How Did We Get to This Sad State in US Politics ?
The US has just witnessed one of its most important presidential elections in recent memory. Donald Trump, running for a second term, lost to Joe Biden of the Democratic Party. Still reeling under the COVID-19 pandemic, US society has been torn apart by anti-race protests sparked by killings of black men by trigger-happy policemen but sustained by systemic racism, and the President had deliberately unleashed all the dark forces of American exceptionalism, patriarchy and white supremacy in the name of ‘Making America Great Again’. His climate change denial, support to other right-wing leaders like Brazil’s Bolsonaro, the UK’s Boris Johnson and of course, Prime Minister Modi in India, his fuelling of armament build-up, his support to Israeli expansionism and many other foreign policy stances have earned him global notoriety. Hence this election is of interest, and concern, to people around the world. NewsClick will be publishing these observations periodically.
The horrifying spectacle of rioting mobs storming Capitol Hill – the seat of the US Congress – on January 6 was extremely shocking and heart-breaking for a vast majority of Americans and lovers of Democracy all over the world. The British Parliament House in London and the Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. are among the two iconic symbols of representative democracy in the modern world. Greece, the mother of democracy, unfortunately could not preserve the places where citizens assembled in the ancient city states, debated issues and voted directly for any proposal.
It was doubly tragic and outrageous that our President had directly instigated this insurrection by addressing a protest rally at the Ellipse – the primary public gathering space – in Washington D.C. on January 6, urging his followers to march to the Capitol Hill to “fight” for restoring the results of a ‘stolen election’. He made false claims like “we won this election and we won it by a landslide…..if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.” This protest rally was organised by Mr. Trump and his accomplices on the same day that the Vice President and members of Congress had assembled in a joint session to complete the last step of a constitutionally-mandated process to count electoral votes cast by the electors in the electoral college on December 14, 2020 (306 in favour of Mr. Biden and 232 for Mr. Trump).
In a video from the White House lawn that afternoon, Mr. Trump further added: “I know your pain, I know your hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it.” Over sixty legal challenges of widespread voter fraud filed by Mr. Trump’s legal team were rejected by various state courts and the US Supreme Court for lack of any evidence. Despite this fact, approximately 12 US Senators, led by the unprincipled and highly ambitious Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, and two-thirds of the Republican members of the US House of Representatives (140+) including the Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, declared earlier that they would support these bogus claims of widespread voter fraud during the joint session of Congress.
They took this step possibly for their own cynical reasons of inheriting Trump’s voter base in their states when he finally fades away by 2024. Many astute observers noted that on November 3, all 435 members of the House of Representatives and 33 members of the US Senate were elected by the same ballot they were contesting. As a result of the exactly same ballot cast by the voters, the Republicans won big in most of the 50 states in the 2020 election. Election results turned out to be very close in the House and the Senate. It is highly unlikely that the Democrats would cheat in a ballot only at the Presidential level.
Even though the utter chaos and destruction unleashed by the Trump supporters in the temple of US democracy is thoroughly repugnant to the vast majority of Americans, let us look at the same event from the rioters’ perspective. Their dear president had repeatedly told them for the last two months that the Democrats had stolen this election from him in ‘corrupt’ major cities like Philadelphia, Detroit and Atlanta. Was it a coincidence that these cities were run by black mayors and other elected black officials? Influential Republican Senators in Washington, including Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, were complicit by either openly supporting the President, or keeping absolutely quiet for a good six to nine weeks after the election. To his credit, Senator Mitt Romney was the lone exception. A senior Republican leader, in background briefing, told a Washington Post reporter: “What is the downside for humoring him (Mr. Trump) for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change.” Aside from that, conservative television and radio networks all the over the US were parroting Trump’s lies in highly inflammatory ways.
The invaders of Capitol Hill were convinced by their elected leaders in Washington for two long months – led by Trump – that the election laws were already broken by their opponents and irreversible damage was being inflicted on unsuspecting citizens by corrupt officials in the battleground cities and states. In their own minds, the rioters were standing up for the law and trying to deny the law breakers the fruits of their steal – the executive branch of the Federal Government. Ezra Klein, an astute observer, noted in his column “…they did what they thought they had been asked to do.” Because of the persistent misinformation campaign at various levels, the majority of the Republican voters now believe that Biden stole this election – an ominous attempt to de-legitimise the duly elected incoming Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration.
Before we delve into how US politics descended into this current sad state, let us touch upon the truly historic results of the runoff election on January 5 for the two Senate seats from Georgia. Defying all odds, Raphael Warnock – a black pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached – was elected with a narrow margin of 94,000 votes (51% vs 49%) in deep south Georgia with its long history of lynching black men to death. Warnock is the first popularly elected black senator from any deep south state ever! In the other race, Georgians elected Jon Osoff – a 33-year-old Jewish filmmaker with a very slim margin of 56,000 votes (50.6% vs 49.4%). Osoff is the second Jewish senator elected from any deep south state since 1880! A strong coalition of black activists/voters, liberal whites, Hispanics and Asians are realigning the political landscape in the southern states with huge implications for future. Would Texas and Florida follow Georgia in the next five to ten years or sooner? Between November 2018 and November 2020, black activist organisations had registered 8,00,000 black voters and ensured that most of the black voters voted in this election. Black voters constitute approximately 30% of the total electorate in Georgia. Republican legislatures and Governors in the southern states are expected to create more barriers for voting by the minority and young voters in future by passing more draconian state laws with the pretext of ensuring fair elections.
Because of these two wins in Georgia, the Democrats achieved a 50-50 tie with the Republicans in the Senate. As the presiding officer of the Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris will break any tie with her casting vote and give Democrats the control of the US Senate after their January 20 inauguration. After 12 years, the Democrats will have a president from their party AND majorities, albeit narrow, in the House of Representatives and the Senate. This has huge positive implications for the Biden Administration for introducing and passing meaningful legislation to implement their agenda for the next two years till the next mid-term election in November 2022.
HOW DID US DEMOCRACY GET HERE?
Any functioning healthy democracy requires at least two major political parties which believe in independently verified facts, democratic processes, norms, and above all, free and fair elections. Let us examine how US democracy degenerated to its current sad state where independently-verified facts, science or democratic processes do not matter any longer to a major political party and a significant part of the US population. Is it a phenomena brought upon the Republican party primarily by Donald Trump? Or did he skillfully exploit a deep malaise started decades ago in the Republican party and in our civic discourse? Let us dive in.
In the 1960’s the progressives in the Democratic party were led by the eastern liberals in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (1961-1968) even though Lyndon Johnson himself was from the southern state of Texas. In general, the southern Democrats were very conservative, and in many cases, outright racist. Similarly, the Republican party had many progressive stalwarts in the northern states. In the Republican party of the 1960’s, the liberal wing was led by the New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, the moderate wing by the ex-Vice President Richard Nixon (later President) and the conservative wing by Senator Barry Goldwater and the California Governor Ronald Reagan (later President).
President Kennedy’s Civil Rights bills were blocked by the southern Democrats in Congress. After his assassination in 1963, the southern Democrats relented and President Johnson passed the landmark Civil Rights bill in 1964 and Voting Rights Act in 1965 with solid bi-partisan majorities. Those were truly watershed events which had a profound positive impact on the minorities and the entire US society.
The last set of Republican presidents who believed that the government could be a tool for delivering public good were Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Nixon’s major character flaws are well documented in history but even though he and Ford were conservative politicians, they fundamentally believed in governments delivering public good. Richard Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency in 1969. Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were passed with solid bi-partisan majorities in US Congress in 1970 and 1972 respectively. It should be noted that an earlier version of the Clean Water Act was passed by President Lyndon Johnson and Senator Ed Muskie in 1966. Environmental protection issues had broad support in both political parties and the population at large in that era.
Ronald Reagan popularised the mantra that “Government is the problem” in the 1980 election cycle and into his presidency for eight long years. President Reagan’s major objectives were deep tax cuts for the rich and the corporations, and significantly reducing the size of the government. Most people remember Reagan’s “voodoo” economic theory that deep tax cuts would pay for itself (proven wrong three times during Reagan, Bush Jr. and Trump presidencies). Many do not remember that the Reagan administration was remarkably anti-science. In order to relax science-based regulations for industry, Reagan officials kept denying the adverse effects of acid rain for many years. During the Reagan years, the religious right became a major political force in the Republican party for the first time. The religious right do not necessarily take pro-science positions in public discourse. Rather than using Government as a tool for delivering public good, Reagan consistently demonised the government. As a result, three generations of conservative Republicans grew up with the belief that “Government is the problem” – people who were in their twenties during Reagan, Bush Jr. and Trump presidencies.
During the Reagan/George Bush Sr. years (1981-1992), a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and a solid block of moderate prestigious Republican leaders in the Senate provided a firewall against any excess by the Executive branch – the President and his cabinet members. That changed drastically when a more radical group of Republicans gained majority in the US House of Representatives in the 1994 election. Speaker Newt Gingrich refused to pass any budget unless President Clinton agreed to steep and irresponsible budget cuts. As President Clinton refused, the US Federal Government was shut down for approximately 20 days. Ultimately, Speaker Gingrich had to back down and pass the Federal budget. But that was the beginning of the age of naked obstruction and blackmail of the President by the opposition party in Congress.
In order to relax the science-based environmental regulations on fossil fuel and the chemical industries who were funding the Republican campaigns, the Republicans at the federal and the state levels started major disinformation campaigns against science and evidence-based policy positions in the 90s. The idea was to “dumb down” the base of the Republican party so that the Republican elite could get away with their pet policies of tax cuts for the rich. So, evidence-based global warming accelerated by man-made activities after the industrial revolution became “a hoax and conspiracy theory propagated by the scientists” funded by America’s enemies. The “trickle down economic benefits” of deep tax cuts for the rich became a religious issue among the conservative pundits in civic discourse, devoid of any evidence-based data.
After George W. Bush Jr. got elected in 2000, Senator Ted Kennedy, a stalwart of the Democrats in the Senate, actively collaborated with President Bush in enacting the latter’s signature education policy “No Child Left Behind” through the US Congress. In the aftermath of 9/11, a solid bipartisan majority passed many legislations, both good and catastrophic. The bipartisan US Senate resolution to authorise President Bush to invade Iraq, if he deemed it necessary, was in the catastrophic category. But the point here is that the Democrats in Congress were not practicing obstructionism.
During the Bush Jr. Administration (2001-2008), a new cadre of political appointees, who believed that government was the problem, took charge of critical federal departments. Many of them were paid lobbyists from the very industries they were supposed to regulate for delivering public good. By that time, the firewall of Democratic majority in the House and moderate Republicans in the Senate had been eliminated, or whittled down significantly. The net result of these critical government appointments were disastrous, but predictable. With Al Gore’s extremely narrow defeat in the 2000 election, the fossil fuel industries (oil, gas, coal etc.) gained a disproportionate amount of clout among the Republican politicians at all levels in the Bush Administration. President Bush Jr. used to claim that there was no conclusive proof that man-made activities were responsible for global warming. These were not pro-science positions. In 2006, the Environment Protection Agency Administrator, Christie Todd Whitman, a former Governor of New Jersey and a progressive Republican (yes, they existed in the coasts even fifteen years ago) resigned in frustration citing lack of support from President Bush Jr. and key Administration officials for enforcing environmental regulations. President Nixon must have turned in his grave.
After President Barack Obama won the 2008 election by a landslide, the Republicans in Congress resumed their trench warfare to sabotage the Obama Presidency in the middle of a deep economic recession. There were credible press reports in early 2009 that the Republican Senate Minority leader told the Republican senators that they need to stick together to deny Obama any success and make him a one-term president. Republicans in the Senate successfully filibustered much-needed economic stimulus and investments in infrastructure upgrades. Obama’s signature law, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) passed in 2010 to provide healthcare access to millions of Americans was vilified and misrepresented by the Republicans with unusual fear mongering. The religious right, political conservatives and voters with racist instincts were galvanised successfully by the Republicans against a black president and the Democratic party. In the 2010 mid-term election, Republicans gained majority in the House and the Democrats lost a super-majority in the Senate. For the next six years, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (later Majority Leader) blocked the Obama Administration in the Senate at every turn through the filibuster process. US Senate, the world’s greatest deliberative body, became a grave yard of many essential bills needed for delivering public welfare.
McConnell was highly effective in keeping the Republican senators in lock-step in undermining the Obama administration, completely disregarding their serious responsibilities as an equal branch of the government. As a direct result of this irresponsible obstructionism, voters got completely disillusioned with the political elite in Washington to get anything done. That back drop provided a demagogue like Donald Trump a perfect opportunity to run in the Republican primary in 2016 as an outsider populist, a successful businessman (?) who could shake up Washington and get things done. A ‘dumbed down’ Republican base, the creation of the Republican machine over the last four decades, loved his populist messaging over substance and the experience of other Republican candidates (Governors Chris Christie and Jeb Bush). The rest is recent history.
Once in the White House, Donald Trump successfully co-opted the Republican politicians in Washington since he demonstrated total control of the Republican party base. Whatever Mr. Trump said became the “truth” for the Republican party base. For more than three decades, they were trained by their leaders not to trust any evidence-based data or the mainstream media. Trump did not tolerate any dissent. He was perfectly willing to turn his base on any Republican politician who dared to oppose him. An adverse tweet from Donald Trump would make it impossible for any Republican to win his/her next election in the Republican primary to become the party’s nominee for that seat in a general election. For a professional politician, it would be a death sentence. Trump’s grip on the core of the Republican base probably explains the near paralysis or active sycophancy displayed by the Republican members of the US Congress after the election.
Like all major democracies in the world, American democracy has major flaws as it is practiced today. It is a continuing experiment and is still evolving. Apart from its highly regressive economic model for the working class, racism in America is approximately 400 years old for the blacks, over hundred years old for the Asians and Jews and between 200 and 60 years for Hispanics, depending on who you ask. During the drafting of the US constitution, a citizen asked Ben Franklin, one of the founding fathers, “What kind of government are you giving us?” Ben Franklin reportedly replied: “Republic, if you can keep it”. We, the citizens in a democracy, should never take democracy for granted. It needs to be nurtured and defended by every generation. In the modern hyper-connected world, fates of the citizens in all major democracies are inextricably linked. Rise of authoritarianism or chauvinism in one major democratic country provides oxygen to the same regressive forces in other democracies around the world.
It took American democracy four decades to descend to its current sad state. There is no guarantee that the pendulum will start swinging back immediately. It may get worse before it gets better. President Trump’s current term ends at noon on January 20. If he is impeached by the House of Representatives for his role in the January 6th insurrection which is likely and convicted by the Senate with two-thirds bipartisan majority (unlikely but possible), he will be disqualified to seek any federal office in the future. But the deep division and the vitriol he released in the US body politics are expected to live for at least the next 20 to 30 years.
So, where do we go from here in American democracy? Please stay tuned for the next dispatch from Dallas.
Based in Dallas, Texas, the writer was in the thick of US 2020 Election campaign
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