The US is no longer an authentic democracy
OPINION: A flawed electoral system means a privileged minority can impose a discriminatory agenda on the US people
As the US election season unfolds, I have tried to hold out hope that the unpopularity of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade might help Democrats to maintain control of both houses of Congress – despite the usual tendency for midterm elections to strengthen the party that does not control the presidency.
In late September, I expressed cautious optimism – emphasis on the caution – that Democrats could win with strong enough organising in states with key races. Six days away from election day, this outcome remains possible, but the polls favour Republicans to take at least the House of Representatives.
The press has a frustrating tendency to adopt a ‘horse race’ narrative, as opposed to examining how structural inequities within our electoral system – for example, the gerrymandering of congressional districts, state-level voter suppression efforts, and equal representation in the Senate by state regardless of population – favour white conservative Christians and the Republican Party.
Conventional wisdom is that increasingly difficult economic conditions matter more than social issues. Admittedly, election polls back this up. However, broader public opinion data complicates the picture, making it clear that large majorities of Americans want to protect women’s and (most) LGBTQ rights — rights that would probably rest on far firmer ground in a system with fair national representation.
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In recent years, it has become a commonplace of political punditry to lament the deep political polarisation of the US. This polarisation undoubtedly exists. A solid majority of Americans believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction – but they don’t agree about which direction. According to a new NBC News poll, 80% of Democrats and 80% of Republicans claim that the other party’s agenda “will destroy America as we know it”.
But when discussing polarisation, we should be clear that those who broadly support racist, misogynistic and anti-queer policies are a minority of Americans – who are using the unfair advantage of their disproportionate political power to advance their discriminatory agenda.
80% of Democrats and 80% of Republicans claim that the other party’s agenda ‘will destroy America as we know it’
According to a just-released report from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), three-quarters of Americans (76%) “favor laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing”. Even 63% of Republicans claim to support these protections
There is some dissonance here, however. A narrow majority of Americans (52%) believe trans people should have to use the public restrooms that correspond to their sex assigned at birth. A larger majority (62%) believe that there are only two genders – this includes 88% of Republicans and 87% of white evangelical Christians.
Meanwhile, 61% of Americans oppose the overturning of Roe, while 35% support the Supreme Court’s decision. White evangelical Protestants are the outliers here, with only 37% opposed to the decision; even most white Catholics (52%) want to see abortion rights protected.
In any system that can truly be called democratic, such a clear consensus majority would have no difficulty finding realisation in policy. But (regardless of how the midterms come out) America cannot be called an authentic democracy, because a privileged minority is able to abuse ostensibly democratic institutions, such as the court system, in order to impose its discriminatory, authoritarian agenda on the American people.
And if that fails? It seems that this motivated minority is willing to turn to even less savoury means.
As I write this column on 28 October, the US is reacting to the news that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, was violently assaulted in his home this morning . The alleged assailant appears to be a right-wing conspiracy theorist, who was reportedly searching for the Democratic political leader herself. The spectre of political violence has loomed large in the US since the 6 January 2021 insurrection, where Pelosi was also a target.
The PRRI survey finds that 19% of Americans believe that violence may be necessary to “save the country”, a position that it also finds to be closely linked to belief in QAnon conspiracy theories about a supposed cabal of paedophiles running the world and a coming “storm” that will set things right. This resurgent satanic panic is a powerful motivating force among the Republican Party’s base, and a small but potentially important ‘voter enthusiasm’ gap favours the GOP.
Ultimately, I don’t think it’s particularly fruitful to look at the midterms in isolation from the larger social, political and institutional context that’s shaping them. From a big-picture perspective, the good news is that most Americans support humane positions on most social issues. The bad news is that there is no immediately viable political path out of the impasse caused by the structural features of the US system that give white conservatives disproportionate power.
The current situation, with most Americans constantly upset at the country’s direction and distrustful of their opponents, looks unstable and unsustainable. It seems that at some point, something has to give. I only hope that when it does, we won’t get stuck with decades of white Christian nationalist minority rule.
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