Bitter election aftermath suggests that US democracy really is in its death throes
It’s only when you compare what is happening in America to the likes of Australia, which also recently held elections, that you appreciate just how alarming the situation in the US is. Civil war is a real possibility.
Despite the fact that America and Australia are both liberal democracies sharing a common cultural heritage, key aspects of the US presidential and congressional elections appear extraordinary from an Australian perspective.
To paraphrase Tolstoy: all happy democracies may resemble one another, but every unhappy democracy is apparently unhappy in its own way.
In recent months, elections have taken place in three Australian states and territories. In each of these contests, the incumbent government has been returned with an increased majority, while in America, President Donald Trump has been narrowly defeated by Joe Biden.
Leaving aside the disparate results, the following important differences between the Australian and the American elections are clear: Firstly, the comparative irrelevance of Covid-19 as an issue in the American election. Secondly, the dominance of a crude populist pro-capitalist ideology (favouring business interests and profits over lives) in the American electoral contests. And finally, Trump’s predictable and completely unprincipled response to his defeat.
These differences augur badly for the future of democracy in America – in fact, they indicate that it may be in its death throes. In Australia, however, recent events have strengthened democracy, enabling a perspective to emerge which comprehends the disaster that may be about to engulf the US.
The outcome of the recent elections in Australia turned on the issue of how incumbent governments had handled the pandemic. Australia is a federal polity, comprising six states and two territories, with a population of some 25 million. To date, it has recorded 27,000 Covid-19 cases and 900 Covid-19-related deaths – one of the best outcomes of all Western democracies. America, by way of contrast, has seen 10 million cases and chalked up over 250,000 deaths.
Australia’s remarkable result has been achieved by an early federal government closure of national borders, strict state government lockdowns and the closure of state borders.
Each of the recent Australian elections was fought on the coronavirus. The Queensland result is the most instructive. The state’s Labor government imposed strict lockdowns and closed its borders very early on in the pandemic. The conservative parties opposed this, and the two Trump-like populist parties – One Nation and the Palmer Party – spent the election campaigning for the immediate lifting of all restrictions and opening of the state borders.
Last week, the Queensland Labor government was returned to power with an increased majority, and the One Nation and Palmer Party populist vote – primarily the vote of an older demographic – collapsed and crossed over to Labor.
The situation in America could not be more different. Trump refused to adopt a national policy to deal with Covid-19. He ignored and/or minimised the risk of the spread of the virus, promoted untested cures and belittled the advice of his own public health experts. He also consistently opposed all lockdown measures and other efforts by state governments to control the pandemic, and blatantly lied to voters, telling them that the virus was under control when it has continued to spread at an alarming rate.
Despite all this, Trump only narrowly lost the presidency, and, more astoundingly, the Republican Party easily retained control of the Senate. The ‘blue wave’ in favour of Biden and the Democrats – predicted by almost all pollsters – did not materialise.
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One explanation for the relative unimportance of the coronavirus in the US elections is the dominance in America of a crude pro-capitalist ideology that favours the interests of business and the economy over the health of the American people. This ideology has political adherents in all Western democracies (including Australia), but only in America could mainstream politicians fervently embrace it and hope to win office.
And Trump and the Republican Party did this when the Covid-19 second wave was sweeping through Europe, compelling political leaders there (including conservatives like Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron) to reintroduce strict shutdowns and other measures to deal with it.
Fifty years ago, the historian Louis Hartz, in the Liberal Tradition in America, portrayed America as a nation trapped in a liberal, pro-capitalist ideological straitjacket that prevented it from dealing effectively with the social and economic challenges that confronted it. Hartz’s analysis seems even more relevant now than it did then.
The most extraordinary aspect of the US election, however, has been Trump’s – and the Republican Party’s – refusal to accept defeat. It is this that portends, more than anything else, the demise of American democracy.
Not surprisingly, Trump has reacted to his defeat by alleging that Biden “stole the election” by means of widespread electoral fraud. Trump maintains that he won the election. Even before the counting of votes had concluded, he commenced a number of legal actions – most of which are doomed to failure – challenging the results in various states.
Donald Trump Jr. urged Republican supporters to “go to total war” to keep his father in office. Trump’s former adviser, Steve Bannon (who is currently facing criminal charges) called for the beheading of senior public health officer Anthony Fauci and the FBI director, Christopher A. Wray.
Powerful Republican politicians, including Senator Lindsey Graham, have vigorously supported Trump’s response to his defeat. Newt Gingrich, the former Republican powerbroker, predicted that Biden’s victory would generate a build-up of rage that would keep Trump in power.
Republican Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis has urged members of the Electoral College – whose votes determine the outcome of the presidential election – to break with convention and give their votes to Trump, despite the fact that voters in their states preferred Biden. This unprecedented suggestion, which has not been disavowed by Trump and his supporters, constitutes a serious attack on the mechanism at the heart of the US presidential electoral process.
It also offers Trump a way to stay in power – because if the Electoral College does not conclude its deliberations by mid-December, it falls to the Republican-dominated Congress to decide who becomes president.
Trump and the Republican Party have plunged America into an extraordinary political crisis that will not be resolved for some time. Trump will not voluntarily give up office, and it is uncertain how this impasse will be resolved.
The president’s response to his defeat has astounded conservative Australian politicians. When asked to comment this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison could only say that he was an observer of and not a participant in the US democratic process. Some of his colleagues, however, have been severely critical of Trump.
More ominously, the Covid-19 pandemic is intensifying dramatically in America, with 100,00 new cases now being recorded each day, along with 1,100 deaths. This ongoing health crisis can only exacerbate and intensify the current political crisis.
At the weekend, we saw protests in major American cities. Most disturbingly, armed Trump supporters massed outside an Arizona voting centre in an attempt to stop the count. Such events could become more common as the political crisis intensifies. It is inevitable that both sides of the intractable political and ideological divide in America will become increasingly more irrational in the coming months.
It is all very well for the Democratic Party elites to criticise Trump and his supporters for believing in conspiracy theories about the pandemic and mass electoral fraud. But these elites have themselves been peddling equally irrational views about catastrophic climate change, critical race theory and identity politics for decades. After all, whose world view is really more irrational, Trump’s or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s?
Joe Biden’s victory speech on the weekend was predictable and bland. It is all very well to announce “a time to heal” and tell Americans “to remain calm and patient” and that “the purpose of our politics is not unending warfare.” But these are just meaningless platitudes in the current circumstances.
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Whatever happens, Biden will not be sworn in as president until January 20 next year. He cannot begin to deal with the pandemic until then, when it will be too late, nor can he do anything about the civil unrest that will engulf America. And even if Biden does take office as president in January, the Republican-dominated Senate will no doubt block his entire legislative program – such as it is.
America today is in a very similar position to that which it was in in the 1850s in the lead-up to the Civil War. It is deeply divided over fundamental issues of principle, which have calcified to the degree that rational debate is no longer possible. The political system, previously based on compromise, has become so ideologically divided that compromise is no longer possible.
In such circumstances, civil war becomes a very real possibility. But any coming war will be very different from the American Civil War of the 1860s. That war was fought, in effect, between two nations with regular armies.
The coming civil war in America will be a disorganised bitter social conflict fought in cities by armed groups of citizens on the barricades, much like the European revolutions of 1830 and 1848 – with one important difference. The insurgents in the European revolutions were fighting for democracy – whereas the participants in America’s coming civil war will be engaged in a war to destroy it.
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