The United States: democracy in trouble

Godfrey Hodgson
3 September 2007

The George W Bush administration proclaimed the invasion of Iraq as part of the United States's effort to bring to the middle east the benefits of democracy. It is not a mere coincidence that this is not exactly the golden age of democracy in America itself.

Since the day when the Athenians massacred the inhabitants of Melos, imperial ventures have often incurred a cost at home that the adventurers never for one moment imagined they would have to pay.

The decision to slaughter the entire male population of the island has been pinpointed ever since by historians as the moment when the city that was the cradle of democracy abandoned its best traditions and pursued its perceived self-interest at all hazards to its reputation and its ideals.

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. He reported the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 for various British and American media, and was co-author (with Lewis Chester and Bruce Page) of the best-selling account of the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama (Viking Press, 1969).

Among his other books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); and More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006).

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles on American politics:

"The next big issue: inequality in America" (13 September 2006)

"America against itself" (19 February 2007)

"Democracy in America: the money trap" (27 March 2007)

"Queen Elizabeth meets President George" (9 May 2007)

"The lost leader" (27 June 2007)

"The politics of justice" (9 July 2007)
What, then, is the state of American democracy just over a year from the end of President Bush's shameful and incompetent administration?

A chaotic election

The administration itself is unpopular, demoralised and discredited. One by one the reckless ideologues who trampled on the decencies of the American tradition - Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Karl Rove, and lesser courtiers such as Harriet Miers, I Lewis Libby and Alberto Gonzales - have fallen away. Only the vice-president, even more contemptuous of the democratic niceties than his chief, survives.

Alone, like a warrior from the Götterdämmerung, Bush lashes defiantly about him. Before audiences carefully chosen for their ur-patriotism he threatens Iran, beating his chest like a primate facing the loss of alpha-male status.

"I will do such things", he shouts, a Lear on a heath he has blasted himself, "- What they are yet I know not - but they shall be the terror of the earth".

The Democratic opposition in the Congress, unable to give effect to the wish of three-quarters of the population to end the war, is by the measure of some polls even more unpopular than this superannuated president.

Even with the help of significant Republican defections, the Senate majority cannot override the president's veto. That is why the president can continue to defy the majority in the Congress and the country and to deny the reality of failure in Iraq.

One classic element of American democracy, as identified by Alexis de Tocqueville, namely equality, is long gone. Already the most unequal of the developed nations, the revenues of the rich continue to spiral out of sight of ordinary incomes.

The electoral system, which in 2000 came closer than at any time since 1876 to failing to choose a president without crisis, is lurching towards a vital contest in 2008 that shows incipient signs of chaos.

The states are racing to hold their primary elections as early as possible, to attract media attention and hold on to some influence over the nomination.

The Democratic party has given Florida, the fourth most populous state, thirty days to change its mind about holding the earliest primary of all, or be stripped of its vote at the nominating convention.

California, the greatest prize of all, with fifty-five votes in the electoral college, is contemplating changing the rules so as to split its vote. At least twenty states will hold their elections by the first week in February 2008. That means the most expensive primaries in history, and the longest and most expensive general election campaign ever.

Already the stench of money, paid to buy access and thereby influence, hangs over the political system. Washington throngs with lobbyists. The press reports candidates largely in terms of how much money they have raised or will be able to raise.

Some of the most serious candidates, such as John McCain, are virtually eliminated by a blend of unpopular policies and inadequate financing. The billionaire mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, is threatening to do a Ross Perot and buy a kind of casting vote for himself.

More than ever before, it is certain that the next administration will be run by men and women qualified not by experience of elected politics, but by careers as mercenaries in electoral campaigning.

A corroded ethos

It is not just the electoral system that is in trouble, however.

The very ark of the covenant of the American constitutional system - namely, the tripartite division between the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches of government - has been crushed by the arrogant conservative and neo-conservative politicians and office-holders.

Republican congressmen like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay - both, incidentally, now more or less discredited by scandal - rode roughshod over the opposition and the conventions in the Congress.

Scandals, financial, sexual and constitutional, have broken down the civilities that in the past lubricated the clash of interests in a legislature that must accommodate the needs and aspirations of 300 million Americans.

This administration has introduced a whole series of new and profoundly undemocratic customs. This president has gone farther than any of his predecessors in "interpreting" legislation so as to make it plain he intended to ignore it as much as he dares.

Both the George W Bush administration and its Clinton predecessor openly politicised the appointment of federal judges. Now the current administration has been caught extending the same crude partisanship to the appointment of federal prosecutors. That is the meaning of the virtually forced resignation of the attorney-general, Alberto Gonzales, Bush's old cup-bearer from Texas politics, he who pronounced the Geneva conventions to be "quaint".

At the moment, America democracy has come close to breakdown in the most practical terms. The legislature cannot legislate. The executive finds it hard to execute. And the judiciary is no longer protected from interference by a separation of powers that is often honoured in the breach.

In 2004, George W. Bush was able - largely thanks to the national horror at the terrorist attacks of September 2001 - to improve slightly on his electoral performance in 2000, when many believe he did not win the election at all. He promptly announced that he had acquired political capital and meant to spend it.

He has achieved virtually none of the goals he chose to spend it on. Abroad, he has won no democracy, no honour and not even oil from Iraq. At home, no "reform" (read privatisation) of social security, a failed policy of educational opportunity, and no reform of an immigration system that has divided even a Republican party that was supposed to march in lockstep.

The news media, once notable for its independence and impartial to the brink of tedium, is now shrilly partisan. Rupert Murdoch's Fox News has changed the rules in television, and now he has acquired the Wall Street Journal, one of the three most important newspapers in the country. He says it will not be "foxed". Few believe him.

No wonder if the country is polarised, bitter, disillusioned with politics, and increasingly cynical about the political process. Is this merely the doing of a foolish president, surrounded by a clique of conceited and ideologically blinkered courtiers? Will all be made whole after 2008?

A new consensus

In the past nothing has been more impressive about the American political system than its capacity to recover from periods of mediocre or misguided leadership.

After William McKinley came Theodore Roosevelt, and after Herbert Hoover came Franklin Roosevelt. When Richard Nixon broke all the rules and decencies to make sure he won the 1972 election (quite unnecessarily in terms of crude political calculation), every level of American political society responded as it should have done.

The police court, the grand jury, the federal courts, the news media (after a shaky start), the Senate committee, the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives and the House itself, and ultimately the Supreme Court, all did their duty. The country was the cleaner and the stronger because everyone, or everyone except a few extreme Republican partisans, knew that it was so.

It may be harder to clear up this mess. Much depends on the tone, as well as the substance, of the 2008 campaign.

One of the great American innovations in the 19th century was the balloon-frame house. It owed its strength, not to the thickness of its posts and beams, but to the way the weight of the structure was widely distributed. Always in the past, that has been the strength of the American constitutional system.

It ought to work again. But much has changed. The political system has been concentrated in Washington, drenched in money, captured by dogma, jammed by anger, and for the time being largely severed from popular feeling and the sound instincts of the "plain people".

It is hard to overstate the importance of the 2008 election. It is forty years since a new era of Republican conservative ascendancy began with Richard Nixon's defeat of Hubert Humphrey in the shadow of Vietnam.

Next year, it will be time for a new consensus. A good place to start would be by emphasising the need to rebuild American democracy at home, rather than on imposing it abroad.

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