Why America today is a politically broken land
Democrats control the White House but the Right wields real institutional power. There is a fundamental clash in values. And there is no consensus on the rules of the game
America is politically broken. And this is reflected in three clear ways.
One, power is diffused. With Joe Biden’s election and the Democratic win in the House and the Senate, liberals, on paper, wield federal executive and legislative power. Going by the popular vote, Democrats represent the majority opinion. But a closer look reveals that the Right wields real institutional power.
This was most visible in the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on guns, abortion, and the climate. Together, the decisions represent the triumph of social illiberalism and economic conservativism. Donald Trump’s nomination of three new justices has given the Right medium-term dominance over the court. This also allows the court to selectively throw issues back to Congress, as in the case of the environment where they read down the power of federal agencies, or to states as in the case of abortion.
But when you go to the states or the legislature, the Right prevails again.
Senate rules mean that unless a party has 60 of the 100 votes, it encounters the filibuster, a provision that allows any legislator to obstruct significant legislation by prolonging the debate. To overcome this, a party needs 51 votes to suspend filibuster requirements. The Democrats neither have 60 votes to push through their key legislative agenda, be it codifying a national law to protect abortion or voting rights, nor 51 votes to suspend the filibuster, given the opposition from within the party to tweak Senate rules. This means that Republicans, even without a majority, can effectively exercise a veto in the federal legislature.
In 23 states, the Republicans control the entire government apparatus, with party governors and a majority in both the State House and State Senate. There are nine other states where Republicans control the State Senate, another eight states where they control the State House, and another five states where they have governors. This means, in total, Republicans control 32 Senates, 30 Houses, and 28 governors at the state level. This gives them a huge edge in a system where state rights are constitutionally protected and are now in the process of being expanded.
Two, this diffusion of power, natural in a democratic system that prioritises checks and balances, is accompanied by a core clash in values.
The Republican Party is no longer the party of classical conservatism, but of the extreme Right. It has tapped into white male anxieties over the demographic and political transition underway in the country.
The right to abort and the right to access contraceptives directly enhanced women’s control over their bodies and led to an increase in their educational levels, workforce participation and political power. Today, fearful of how this has eroded patriarchy, the Republicans are attacking precisely these rights. The growing climate of acceptance around Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Intersex Asexual (LGBTQIA+) rights saw legislation and judicial verdicts in favour of same-sex relationships and marriages. Today, fearful of what this means for their conception of an ideal Christian family, the Republicans are attacking the pedagogy around these issues.
The political empowerment of African-Americans and affirmative action gave black voices a seat at the high table, reflected in Barack Obama’s election as president, and created a robust black middle class. Today, fearful of precisely this power, the Republicans are attacking the right to vote and affirmative action. Immigrants, both from Asia and Central and South America, through hard work and persistence, rose up the American social, economic and political power system, and helped sustain American capitalism and economic edge. Today, fearful of this shift in demography, the Republicans are peddling the Great Replacement Theory — an absurd conspiracy that suggests elites are working to replace “native Americans”, read whites, with immigrants and people of colour.
In the immediate context, the Republicans have an edge due to the peculiarities of America’s electoral system where the electoral college, rather than popular vote, determines who becomes president and equal representation of all states in the Senate gives Republican states in the Midwest and south a disproportionate voice in the legislature. They also have an edge because of their ability to leverage contradictions within the more marginalised, as seen in increased Hispanic support for conservatives.
But in the longer term, the Democratic vision of a more inclusive America is more sustainable. Unlike India, where the constituency for liberalism is weak, in America, it is robust. African-Americans, women, sexual minorities, immigrants, and progressive Whites may not be on the same page on all issues, but none of them will allow an erosion of their rights without a pushback. It is a matter of a few electoral cycles, but if the Democrats keep up the ideological challenge and build coalitions, they have arithmetic on their side.
But the transition will be messy because of the third broken feature of American politics. Institutions no longer have the ability to manage the diffusion of power and mediate the core clash in values.
Two constitutional principles — the peaceful transfer of power and the independence and legitimacy of the judiciary — are under strain. A large segment of Republicans buys Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen. And a large segment of the Democrats has no faith in the judiciary. So, both electoral and non-electoral ways of resolving conflicts are in disrepair.
History shows that it is always a mistake to underestimate the US’s capacity for introspection and renewal. But a power structure where the Republicans exercise far more control over institutions than majority opinion would dictate; a clash in values where the Republican vision has electoral appeal at the moment and the Democratic promise will take time to materialise into sustainable political coalitions; and a breakdown in a consensus on the rules of the game, means that America is not just broken. It may remain broken for the foreseeable future.
The views expressed are personal
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