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US 2022 midterms: What America’s historic inflection point means for the African diaspora and continental ties

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John Stremlau is Honorary Professor, International Relations, at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

If US President Joe Biden’s electoral reforms are defeated by the Republicans, it would be a terrible signal to democrats across Africa at a time of growing illiberalism.

The most urgent issue facing US President Joe Biden in 2022 is the sustainability of democracy in America, not abroad. This is also especially vital to the future wellbeing of the African diaspora and the future of US-Africa relations.

Equal voting rights legislation and 2022 Congressional elections loom as the latest and perhaps decisive conflicts in America’s centuries-long struggle to overcome a nationalism and democracy rooted in white supremacy, today manifest in the predominant Republican Party mantra to “Make America Great Again”.  

Biden’s Summit for Democracy, 9-10 December 2021, was at best premature. More revealing of the urgency and magnitude of the crisis facing Biden, however, was his 6 January 2022 address commemorating the first anniversary of the unprecedented assault on the US Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump attempting, at his urging, to prevent certification of Biden’s electoral victory. He again affirmed that racism and the suppression of equal voting rights bedevil American democracy.  

The successful enactment of electoral reform legislation is the most important practical action that Biden-Harris could take in 2022, as it could prove decisive for democracy in the November elections. Prospects for passage of either bill are doubtful despite Biden’s impassioned appeal for support. One is the Freedom to Vote Act HR 1. The other is the John R Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021. As of writing, either or both would require Democrats to override Republican opposition to equal voting rights, which would threaten their “state capture” strategy to entrench minority rule.

Were this to happen, it would be a terrible signal to democrats across Africa at a time of growing illiberalism. It would further damage African Union prospects for advancing the African Charter for Elections, Democracy and Governance as a pragmatic framework for advancing peace with justice within and among Africa’s 55 countries. 

Equal voting rights, as South Africans know well, is a necessary but insufficient condition for national and regional peace and prosperity.  

Despite this context, Biden fulfilled a campaign promise to the Summit for Democracy, held virtually for 100 countries on 9-10 December 2021. Seventeen African nations were invited. Only one declined to attend: South Africa. Was this a missed opportunity for South Africa? I think not. The White House later released a 5,000-word summary of proceedings that indicate the scope of challenges and offer general guidance for advancing and sustaining democracy.  

Before the event, I attempted to suggest possible ways for African countries that did attend to advance their pro-democracy interests, for their own reasons. But it was unrealistic to expect that this group could come up with anything coherent, especially given that the host is currently such a dysfunctional and divided democracy itself.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, a promising document was published: The Biden-Harris Agenda for the African Diaspora. It proposes major social and economic investments that would rectify the many inequities, historic for the descendants of African slaves, but also include the growing diversity of recent African immigrants from throughout the continent. 

Republican opposition to the historic legislation package that Biden and Kamala Harris championed, the Build Back Better Act, has stymied passage. Many of the initiatives would surely benefit Africans back home, whether through remittances or by empowering diaspora members who would in turn become a major lobby for advancing African issues in the US.

But this can only be realised if Democrats prevail electorally in 2022 and 2024, and the odds are low, especially absent equal voting rights.

America in 2022 is at an historic inflection point. 

Can it become a country that belongs to all who live in it, united in its diversity, or will it remain a white nationalist redoubt? This year’s 2022 US Congressional elections will be the most important event affecting the future of US democracy and the future of US-African relations. DM

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