29. 11. 2017

The State of American Democracy

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How often have you heard something like this: ‘Well, the situation here in the UK may be dire, but things aren’t half as bad as they are in America!’

I’ve said it myself, mostly in jest, sometimes in near despair. But I had absolutely no idea how terrifyingly true that throw-away comment really is – before spending a couple of days with an amazing group of US academics, activists and commentators at a conference on the ‘State of American Democracy’ at Oberlin College near Cleveland, Ohio.

The first thing to say is that I came away from the conference feeling remarkably hopeful – to be in the presence of so many dedicated people, all resolutely focussed on what needs to be done to restore ‘the heart of American democracy’, was seriously inspirational. Solutions to all of the problems raised popped up irrepressibly, at federal, state and community level. There was no reason to suppose that American citizens cannot ‘retrieve the better angels of our nature’.

But such hopefulness could only emerge from a blisteringly honest analysis of just how bad things are, and how close to the edge things have come. In a moment of high drama, one of the speakers asked participants how many of them ‘still believed that the Republic will survive’ – after the ‘coup d’état’ of Trump’s election. Hands weren’t counted, but I estimated that around three-quarters thought it would survive – still leaving a quarter of people contemplating a descent into further decline and authoritarianism.

And I wasn’t quite sure how serious another speaker was in the following comment: ‘Thank God that Trump is so incompetent in his efforts to impose authoritarian rule. If he was like the Koch brothers, tyranny would be just around the corner.’ After all, a survey earlier this year revealed that one in six US citizens would be prepared to accept some kind of military rule.

All that really shocked me. However bad things may be here in the UK, there’s no talk of the entire system collapsing. But as the analysis deepened, layer by layer, I began to see why people might have reached such a conclusion.

So here’s my sense of the principal drivers behind this state of affairs – most of which, by the way, are casting a malign shadow over the body politic here in the UK, but not in such an extreme form.

1. Poverty
The concentration of wealth – with today’s ‘winner-takes-all-inequality’ – beggars belief. The top 10% of Americans own around 80% of the nation’s wealth, with 20% shared amongst the remaining 90%. And it gets worse every year, as a matter of course.

And that means more than 43 million Americans are living in harsh poverty, even though many of those are in work on the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour – ‘today’s starvation wage’. Women make up nearly two-thirds of all minimum-wage workers. And America is now ‘one of the most socially immobile’ countries in the OECD – even the UK got a favourable mention here, from one slightly misguided speaker!

Yet most US politicians – including most Democrats – won’t talk about poverty per se. Only Bernie Sanders sought to challenge that silence during the presidential race.

2. Dark Money
Jane Mayer (author of the extraordinary ‘Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right’) laid out for us in grisly detail how billions of dollars have been deployed over the last two decades to shift the bias of US democracy towards right-wing ideas and policy positions of one kind or another. Her principal targets in ‘Dark Money’ are the Koch brothers, and their web of nonprofit organisations with uplifting names like ‘Americans for Prosperity’ or ‘Citizens for a Sound Economy’.

As she pointed out, the cumulative effect of this massively corrupting influence will continue to unfold for many years, given the reluctance of both parties to challenge the status quo on campaign funding. And it’s the ‘left behind’ who will be impacted most cruelly: ‘What we have today is an alliance of the winners and losers of globalisation: the winners write the rules, and the losers provide the votes.’

3. Racism
The final speaker at the conference was the charismatic Reverend William Barber. He urged his colleagues to stop saying ‘we’ve never seen anything like this before’. Drawing disturbing comparisons between the presidency (from 1913 to 1921) of Woodrow Wilson, an avowed white supremacist, and that of the closet-supremacist Donald Trump, William Barber pointed out that white supremacy is ‘as American as apple pie’.

For many Americans, race is seen as ‘the litmus test of how well our democracy is doing’. In his inflammatory appeals to poor white voters, underpinned by an obsessive determination to destroy the legacy of America’s first black president, Trump has clearly benefited from the cultivation of systemic racism over the last 50 years. As another speaker put it, ‘Racism has infected every part of our body politic’.

4. Education in Crisis
Public education in America has been laid waste by years of underfunding (including during the Obama presidency), and by concerted efforts to ‘privatise’ as many schools as possible through the opting out of ‘charter schools’ from the public system. ‘Dark money’ has played a huge role here, contaminating countless elections for state school Boards, even to the point of trying to get public money to support religious schools – hitherto absolutely off-limits.

This has impacted disproportionately, in completely predicable ways, on poor and black communities. By design, not by accident. As has the concerted attack on American democracy itself.

5. An Electoral System at Risk
I guess the thing that shocked me most was the account of all the different ways in which the basic democratic rights of millions of US citizens have been eroded away over the last 20 years or so. Some of these things (gerrymandering to fix election boundaries, voter suppression and so on) have been around for decades, but at nothing like the same degree of intensity as can be seen today.

The voter suppression story is extraordinary. Crucial elements in the 1965 Voting Rights Act (introduced to put an end to the horrific racial discrimination going on at that time) were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. And the consequences arising from that have been dramatic: at least 31 states are now actively involved in making it harder and harder for ‘the wrong kind of citizens’ to cast their vote – through insanely restrictive voter ID and registration laws, as well as mechanisms to ‘purge’ voters deemed ‘inactive’ as a consequence of not voting.

41% of eligible voters did not vote in the 2016 election. 80% of low-earners usually don’t vote at all.

6. The Dark Side of the Web
Though our presenters gave the usual ‘on the one hand/on the other’ opening shtick about the role of the internet, the systemic manipulation of social media for electoral purposes was exposed time after time as an increasingly malign influence in US politics.

Forget the ‘Russia stuff’, we were told; it’s the evolution from fake news, fake media outlets and insidious micro-targeting of voters into full-on Chinese authoritarianism that we should all be focussed on.

And the unholy trinity of Facebook, Google and Amazon came in for their fair share of bile here – to my utter delight, I have to admit, frustrated as I am by the pathetic naivety of the kind of debate we have here in the UK! ‘Break them up, or our democracy goes down’ was a view I heard on several occasions. It’s one with which I wholeheartedly concur.

7. Militarism Reborn
Here again, the statistics are staggering. This year’s defence budget is an astonishing $800 billion, 90% of everything that America spends abroad (including aid, diplomacy, soft power etc). This budget is now more than is spent by the next eight countries’ defence budgets combined. It gobbles up nearly 60% of the US Administration’s total discretionary spending. And neither the US nor the rest of the world is getting what it might hope from for such astronomical largesse.

(I learned that in the first draft of his famous speech in 1961, President Eisenhower referred explicitly to the ‘military-industrial-congressional complex’ as being at the root of the problem. But he was compelled to drop the ‘congressional’ element!)

8. The Sad State of the Democrats
There was little beating around the bush here: the Democrats bear a large share of the responsibility for the current crisis in America’s democracy. The working class no longer looks to the Democrats for any kind of political support, given their continuing and chronic failure to understand the extremes of poverty, racism and exclusion that now scar the face of American democracy. The Democrats’ ‘narrative’ is seen by many as patronising, detached and unapologetically elitist.

And there’s a fierce battle going on for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party, at a time when they should be ruthlessly focussed on attacking all that Trump and the Conservative Right stand for. But I was astonished at how few people during the conference said anything about Bernie Sanders, who is self-evidently none of those things.

9. The Stranglehold of Neoliberalism
That critique of the Democrats extends all the way through to their continuing and dogged adherence to the core tenets of neoliberal economics. And that was important for me.

My short walk-on role at this wonderful conference was to provide some Brexit analogies: drawing out any conclusions about the state of British democracy that might resonate with a US audience.

So I linked my analysis to the self-same 40-year legacy of neoliberalism, leading directly to the same pattern of privatisation and financialisation, to the same kind of concentration of wealth, the same chronic poverty, the same unending erosion of public services in the name of austerity, the same careless disregard for the fate of those ‘left behind’ by outsourcing and globalisation, the same deep resentment – and the same casting of votes as a cry of rage.

Our democracy may not yet be in as bad a situation as I now understand American democracy to be in. (As one speaker put it, ‘This great experiment of ours is now at risk as never before’. But the direction of travel is the same, and the potential consequences equally grave.
 

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