Democracy in the United States is Decaying

“Our Constitution works: our great republic is a government of laws, not of men. Here the people rule.” Thus spoke incoming US President Gerald Ford as he replaced his disgraced predecessor, Richard Nixon, in 1974.

Nixon had resigned less than a year after firing the special prosecutor appointed to look into the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up of White House involvement.

He knew he had to go because principled Republicans joined with Democrats in beginning the road to impeachment. As Ford said, the constitution worked.

It is working much less well in 2018.

Elections are becoming less and less democratic. The boundary lines for both state and federal congressional districts are politically controlled by the party with the most seats in the state legislature.

There is no pretense of even-handedness. The likely voters for the minority party are jammed together so that the remaining districts have reliable majorities for the party in control.

Pennsylvania’s legislature is controlled by Republicans. In the 2012 election Democrats won just over half the vote but only won five out of eighteen federal districts in Congress.

Much has been made of the absurd borders of district 7, often described as resembling Goofy Kicking Donald.

Because Republicans control more statehouses than Democrats, they won 11% more congressional districts in 2016 while winning just 1% more of the vote.

It is some consolation that the State Supreme Court has ordered a more sensible redrafting of the borders. That outcome is tainted by the fact that the court’s makeup has also become politicized, the Democrats currently having a 4-3 edge.

Perversely, this system serves the interests of incumbents of both parties. Districts designed to have predictable outcomes do not generate much interest by voters.

Their opportunity to make choices has also been reduced. Fifty-three federal districts (about 10% of the total) were uncontested by one or other of the major parties in the 2016 election.

Only about 10% of congressional districts are viewed as competitive. Fewer than 5% of Representatives seeking reelection in 2016 were defeated.

Likewise an astonishing 42% of districts for state legislatures were uncontested by one of the major parties. To the extent that there is any real competition, it is in the primary system for choosing party candidates. These tend to favour fervent ideologues over pragmatic centrists.

The vast amounts of money spent in American elections are almost entirely focused on the few competitive districts. That points to the second big problem for democracy in the United States—the excessive influence of people who have a lot of money.

So beholden are elected representatives to the political power of the National Rifle Association, and the financial contributions of its members, that a sensible response to massacres in night clubs, outdoor events, churches, and schools never gets traction.

A group led by the Koch brothers plans to spend US$400 million on the 2018 congressional elections. The money is funneled through a multitude of organizations such as Americans for Prosperity.

The majority of funds raised will be spent on just the few dozen competitive races, paying for advertising, polling, and on-the-ground workers.

Those voices are amplified by a broad array of highly partisan broadcast, print, and internet media. Rather than seeking a balanced approach, many have found it a more profitable business model to cater to and reinforce the biases of their consumers.

A reader of the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times on the same day could be forgiven for wondering if they were talking about the same country.

They are by no means the worst examples. Student survivors of the Florida school shooting have been vocal in demands for gun control, for which they have been attacked by right-wing fringe media.

The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., liked two tweets disseminating conspiracy theories about a student leader whose father is a retired FBI agent. One tweet linked to a story in Gateway Pundit that accused the father of coaching his son in peddling “anti-Trump rhetoric and anti-gun legislation,” claiming the FBI is using him as its pawn.

The other tweet linked to a story in True Pundit that described the student as “the kid who has been running his mouth” about Trump and Republicans. “If he knew the shooter would snap — as he and other students have professed — perhaps he could have told his father about it,” the story charged.

At the top of this decaying edifice is a self-absorbed president incapable of grace, unconcerned about truth, and disinterested in finding consensus among people with differing perspectives.

His approval ratings hover around 40%, which may seem impossibly high to observers from other countries, but reflects the ardently supportive media he receives on the right.

Meanwhile, the Democrats lack both a coherent message and a credible messenger.

Congress fares much worse. Its approval rating has been less than 20% for the last EIGHT years, seven of them while Obama was president.

America is becoming polarized. Moderates from both parties are an endangered species. Fragmented and partisan media make it difficult for voters to know who or what to trust. Voters are being disenfranchised by the power of money and the unscrupulous manipulation of electoral boundaries.

America’s historical example, though not without flaws, has been an extraordinarily important positive force in the world for a century. It is not only Americans who should be concerned.


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