Can the U.S. Democracy Be Fixed?

EDITORIAL, 31 Aug 2020

#654 | Richard Falk – TRANSCEND Media Service

I share the view that the 2020 election in the United States is above all a referendum on fascism, and for this and many other reasons I wish it produces a Biden landslide followed by a smooth transfer of political power. From the perspective of the present, this kind of benign political scenario seems unlikely to materialize. Instead, we can more realistically expect a close election, which means that if Trump wins the fascist threat grows, while if he loses, he will refuse to accept the result, charging fraud, clinging to the presidency, provoking a constitutional crisis and possibly the first coup in American history, and again fascism will thrive.

Even in the unlikely event that all goes well procedurally, it is no time to gloat about the vindication of the American version of democracy. Should Trump upset present expectations, and win in November, he will almost certainly again have the perverse peculiarities of the Electoral College to thank. Trump will have little trouble putting out of mind the awkward fact that he won although he once again as in 2016 won fewer votes than his defeated opponent. In 2020 there is absolutely no justification for counting a vote in Idaho or Montana as more valuable than a vote in California or New York due to the fact that the winner in each state gets the whole of its Electoral College vote whether the margin of victory is one vote or one million votes. Democracy as a political system loses legitimacy whenever it cannot dislodge the anachronistic quirks of its electoral system, and the real mandate of a majority of citizens is denied the fruits of victory.

As others have observed, Biden will need much more than a simple majority to win the election. He will need a landslide that overcomes not just the impacts of the Electoral College, but also that cancels the effects of Republican gerrymandering and several voter suppression practices designed especially to keep as many persons of color from voting as possible.

There are further reasons for humility about the functioning of democracy in the United States that extend beyond the electoral system. The most glaring shortcomings are associated with the absence of alternative approaches made available to the voting public on the most crucial issues confronting society. It relates to the failure of the two-party system if neither party possesses the will to advocate overcoming the distortions being wrought by plutocracy, militarism, predatory capitalism, and systemic racism.

The current American version of two-party democracy has steadily decayed due to the embedded bipartisan consensus that was originally a natural feature of the political landscape during World War II when the country was united in support of an anti-fascist war. This consensus became substantially and more dubiously reconstituted as an anti-Communist global crusade during the long Cold War. Among the harmful effects of this two-party consensus was curtailing mainstream political debate, making the outcome of national elections count for far less, making a war economy and militarized state permanent fixtures of governance, and undermining respect for international law and the authority of the UN.

It might have been hoped that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the Soviet collapse a few years later would have encouraged taking stock and a national turn toward peace. Nothing of the sort occurred during the 1990s, a wasted decade of world order opportunity.

First, attention was redirected to the plutocratic benefits accruing from the absence of an ideological alternative to market-driven economic policy. Accordingly, with the support of both political parties, the U.S. Government focused its attention on making the world safe for predatory capitalism, a set of policy priorities reflecting what became known as either ‘the Washington consensus’ or more politely, ‘neoliberal globalization.’  This economistic orientation, in effect, a capitalist version of Marxist materialism, encouraged consumerist orgies but was not satisfactory for the militarists who also wanted, and maybe required, an enemy to make the case for continuing with wartime military budgets and for restoring their self-esteem as guardians of national and global security.

The first candidate to be a post-Communist enemy was Japan, with its disciplined work force and booming economy, but it was too hard a sell as the country was the principal U.S. ally in the Pacific region. Next came Islam, and ‘the clash of civilizations,’ given temporary credibility by the 9/11 attacks, which did have the galvanizing effect of re-securitizing American foreign policy with a special emphasis on the Middle East where the energy future of the world seemed to be at stake. What ensued were disastrous military interventions ending with geopolitical setbacks, and a series of countries ending up in shambles.

Now comes China, which doesn’t challenge the West militarily or ideologically, but seems to be winning the competition for markets, economic expansionism, and technological innovativeness, and is now being cast by both wings of the American political establishment as a geopolitical adversary worth confronting. Not surprisingly, the Biden people seem as ready as the Trump autocracy to confront China and Iran, although maybe in a more measured manner, but also one that may be more disposed to invite a serious long-term engagement reinforced by a hypocritical solidarity with Hong Kong protesters and Uighur struggles for human rights. An America disgraced by its terrible performance in response to the COVID-19 challenge, is a wounded animal that has never been more at odds with the wellbeing of humanity, which urgently requires refocusing on human security, which needs to be concretized by reference to climate change, nuclear weaponry, global migration, food and worker security, demilitarization, and strengthened procedures for global cooperation. This can only happen if the militarist/plutocratic consensus is challenged from outside the party framework, by a movement rather than a political party.

The persistence of this dysfunctional consensus represents a breakdown of the social contract that shapes state/society relations in a legitimate democracy. It is a political and moral scandal that a considerable fraction of the citizenry lacks health care, affordable higher education and housing, and the society as a whole endures acute inequalities, unjust taxation, infrastructure decay, and climate change without mounting a serious challenge withing the two-party framework. Bernie Sander bravely tried twice to push the Democratic Party beyond the bipartisan consensus, but in the end both in 2016 and 2020 he was bloodied by the DNC establishment that refused to be pushed over the brink.

The Trump phenomenon is an extreme example of the global populist drift away from democracy by alienated citizenries around the world who cast their votes for demagogues who are taking advantage of democratic procedures and institutions to hollow out democracy so as to move the society toward autocracy. Such a drift reflects particular national narratives as well as a certain set of global conditions that reflect alienation from what democracy bestowed, creating a frightening receptivity to blaming the stranger or the other for the unfairness being experienced in the forms of inequality and erosion of national identity.

A final concern involves the disenfranchisement of the peoples of the world. I would maintain that a legitimate U.S. democracy in the 21st century should heed the political will of those who reside beyond the territorial boundaries of the country and owe their primary allegiance to another country. These foreigners are deeply affected by the extra-national influence exerted by the United States on their lives and livelihood, and yet are without representation or any means to register formal approval or disapproval. The U.S. by virtue of its global reach, mainly through a network of military bases, naval forces patrolling the high seas, and claims based on cyber and space security, often has more impact on foreign societies than their own government.

Should not consideration be given to some form of non-territorial enfranchisement (not necessarily a full and equal vote) that is more congruent with the realities of a networked, digital world than is the territorial sovereign state? It is time that we deploy our moral and political imagination to envision non-territorial democracy that takes account of geopolitical configurations of power as well as ecosystems that cannot function properly if subject to no source of governance with precedence over the claims of national sovereignty.  The territoriality of life on the planet has declined to the point where only multi-leveled democratic governance can hope to address humanely the multiple and diverse challenges directed at humanity as a whole.

In essence, we cannot be hopeful about the future unless we commit ourselves to the hard work of deterritorializing democracy, demilitarizing the state, pacifying geopolitics, and empowering the United Nations and international law.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019).

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2 Responses to “Can the U.S. Democracy Be Fixed?”

  1. Dedicated to the Rulers and Servants of People

    Peace education based on universally inherent five elements, viz. body, vitality, mind, intellect and spirit in every man and woman everywhere without any discrimination should be for all including for parents, teachers, current peace educators, preachers, rulers, representatives of people, bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, personnel in army and police departments and other professionals, and all minor and adult who have no access to educational institutions for natural preparation and practice of good governance leading to nonviolence.

    Politics of Good Governance for Nonviolence: The Role of Peace Education
    EDUCATION, 12 Oct 2015
    Surya Nath Prasad, Ph. D. – TRANSCEND Media Service