/ 5 September 2023

America’s democracy is in danger

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Abortion rights activists march during a pro-choice protest following the overturn of Roe v. Wade in Washington, DC on October 8, 2022. (Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

There used to be a time when, despite the wars, coups and assassinations that the United States carried out around the world, its claim to being the “greatest democracy” would have still gone unquestioned by mainstream liberal opinion. But, no more. The US has shown the world that its democracy is as fallible as any other.

Republican Party (GOP) presidential primary candidates recently took part in the first GOP primary debate. Out of the eight hopefuls on stage only one — former Arkansas Governor, Asa Hutchinson — did not raise his hand when asked by the interviewer if they would still support Donald Trump even if he was convicted of any one of the four indictments that he faces. This raises the question of why the rest of the GOP candidates are bothering to run. Are they merely running to be Trump’s second in command? Trump leads the GOP field by the biggest margin ever and his many indictments and two impeachments have not deterred the Republican base. Trump’s own competitors have not condemned his actions that led to him being sanctioned but have rather castigated the system and the officials that have dared to put him under scrutiny. 

Trump is playing to the gallery and using the charges against him as a weapon against the system. He is exploiting the charges against him to portray himself as the one who has been wronged. It is astounding that in the “greatest democracy” Trump remains popular among the Republican base despite a host of scandals and having led an insurrection on the US Capitol in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election result. This is typical banana republic stuff. If a president in Latin America or the Middle East had behaved like Trump they would run the risk of being in line for a US-aided “colour revolution” or “regime change”. 

Moreover, in the putative bastion of democracy women are not allowed to make basic choices about their lives. The US supreme court has taken the US and American women almost a century back with its repeal of Roe vs Wade. Numerous states have now passed restrictive laws preventing women from being able to make important personal choices. Every one of the Republican primary candidates support the repeal of the abortion rights. Most would add even more restrictions, such as individual states like New York or California not having the right to allow women who need an abortion access to one, or curbing the right to an abortion to only six weeks when most women don’t even yet know they are pregnant.

The same self-declared bastion of democracy is trying to erase, rubbish and trivialise the entire history and experience of people. Led by Florida, under Governor Ron DeSantis, another person vying for the GOP nomination, more and more states have been banning books that discuss slavery and racism. The country is now denying that the US remains racist. DeSantis now even argues that slavery wasn’t all bad because it apparently taught black people skills. He and Helen Zille would make good bedfellows. Since 2022 more than 103 bills in 39 states attempting to restrict the teaching of certain topics, particularly race and gender, in schools have been passed. 

The South Carolina’s House Bill 4605  seeks to protect students from any material that might cause “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of their “race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, heritage, culture, religion, or political belief”. The apartheid regime, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union banned books, and now the US bans books. Learning, growing and developing requires that we put ourselves in uncomfortable spaces. It requires that we confront difficult issues and allow our ideas to be challenged. Restricting discomfort means we live in a world where we are in an echo chamber where it is only our views and those of people like us and those that think like us that are amplified and heard.

One of the fundamental tenets of democracy is the right to vote and many Americans and South Africans died for that right. In South Africa we now take it for granted that any person over 18 years of age can cast their vote should they choose to. In the US, however, the right to vote is not certain. A number of Republican states have been passing laws and redrawing districts in an attempt to restrict and convolute the process of voting for people of colour and thereby keep them from the ballet box. Millions, mostly poor black and Hispanic men, have been barred from voting after serving prison time.

Trump, a person who has proved time and time again to be a racist, a fraud and of questionable moral standing was able to become president. He lost an election, lied about it and tried to keep the White House by force, yet more than 70% of Republicans still believe that he won the election. Trump is the first president in US history to refuse to accept a loss at the ballot box. Nonetheless the US system has been unable to get rid of him or to keep him off the political scene. 

This has weakened the institutions of state that have kept the US’s democracy ticking over. Trump has continued to rail against the public service, undermine key institutions and continually attack the fourth estate and the very idea of the truth. By casting doubt on the democratic system and institutions, he has accelerated the breakdown of institutions and the trust in the democratic system. Despite facing four indictments, with trial set for March 2024 in the most serious of the cases against him, Trump is running again and will in all likelihood be the GOP’s presidential nominee. 

This does not tally with a US that wants to continue being the world’s policeman or the champion of democracy. Surely the US cannot continue to think of itself as better than the rest of the world when its policies and leaders sound like some of the charlatans and authoritarians it despises. 

The US’s claim to democracy and its self-proclaimed assertion as the arbiter of democratic values and the greatest democracy in the world has become a mirage. With the uninspiring, war-mongering Joe Biden being the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party we are likely to see Trump return to the White House to further entrench the anti-democratic processes he started. 

Nontobeko Hlela is an independent commentator on international relations and geopolitical issues.