The US remains the proud inheritor of the boldest human experiment in history: that of creating a society where conquest and birth no longer decided who would rule, where the so-called divine right of kings was vanquished.
Today, nearly 250 years later, the democracy founded on that noble historical change is creaking, antiquated, and under severe threat. Even President Joe Biden has said as much.
Features of American democracy such as the election of only two senators per state, no matter how populous, and the electoral college vote, which allowed Donald Trump to become president despite getting about three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, are probably no longer fit for governing a country as diverse as America is today.
Reforming these increasingly obsolete aspects of their democracy is something best left to the Americans themselves – it is, for example, quite easily argued that it might be a good thing that inhabitants of a small state have a greater right to be heard than they would do under a more broadly representative system.
It is far beyond the scope of this article to analyse the fatal perversions of the American voting system that are taking place at the moment. There are dozens of well-researched books and documentaries that have come out in recent years about the gerrymandering of voting districts, the abuse of legal procedures, the lies about the election results and so on that are taking place in the US, and have been happening for years, decades in fact.
This warping of democracy has been done with slow deliberateness by the American Right since the time of Ronald Reagan and perhaps even since Richard Nixon’s dishonest presidency. The Republican Party, the once thoughtful advocate of small government and fiscal discipline, has morphed into a crazed mob of right-wing ideologues and no small number of white supremacists, driven by rage and the fear of what they see as losing their country to the growing numbers of their black and brown fellow citizens.
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This is not a fringe view of what the Republicans have become today. It is widely accepted by many, both Americans and outside observers. There is even a view that America is primarily a republic, and not a democracy committed to creating a better life for all its people that is widely held across the spectrum of far right-wing opinion.
For decades now, the right wing has corrupted democratic processes to achieve some kind of permanent hold on power. It has been a long and complex undertaking that has now culminated in the gibbering, anger-filled Republican party of Trump and others like him such as Ron DeSantis.
The right wing-dominated US Supreme Court is the clearest example of the success of this all-too-often scurrilous and unwavering enterprise. The Democrats must accept blame today for not having pursued their egalitarian ideals with more long-term vigour and far-sightedness.
There is now a vicious battle between Democrats and Republicans, with independents increasingly torn, for the soul of America. This has sometimes even turned violent, as evidenced by the attack on the Capitol building on 6 January 2021.
But no one outside of that country should take any comfort from this. America has failed far too often in its role as the world’s leading democracy, and that has bred understandable mistrust among many who have been victims of this duplicity.
But, for all its clear failings, it remains the leader of the free world. All democracies around the world, including our own, owe a significant debt to America’s founding fathers.
Certainly, a number of studies, though, show that the majority of Americans are moderate in their views, but are presented with deeply unpalatable political choices.
As Ukraine’s fight for freedom shows, it remains what President Franklin D Roosevelt called “the arsenal of democracy”. American international leadership remains crucial for defending freedom around the world.
America is indeed wonderful, usually generous, always innovative and creative, and very free. But it is also indeed flawed, and sometimes cruel and racist.
Its greatest ongoing contribution to the world is that we all know this. Because of American freedoms, these horrible tendencies are open, and everyone is able to see them clearly. There are no gulags or secret concentration camps where people like the Uighurs are condemned.
Americans and the wider world are free to debate its weaknesses. That discourse is filled often with deep anger, but it is there for all to see and seethe about. Let us also not forget the principled stand of many Republicans who are committed to the rule of law. They stood up repeatedly to Trump during his seesawing, egregiously duplicitous presidency. Their role is deeply praiseworthy and stands for the best of what America can be.
No one living in a democracy should hope that Russia’s murderous dictatorship or China’s brutal, secretive authoritarian model should triumph as a way of running a society.
What is truly of concern to those of us who live in democracies outside of America is how this weakening of the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy might affect our lives, and how it might influence the way our politics is conducted in the future.
The most sinister aspect of America’s democratic decline is the way public discourse has veered away from verifiable evidence. Truth in American life has fractured into 1,000 rage-fuelled certainties, many of which have no basis in reality.
Nearly 30% of the American public, and more than 60% of Republicans, still believe that the election was stolen from Trump despite the fact that more than 60 court cases alleging this failed across the country, the courts often chaired by Trump appointees.
This has left many in America saying to themselves and to the world at large, in effect: “Truth depends on what, or who, you believe.” There are mountains of evidence to show that social media amplifies this toxic illusion. This has become the world we live in, and politicians will use this way of seeing the world to try to dupe us.
In South Africa, despite our bitter history, we tend still to agree, in the end, on the facts. The Zondo Commission is a good example. Those implicated in wrongdoing will clearly challenge its findings, and scream, over and over, the Trumpian mantra of “Fake News.” But no one really believes them. The sober fact-finding of the judge and his team is generally respected by the majority of South Africans.
But the very fact that this phrase has entered our political discourse is, in fact, bad news. Terrible news. We have seen how Trump bellows it out, drowning any modicum of rationality, and politicians around the world from Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil to Carl Niehaus of Rosebank bawl it out constantly for their own ends.
One thing we can sadly all be sure of: political leaders almost always lie. That fact is as old as human history – from monarchs to democrats. But largely before Trump and his discourse of absolute repeated falsehoods that serve a clear purpose of entrenching his own power, there was some way to call politicians to public account, and shame them, but that ability is being fast eroded.
Political figures around the world are watching closely what is happening in America, perhaps, at times, even unconsciously, but they are quick to learn the lessons of the power of falsehood.
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Even our own President is refusing any meaningful accountability concerning his clearly questionable behaviour at Phala Phala. He is, without doubt, the person most qualified to lead this country at present, but even he now is following a Trumpian playbook.
The world follows American discourse, whether they sometimes realise it or not. After 9/11, the word “terrorist” filled the airwaves. There is no question that those who committed these horrific attacks were criminals and, yes, terrorists, who slaughtered innocent people.
Quickly though, governments around the world began to call their opponents “terrorists”. The word soon lost all rational meaning, perhaps most vividly illustrated by former Zimbabwe information minister Jonathan Moyo, who in the early 2000s called journalists, whom he regarded as peddling “lies” about Robert Mugabe’s government, “terrorists”.
The former Rhodesian government and the apartheid regime used to call Zanu-PF “terrorists” repeatedly. More than 20 years later Zanu-PF used the same word to refer to those they saw as their opponents, as a deliberate way to dehumanise them. The irony is bitter.
Today American freedoms are under deep threat, arms sales are proliferating across the country and the talk of a civil war brewing is now commonplace, if perhaps overblown. The Supreme Court has recently taken a number of backward steps as in limiting a woman’s right to abortion, gun control and religion in schools. Many such decisions are likely to follow.
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Certainly, a number of studies, though, show that the majority of Americans are moderate in their views, but are presented with deeply unpalatable political choices. The problem for American democracy is that those voters’ choices to achieve that moderation are being systematically undermined.
If the Democrats hold onto power in the upcoming mid-term elections, that will be a powerful step in the right direction. The American story is far from over.
America is, though, without doubt in the early stages of some form of problematic, ongoing civil conflict. One only has to see a Trump rally to know that the hate is there, waiting to find its technological and political expression. One only has to look at what happened on 6 January last year.
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There is no chance, however, of an old-style military conflict erupting in the US. The military and security services are far too powerful for that ever to happen.
The greater threat is that the military and security services will slowly and deliberately be co-opted into an increasingly weakened democratic state.
This, so far, one must stress, has not happened. In fact, senior generals and military officials strenuously resisted Trump. But the very fact that it should have come to a standoff between the president and the military is extremely worrying.
Should Trump gain a second term, he has made it clear that he will appoint officials willing to do his bidding. Should that begin to happen, the weakening of the wall between the military and civilian government could well become a threat. Not to mention what will happen to civil servants.
In South Africa, our military has remained steadfastly apolitical. Not so our security services which have served the political ends of presidents like Jacob Zuma.
There is no need to be alarmist, but, as citizens of a young constitutional democracy, we would do well to heed the present step-by-step fragmentation of the world’s oldest and largest and most racially diverse constitutional democracy. The temptation of our politicians to follow suit in years to come may be too great for them to resist.
We must not allow them to do so. DM