Is American democracy failing its people?


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The impeachment process in the US Congress is over, with former President Trump being acquitted. Both sides of America’s political divide now claim victory. Michael von der Schulenburg argues that all sides have lost, and that American democracy is failing its people. More than ever in the past, the impeachment, a political rather than a juridical process, revealed that the basic consensus among the country’s political and intellectual leadership on which democracy must rest no longer exists. This will make it impossible for them to unite an increasingly divided country. While we tend to blame Trump for the deep divisions in American society, the problem may be far deeper; all sides of American political divide carry responsibility for the situation Americans find themselves in today.

In making his arguments, Schulenburg draws parallels between what happens in the US with what he experienced during the 34 years he worked for the United Nations in mostly fragile and failing states in which often governments ended up fighting an array of armed non-state actors. At first sight, any comparison between the US and countries such as ex-Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria or Libya, to name only a few, may seem a folly. The US is a rich country with strong institutions, highly educated strata, and a long democratic tradition. How can we even remotely compare developments in the US, the leader of the free world, with what happened in those countries.

Schulenburg does not claim that the United States will turn into a failing state, but he wants to make us aware that key political aspects over which so many weaker states have collapsed, can now also be found in the US. If right, this would be a worrying observation that should make us all think if confrontations with what we may consider a populist ‘red’ America is the best option.

Schulenburg has made his arguments in an exchange of e-mailed letters with Roberto Savio, the well-known political commentator and activist, and founder of Inter Press Services. WSI Magazine is publishing Schulenburg’s letter as is, to preserve the spontaneity and personal touch of his interesting perspectives.

Dear Roberto,

Let me here add to our interesting discussion about political developments in the United States and the role of intellectual elites in them. As you know, I am not part of any intellectual or political circuit and my experiences are almost entirely based on years in many trouble spots around the world, mostly, though, in the non-Western world. Because of this, I have a somewhat different perspective of what is happening in the United States and how best to respond to this. These are, of course, very personal observations.

I do not want to exaggerate or pretend that I am an expert on US politics, but present developments in the United States remind me of what I have seen happening in the many countries I worked in where states began failing and descending into armed conflicts with violent opposition groups. I know, the US is a rich country with a highly educated society, well established institutions and long democratic tradition and will, hopefully, be far away from turning into a troubled state plagued by armed opposition groups. However, the very fact that one can draw parallels between what happens in the United States and developments in failing states is shocking enough and should set off alarm bells.

There are five such aspects that are typical precursors for countries sliding into violent intrastate conflicts. We can observe similar aspects in the US too.

Deepening geographical divisions

I copy a detailed map of the results of the US 2020 presidential elections that the NYT had recently published. The map looks predominantly red, the colour where Trump had gained a majority. There are districts where Trump won over 90% of the votes. If completed with the voting results from the remaining US states of Alabama, Montana, Indiana, Virginia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, and California, the map would certainly become redder; only California may be different. Geographically at least, America seems a Trump country. Biden’s win appears to be limited to the more populous urban centres as well as to pockets on the East and West coast. In other words, Biden may have won the popular vote, but Trump certainly won the geographical vote.

This is of political significance. That the country is not only politically, but also socially and geographically, divided will fuel feelings of “them against us” and make it easier for violent opposition to emerge.

An extremely detailed map of the results of the 2020 US Presidential Elections © NYT

Truth is the first victim in any conflict

Truth is always the first victim in any conflict. Ask any of the Trump and Biden supporters what happened during the storming of Congress, the answers will be vastly different. All the video footage is unlikely to change this. Even a straightforward question if two or five people got killed during the storming of Congress will be answered differently, depending on political perspectives. The reason is that in politics perceptions and not facts matter. During ‘normal’ times, this will not be a problem, but during times of heightened tensions, this could turn vicious.

In such a situation, trying to discover a truth will not be possible; there is no one truth. From working in conflict countries, I know that the stupidest thing to do was to ask conflict parties about the facts of what had happened. They will never reach an agreement. Should you make in addition the mistake to indicate what you consider has happened, you will be finished as a mediator. The better approach is trying to make each side understand what the fears, motives and hopes are that drives the actions of the other side. Understanding does not mean accepting each other’s views, but it is the first step to calm the situation, gain the time and create an atmosphere to seek common solutions. I cannot see anyone in America doing this.

Seeing opponents as enemies

Not only Trump supporters call their opponents’ awful names, we, too, speak of white supremacists, tattooed right-wing extremists, religious fundamentalists, misguided believers in crazy conspiracy theories, or worse, fascists. It has the effect that we begin seeing others as enemies. With this, all communication will break down. Not only that, but we also tend to brand those who do still speak to the “others” as traitors. The ‘who is not with me is against me’ attitude betrays the worst mindset in political life.

And it is a precursor for the worst troubles ahead. I remember from the Balkans that Serbs and Croats who were killing each other were not aware of their ethnic or religious identities only a year earlier (indeed, if there were any such “identities”, to a degree at least, they seemed to me imagined). In Baghdad, I remember that Sunni and Shite vigilante groups would stop busses to check identity cards to seek out the first names of male passengers. Those names would “betray’ passengers as being either Sunni or Shite. If a male passenger got trapped by a vigilante group of the opposite “religion”, he ended up killed and dumped on the side of the road. It did not help that they may have been from the same Arab tribe.

I don’t know when and how we reach this point of seeing the others simply as mortal enemies, but what I know is that we must prevent this from happening.

Declining trust in democratic institutions

States begin to fail when the trust in their institutions fails. In the US, trust in the government is extremely low; if asked, about 70% to 80% of Americans (that means Trump and Biden supporters alike) express unfavourable views. Congress regularly scores the lowest, lower even than trust in the Presidency (even under Trump). The storming of Congress might hence have more sympathies within the general public than we would like.

I have no doubt that Biden won the Presidency, but I also believe that the US electoral system needs reform. Postal ballots are notoriously difficult to control, especially in the US which has no central voter registration. I also do not know of any other democratic country that allows postal votes to be counted that arrived ten days after the election day. Different election laws in each of the 50 States and the form of indirectly voting are further undermining the credibility of presidential elections. Although we saw the highest voter turnout for years in 2020, voter participation in elections could drastically drop again. Already now, the largest political force in the US (and increasingly also in Europe) are non-voters. If elections fail, differences might increasingly be fought over in the streets.

To restore the credibility in government institutions and the electoral system would need both political parties to cooperate, but at the present time, this appears highly unlikely. So, we have a vicious cycle: while failing institutions drive the conflict among communities, their divisions make it impossible to strengthen these institutions.

Availability of arms and a willingness to use them

The US is a country where people are heavily armed. The 2017 Small Arms Report estimated that the number of assault weapons (including machine guns) in private hands exceeds the number of people living in the US. In fact, no US authority knows how many arms are circulating in the country. An added problem is that the political divisions go as well through the ranks of the US police, armed forces and National Guards. It is telling that the FBI had to check on the members of the National Guards before they were deployed to protect the inauguration of President Biden. Compared to other democratically governed countries, the bar to use arms in conflicts is exceptionally low in the US. Already in “normal times” about 15,000 people get killed by firearms in the US every year – that are more people killed in a year than in most civil wars around the world. We are literally playing with fire.

Dear Roberto, if I am even remotely right with this assessment, America has passed the point at which condemning Trump will bring a solution. In such a situation, CNN becomes just as guilty as some right-wing propagandists. The country cannot afford to have 80 million voters facing off 74 million voters as enemies. We must change the narrative and seek to understand why, after four years of an erratic Trump Presidency, more people voted for him than in 2016. This may indicate a deep disillusionment with government and political processes, hence issues that we must take seriously.

And are America’s intellectual elites with their often highly partisan views failing their country? The media – at least the media I follow – is now falling over each other to condemn Trump and his supporters. It is easy to belittle those who voted for Trump, but wouldn’t it be more important to understand them? In a way, our support for the impeachment process reveals our ambivalence with American voters. As Trump had already left office, the impeachment’s only objective was to prevent Trump from standing in elections again. This would imply that, deep down, we mistrust the American voters and fear that they could bring Trump back into office. This should remind us that in a democracy the voters decide. If we continue pushing 74 million Trump voters into a corner instead of engaging them, we may pay the price in four years.

America has primarily not a Trump problem; the problems are much deeper. American society is drifting apart. I fear that the emotional lying-in-state of a killed police officer or a dramatic impeachment process may only further divide the country. Seeing the small, fragile, and respectable Nancy Pelosi walking through Congress, dressed all in black with an oversized black Corona mask she presents a disillusioned politician and not one of hope and renewal. I sympathize with her. She must have been subjected to terrible abuses by a massive and boisterous Donald Trump, but now, I fear, she missed her moment of greatness she could have had if she had shown graciousness. Instead of expressing outrage and categorically denouncing all those who stormed Congress as a vicious mob and insurgents, she could have called on all side of the political spectrum to step back and reflect for a moment on what has gone wrong in America to let it come to this point. The storming of Congress may have been triggered by a Trump speech, but it is also them cumulation of years of highly partisan US politics that had begun long before Trump.

In the NYT, I found a quote from the brother of the young woman who was shot and killed during the storming of Congress:

My sister was 35 and served 14 years — to me that’s the majority of your conscious adult life. If you feel like you gave the majority of your life to your country and you’re not being listened to, that is a hard pill to swallow. That’s why she was upset.

This doesn’t sound like she was an enemy. The killed Capitol police officer, Brian Sicknick and the killed Trump supporter, Ashli Babbit – I mention both their names deliberately to underline that all violent conflicts are “built” on personal tragedies – may hence have much in common. They both were lifted out of obscurity and lost their lives in an event they did not control. They both must be a warning to us not to allow the situation to deteriorate to what I have seen in the Balkans, in Iraq and in so many other places.

All the best,