most support include term limits on members of Congress, imposing age limits on elected officials and Supreme Court justices, limiting the amount of money individuals or groups can spend in campaigns, and requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification before voting.

But the prospects of any of them happening are doubtful given that they must be passed by Congress, signed by the president and pass constitutional muster by the Supreme Court.

As that is highly unlikely to happen, dysfunction will continue to define the system, leaving part of the electorate alienated from politics, another part frustrated and ripe for exploitation by Trump-like demagogues, and the rest, hoping against hope that change will come, but unsure how it can happen and whether it will be for better or worse.

Published: September 26, 2023, 5:00 AM

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