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Why the US is a model of how not to be a democracy

Why the US is a model of how not to be a democracy

Democrats all over the world wait anxiously for the much-deserved departure of Donald Trump. It could be a long wait and could well extend to another four years. At the time of this article being published, the vote count appears to be leaning towards Trump. Yet, those who care for democracy, must be grateful to Trump for something. He has singlehandedly demolished one of the biggest myths of our time: the myth of the greatness of American democracy, the idea that the US was as an exemplar of democracy, a model for others to emulate. This may be a painful realisation for many. In the last instance, this is good news for Democrats.

Now, Trump should not get all the credit for demolishing the American model. He simply ensured that the whole world woke up to some of the most poorly kept secrets of American politics. Above all, he left no room to doubt that, like everywhere else, some of the top leaders in this great democracy were intellectually and morally challenged. That someone like him could bully his way to the White House and, perhaps, retain it for another term reveals something very disturbing about the American public. His mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic blurred the imaginary distinction between the first and the third world. His appointment to the Supreme Court, just before the elections, threw light on what a scandal apex judicial appointments in the US are. His not-so-hidden support for  White supremacists in the face of the #BlackLivesMatter movement exposed the underbelly of racial divisions in the US. Finally, the global attention he brought to the presidential election 2020 has served to expose the shoddy electoral system in the US. Clearly, the US could learn a thing or two from India on how to conduct elections and carry out a quick and clean count of votes.

In sum: Thanks to Donald Trump, the world learnt that the US is just one of the democracies in the world. It has its strengths and its weaknesses. It needs to learn from other democracies before it preaches the same to the rest of the world. No matter who emerges victor, the process and the outcome of the current election is bound to reinforce this lesson.

Not a model

I learnt this lesson much earlier, thanks to my friend-cum-co-author-cum-teacher, the late Alfred Stepan. A great scholar of comparative politics, Professor Stepan (and the late Juan J. Linz) could talk about intricacies of authoritarian regimes in South America, the Catalan issue in Spain or the Russian minority in Ukraine with as much ease as he would discuss the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka or the Burmese transition to democracy. He was passionate about India (an M.F. Husain in his drawing room reminded everyone of his India connect) and curious to understand every single detail of Indian politics. (He travelled to Mizoram to understand how the state returned to normalcy after 1987). I learnt a lot from him and Professor Linz while co-writing a book, Crafting State-Nations.

Towards the end of his life, Professor Stepan started reflecting on his own country, the United States, by placing it in a comparative perspective. He was no Left-wing critic of American capitalism. He was quintessentially American and passionately liberal-democrat. His conclusion, much before Trump was anywhere on the scene, was unambiguous: if the world is to democratise, the US is not a model to emulate.

I was an easy convert to this view, as I have always suspected moral claims from the global North. But I have found this a tough lesson to take across in a world obsessed with the US of A. Trump made my job easier. Today may be the right day to mention four key reasons why the US is not a model for a democracy. The first two are related to institutional design and the other two are about the nature of politics.

Flawed systems

The first is the famed but deeply flawed “presidential” system of the US. It is well known that the US-style presidential system institutes regular conflict between the legislature and the executive, leading to routine deadlocks. Alfred Stepan theorised it differently: the real problem with the presidential system of government is that it makes power indivisible and coalition making that much more difficult. This comes in the way of the power-sharing so necessary for the accommodation of diversities. Also, the American system leads to several veto points. Stepan demonstrated brilliantly that the greater the number of veto points in a political system, the higher the inequality in that society. He never failed to remind us that among the long-standing democracies, the US was the most unequal country. That is why any attempts to replicate the US-style presidential model, whether in South America or in the ex-USSR countries, has mostly been a disaster.

The second element of the US model is its unique federalism. In the US, every power is assumed to be with the state, unless specifically given to the centre. You can see this even in how they conduct national elections. Each state has its own rules of who can vote, under what procedure, when and how. Not just that, each state has its own timetable of when they would count results, whether votes received after today would be accepted and what would be the deadline for completing the count. The states zealously guard these rights in a society that is otherwise increasingly homogeneous. This was held out to a “pure” model of federalism. Stepan reminded us that this was by no means a model, that it was a feature of a certain kind of “coming together” federalisms and need not be replicated by countries where various units were already together before they adopted federalism.

The US is a textbook example of what political scientists call “symmetrical” federalism. Every federal unit has exactly the same powers. Every state, tiny or gigantic, has two seats in the US Senate. And the Senate is more powerful than the House of Representatives that reflects the population strengths of various states. Stepan pointed out that accommodation of deep diversities requires special situations to be recognised and given special treatment. Therefore, “asymmetrical” federalism of the kind we have in Canada and India is more suited for living with deep diversities. Here, too, the US is not a good model.

Trump adds to the list

Trump has added two more reasons to the list of why the US is not a model for democracies. One, Trump’s presidency has exposed how hollow the American two-party system is. Both the major parties are devoid of ideological orientation or organisational depth. Far from providing a choice, the two-party system is a model of choicelessness. Even if Biden were to win this election, he would be a paler copy of Trump, minus the vitriolic. Two, the last four years have proven how fickle, gullible and manipulable the American public opinion is. Alex de Tocqueville had noticed it more than two hundred years ago. Trump proved that the onset of mass media and social media has made it worse. Whether he wins or not, he has shown that you can get away with lies, hatred and bigotry. Worse, he has shown that you can do so in the face of the most powerful media in the world that repeatedly called him out. Clearly, free speech offers little assurance that truth shall prevail. The US is not the first place in the world to offer this sombre lesson. India is among the long list of countries to offer similar lessons.

The world awaits a new theory of democracy. Meanwhile, we can begin by celebrating the demolition of the US-led model of democracy. Not just because the dismantling of any hegemon brings vicarious pleasure. But because this realisation sets us on the right path. There is no model of democracy. There is no golden route to the finished product called democracy.

Democracy is a treacherous journey where you clear the path as you go along. This is as true of Donald Trump’s America as it is of Narendra Modi’s India.


Author: Yogendra Yadav

Published In: The print

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