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US ceases to inspire

There’s a gap between what it professes abroad and what it practises at home

US ceases to inspire

Taking lead: President Biden will host a virtual ?Summit of Democracies? to focus on the challenges and opportunities facing democracies. Reuters



Manoj Joshi

Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

Later this week, President Joe Biden of the US will host a virtual ‘Summit of Democracies’ for leaders from government, civil society and private sector to focus on the challenges and opportunities facing democracies. This is to project the administration’s worldview that democracies alone can meet the challenges of the future, whether it is climate change or the growth of authoritarian regimes like China and Russia.

The erosion has echoes in countries like India where abstract concepts like ‘the nation’ are being used to abrogate rights and civil society is being seen as a threat.

That there is politics behind the list of 100-plus invitees is evident. Some are strong liberal democracies of Europe, others are weak semi-democracies like India and Israel, and others outright autocracies like Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are questions, too, about invitees like Kenya, Serbia, Iraq, Zambia, Ukraine and the Philippines.

Actually, the biggest question mark is before the host country, the US itself. In the past year, we have seen a presidential election where the losing candidate has made false claims that his election was stolen and there was even a coup attempt to prevent the succession. The NGO Freedom House’s annual assessment records a systematic erosion of US democratic practices. In the past decade, the US score has fallen from 94 to 83 out of 100, the steepest fall among countries.

A lot of the ills of American democracy arise from the free rein given to ‘gerrymandering’, or delimiting constituencies to exclude this or that class of voters to make seats safe for the ruling party. In the US, except California, Washington and Arizona, this exercise is in the hands of the political parties that, not surprisingly, try to maximise their own party’s gain. A more pernicious aspect of this is that the constituency lines are drawn to exclude or divide concentrations of minorities like African Americans.

As a result of this, and the huge amounts of money needed to fight an election, US legislators become virtually undefeatable. With some gerrymandering and the fact that it is easier for incumbents to raise the large amounts of money, 90-95 per cent of the legislators are being re-elected repeatedly. As a Wall Street Journal article recently noted, ‘it’s a practice in which politicians pick their voters, rather than the other way around.’

There was a time when after a hard-fought election, the two sides got together to push legislation that would benefit the country. Today, they have become fiercely partisan to the point where it becomes difficult to pass legislation, like raising the debt ceiling to prevent a government shutdown, or to carry out much-needed repairs to the US infrastructure. Built-in checks have been created to subvert the process of legislation. In the US Senate now, you almost always require a majority of 60 (out of 100) to get anything done, especially in relation to the federal budget and taxation.

The recent Infrastructure Development Act was passed in the House of Representatives almost entirely on Democratic votes. Indeed, there were calls for punishing the 13 Republicans who voted for this ‘once in a generation’ legislation. There are many constituencies in the US where safe drinking water is a problem, bridges and grids are collapsing and highways crumbling. But that did not stop most Republicans from voting against the Bill. Today, even the issue of whether or not to take the Covid vaccine has become an issue of political partisanship.

Equally pernicious are the efforts to suppress voters. Encouraged by the US Supreme Court’s conservative majority, legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that ensured that African Americans were able to vote, has been undermined. Some states and local governments have stepped up measures to make it hard for the African Americans to vote. Trump’s loss in 2020 has only made them redouble their efforts.

Democracy is not just about the right to vote and elections. It is also about the quality of life of citizens and their individual rights. By that measure, too, the US fails. Racist discrimination against African Americans remains a blot on American life. But there is another community that is often ignored—women. Recent moves to deny abortion rights to women is a case in point. Another manifestation of this is the routine denial of paid maternity leave for women. Studies show that this impacts most severely on the poor and the minorities. The US is the only industrialised country that does not offer such leave.

In many ways, the plight of US democracy is probably summed up by the looming shadow of Donald Trump as the unquestioned supremo of the party of Abraham Lincoln. A man who had a reputation for molesting women, dodgy business practices, and shady associates is today the Republican Party’s conscience, with his views setting its tone and his endorsements crucial for election victory.

The plight of democracy in the US has implications around the world. Since the 1960s, the US, despite its flaws, provided leadership through its political and civil society institutions to those who believed in democracy and the rights of the individual. It also championed the belief that the democratic system, with all its faults, offered the best system of governance to promote human advance.

Today, the gap between what the US professes abroad and what it practises at home is growing, and in this information age, it is also showing. Not surprisingly, this erosion has echoes in other countries like India where abstract concepts like ‘the nation’ are being used to abrogate individual rights and the civil society is being seen as a threat to the system.


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