Broken Democracy

THIS is why HRC feels safe and why Trump says the system is rigged. Add in Jeb Bush and George  Soros’ control over the voting machinery and you realise there is no hope of democracy.

Prisoner? Can’t vote, along with the deregistered Backs, Hispanics and people in old folk’s homes.

Less than 50% of Americans vote to start with, and,with everyone knowing it is rigged – why would they bother?

Just like ‘Globalism’, ‘Democracy’ is just a buzzword for the masses that wraps the lies in gift paper and tinsel then forces it down the throats of the 99%. A lie, repeated loud and long, becomes the truth. Orwell’s “Good is bad”, chanted from the propaganda channels of CNN and Fox, from newspapers and televisions. “Trust in God and the flag” (Because you can’t trust the Government).

Washington: When I need to escape, I head to the verdant valleys and slave-built stonewalls of Virginia’s Rappahannock County, light years from the failed-state cacophony of Washington 130 kilometres to the east.

But it doesn’t always work. Last northern autumn my mate Bill came through, and during dinner on the terrace at Tula’s, one of the local hangouts, I carelessly uttered a term to describe the US that I usually reserve for conversation with foreigners – “a nation of idiots”.

At first, Bill let it pass. But then he circled back. “You don’t understand,” he told me indignantly. “This country is built on a great history.”

And late in the northern summer just ended, as my neighbour Ira and I paid homage to a bottle of red at a winery just over the hill, another harsh judgment escaped my lips: “America is a caricature of democracy.”

Can anyone hear the voters of America?
Can anyone hear the voters of America? Photo: New York Times

Ira too was taken aback.

“You need a framework to view the dysfunction in Congress,” he began. As the level in the bottle dropped, he patiently took me through yesterday’s heroes and today’s rogues; how co-operation became obstruction; Newt Gingrich going off the reservation; the distorting impact of 24/7 cable news.

Please – another bottle!

This crazy campaign to elect a 45th president, a choice between the two least trusted candidates ever to seek the White House, a circus focusing more on penises than policies, is just the latest in a long line of sick jokes at the expense of a nation of 320 million by a self-serving political class that has pretty well broken every democratic bone in the body politic.

The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision has turned politics into a closed shop for all but the most wealthy.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has turned politics into a closed shop for all but the most wealthy. Photo: New York Times

Americans now think more highly of cockroaches than of their Congress – as few as 20 per cent trust Washington to do what is right. But, instead of fighting for their own best interests, voters view the collapse and chaos as spectators, hostages to a process in which they have become powerless.

Polarisation is more toxic than ever and the two Americas literally can’t stand each other – half of Republicans and a third of Democrats say they’d be unhappy if a son or daughter married someone from the other party.

Demonstrators call for a Democracy Awakening outside Congress, but citizens across the country don't seem to believe ...
Demonstrators call for a Democracy Awakening outside Congress, but citizens across the country don’t seem to believe their votes can make a difference. Photo: New York Times

Amidst gridlock in Washington, the parties don’t connect. The nation’s founders insisted on a process of bargains and compromise, but today’s tribal warriors will have none of that – so landmark legislation like Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank Act, the antidote to the catastrophic 2007 financial collapse, were carried with zero Republican votes.

A Texas senator thinks he’s the Lone Ranger and actually manages to shut down the entire government. Members of Congress become independent contractors – picture Obama on bended knee, pleading with members of his own party to support Obamacare; and the Tea Party hatchet men, 70 per cent of whose followers disapprove of their own congressional leadership, hold those same leaders to ransombecause ideologically they must never compromise – political enemies have to be destroyed.

Lone Ranger: When Ted Cruz shut down the government in 2013 he acted against the will of most Americans and many leaders ...
Lone Ranger: When Ted Cruz shut down the government in 2013 he acted against the will of most Americans and many leaders of his own party, but in concert with the desires of a narrow ideological clique. Photo: New York Times

Ousted by his own in 2015, Republican House speaker John Boehner explained his predicament as he sloped into the night: “You learn that a leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk.”

Organised labour has been decimated and the elite gorge themselves in the midst of obscene income disparity. But wage stagnation didn’t just pop from the ether – it was created to enrich the privileged at the expense of the unwashed. The moneyed class has bought the political process – but it took an absurd Supreme Court decision called Citizens United to let them close the deal.

Americans have a higher opinion of cockroaches than they do of their representatives in Congress.
Americans have a higher opinion of cockroaches than they do of their representatives in Congress. Photo: New York Times

We’re into the 21st century, but at times it might be the Dark Ages. InFlint, Michigan, much of the city was made to drink lead-poisoned water. The whole country is swept by an epidemic of opioid addiction, killing as many as 50,000 people a year – and Congress is accused of being more sensitive to protecting Big Pharma’s $US9 billion-a-year opioid trade than to remedying the cause.

Secretaries pay more tax than hedge fund managers. A fat cat like Donald Trump pays no income tax at all; and he gets away with writing up the business losses he inflicted on others as his own,thereby incurring a billion-dollar tax write-off.

Senate Minority leader Harry Reid on the steps of the Capitol.
Senate Minority leader Harry Reid on the steps of the Capitol.  Photo: New York Times

No surprise then, that research confirms that politically, ordinary Americans are virtually powerless. A landmark 2014 study by Martin Gilens, of Princeton, and Benjamin Page, at Northwestern, found the majority in the US does not rule: “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organised interests, they generally lose … the impact of average citizens’ preferences [is] …near-zero.”

The US has dropped to 20th on the Economist Intelligence Unit’sranking of democracies – down three places since 2007, it’s now tucked in below Uruguay.

Confounded: Republican leaders John McCain and Mitch McConnell find themselves at odds with their supporters and the new ...
Confounded: Republican leaders John McCain and Mitch McConnell find themselves at odds with their supporters and the new breed of “freelance” Republicans in Congress. Photo: New York Times

And still Americans affect a certain disdain for the rest of the world, tying their historic virtues in a package of red, white and blue ribbons and calling it “American exceptionalism”.

But former Democratic congressional adviser Tad Daley detects an unravelling: “More and more Americans have a vague and increasing sense that our government is simply incapable of addressing basic challenges like immigration, guns, entitlements, trade, climate and environment, privacy and security, the federal budget, spiralling inequity, money in politics … or even a health emergency like the Zika virus.

'Maybe an appetite for authoritarianism created him': Donald Trump in North Carolina this week.
‘Maybe an appetite for authoritarianism created him’: Donald Trump in North Carolina this week. Photo: New York Times

“It’s no longer hyperbole to say that American democracy is broken,” he concludes.

Enter Donald Trump, the nasty candidate, of whom one of the pundits opined: “Maybe he didn’t create an appetite for authoritarianism. Maybe an appetite for authoritarianism created him.”

Having taken the masses for granted, US politicians are now experiencing a backlash which Trump has exploited.
Having taken the masses for granted, US politicians are now experiencing a backlash which Trump has exploited. Photo: New York Times

Thanks to Trump, we learned that the GOP’s supporters are not as conservative as the right-wing radio talkshow hosts whom the party’s establishment had blithely thought would keep the rank-and-file in line.

That same rank and file’s visceral response to Trump’s opposition to global trade deals, his savage attacks on migrants, his defence of social security and other entitlement programs that the GOP was forever insisting must be cut, is a detonation that will reverberate through the party long after this election – that is, if the party survives.

Ohio senator Rob Portman speaks at a Lincoln Day dinner earlier this year. Trump's rejection of Republican orthodoxy has ...
Ohio senator Rob Portman speaks at a Lincoln Day dinner earlier this year. Trump’s rejection of Republican orthodoxy has shaken the party to its core. Photo: New York Times

Former GOP congressman Tom Davis says the leadership thought “we’re smart, they’re stupid”. But ordinary Americans were not so stupid as to not feel the pain of a near 50 per cent cut in median net worth in the aftermath of the 2007-09 Great Recession. If they didn’t lose their own home, they knew someone who did; and as jobs disappeared and wages flattened, more than half of GOP voters turned against the holiest of GOP sacred cows: free trade.

The populists were rejecting not just the elite, but their movement’s intellectuals as well.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton sold globalisation as the “bridge we built to the 21st century” – but on crossing, most Americans found it was just another version of Sarah Palin’s infamous bridge to nowhere.

Ordinary Americans were utterly unsurprised by an economist’s report that shocked Western governments early in 2016 – on sifting 25 years of data, Branko Milanovic revealed that a global process of wealth redistribution was afoot, but unevenly.

It turns out globalisation’s winners were Asia’s emerging middle and upper classes and the West’s notorious one-percenters, all of whose real incomes had almost doubled since the 1980s.

But the American and European working and middle classes were the biggest losers – their earnings barely shifted. And nobody in the corridors of power, Republican or Democrat, seemed to care too much.

In hindsight, that the GOP deception held for so long is remarkable. As set out by The New Yorker’s George Packer, it was an impossible construct:

“[2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt] Romney, who belonged to a class that greatly benefited from cheap immigrant labor, had to pretend to be outraged by the presence of undocumented workers. Lower-middle-class Midwestern retirees who depended on Social Security had to ignore the fact that the representatives they kept electing, like [House Speaker] Paul Ryan, wanted to slash their benefits.

“Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan returned to Indiana and Texas embittered at having lost their youth in unwinnable wars, while conservative pundits like Bill Kristol kept demanding new [wars] – but their shared contempt for liberal elites kept them from noticing the Republican Party’s internal conflicts.”

Clear proof this deception had been seen through came in the madness of the March primaries, when a Trump supporter told The New York Times: “I want to see Trump go up there and do damage to the Republican Party.” And from his buddy: “We’re going to use Trump to either take over the GOP or blow it up.”

Meanwhile another insurgent candidate, the bluff Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, became a serious threat to Hillary Clinton’s presumed ownership of the Democratic nomination by espousing the same trade-and-jobs arguments as Trump, and stoking the anger and anxiety of millennials burdened with fat college debts and minimal job prospects.

Bernie Sanders captured the votes of  Democrats who feel disenfranchised with his appeal for a new compact between people and their government.Bernie Sanders captured the votes of Democrats who feel disenfranchised with his appeal for a new contract between people and their government. Photo: New York Times

The Democrats are not without their problems – they like a good trade deal too. But the crisis is more acute on the right. Ben Domenech, publisher of the conservative Federalist magazine, puts it this way: “Trumpism is not the same as populism or the New Right, and it speaks to something much worse than an intellectual crisis – it’s what happens when no one trusts anyone any more.”

Some find it challenging that so much blame is heaped on the Republican Party, but that’s the considered view of many – inside and outside the party.

In a seminal work – published first in 2012 as It’s Even Worse than it Looks and updated in 2016 as It’s Even Worse Than it Was – the respected DC duo Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein write: “The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

“When one party moves this far from the centre of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country’s most pressing challenges.”

Still, not enough Americans wanted to do anything about it. When Arabs had had enough of their overlords, they attempted a revolt, rising-up and paying in blood in what became known as the Arab Spring. American are required merely get off the couch, pop around the corner and cast a damned vote – but still no American Spring.

Belgians [87 per cent], Turks [84 per cent] and Swedes [83 per cent] head to the polls in droves; but Americans can’t be bothered – in 2012, just 54 per cent voted, a turnout that ranked 31 among the 35 OECD countries. And that’s among registered voters – in a country in which voting is not compulsory, an estimated 50 million more “could-be” voters are not on the rolls.

How the gerrymander works

To the extent that the rigging of the system is such a distortion, Americans might be forgiven their resignation.

In other developed countries independent commissions draw boundaries by a set of national rules; in the US, the task is commandeered as war booty by the party in power in each state, whose weapon of choice is mapping technology that is so refined, they can surgically excise a residential block or even a single house from a district to gerrymander the result they want.

The only ballot that matters, then, is the ideologically-driven primary election to select the dominant party’s candidate, a smaller, intra-party contest in which would-be nominees skew towards an uncompromising diehard base – as few as four per cent of all eligible voters in the district.

So another extremist congressman packs his bags for DC where, instead of representing his constituents he’ll represent the interests of his corporate donors – those who’ll fund his campaigns and those who’ll give him a cushy job when he’s done with Congress.

In the first dozen of the 2016 primaries, only 17 per cent of eligible GOP voters participated; just 12 per cent of Democrats. So that early, commanding lead that became Trump’s springboard to the GOP nomination was based on a fraction of a fraction of nothing.

Take Massachusetts, where egregious boundary rigging more than 200 years ago gave us the term “gerrymander” – because the Democrats have the game stitched up, their primary contests are the only elections that matter, so the 62 per cent of Massachusetts voters who are Republican or independent are disenfranchised.

The Democrats have also sliced and diced Maryland, Connecticut and Illinois. But elsewhere, it’s the Republicans who shamelessly wield the redistricting scalpel.

You can’t even call it a deceit – the late Paul Weyrich, the religious conservative figurehead, laid it all out in the 1980s: “I don’t want everyone to vote – our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

And just weeks before the 2010 census, GOP strategist Karl Rove wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal that carried the headline: “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.”

Rove and GOP corporate backers invested $30 million in what becameREDMAP, perfectly legal but nonetheless a scam – going all-out in state elections, they captured 675 seats in state legislatures, by which they were able to seize redistricting power over 40 per cent of federal House seats – compared with just 10 per cent in Democratic control.

In a subsequent GOP-controlled redistricting frenzy, Democrat voters were so packed into contorted urban seats that at the 2012 election the Republicans reaped a bonanza, in seven states in particular: Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

With 107 seats up for grabs in those states, the parties polled neck and neck – GOP, 16.7 million votes; Democrats, 16.4 million votes – by which an evenish 54-53 party split of the seats might have been expected. Instead, the Republicans ‘won’ 73 seats to the Democrats’ 34 seats and Karl Rove’s thesis that control of redistricting would deliver control of Congress was proved.

District boundaries are so uncompetitive that only 33 of 435 house seats are deemed to be genuinely competitive in the 2016 election. Even a uniform 6 per cent swing to the Democrats will not deliver control of the House to them.

The quest to ‘shrink’ democracy

On a nod from the Supreme Court in 2013, more than 20 states began another exercise in crimping democracy, ruthlessly rolling back voting rights. In the same year, the man who now is governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, parried charges that his state’s latest gerrymander was racially motivated, explaining: “[It’s] designed to increase the Republican Party’s electoral prospects at the expense of the Democrats.”

But if a gerrymander doesn’t disenfranchise a voter, there’s a good chance that one of a raft of Republican-backed voter suppressions will – all dressed up as necessary to counter electoral fraud, which is virtually non-existent in the US.

In Georgia, which seemingly became more competitive in the lead-up to this election, civil rights activists were fighting to thwart Republican tricks to block likely Democrat voters – as many as 100,000 new voter registrations simply were not being processed; in one of the biggest counties, just one early-voting station was opened; in a predominantly black precinct, there was a bid to move a polling station from a gymnasium to the less-friendly confines of the sheriff’s office; pleas to extend voter registration deadlines because hurricane Matthew had blown through were denied; and in a spurious purge of almost 35,000 names from the rolls, 64 per cent were black – just 14 per cent white.

That 2013 Supreme Court decision was based on a belief by the justices that deliberate racial discrimination was a thing of the past. But affronted by the GOP’s immediate resort to Jim Crow tactics, the courts have taken to ripping them apart, in language that is astounding.

In a ‘gotcha!’ decision against North Carolina in July, the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit accused the state legislature of targeting African-American voters with “almost surgical precision”.

In North Carolina, the Republican gerrymandering was so preposterous that the Democrats, who actually won 51 per cent of the midterm vote in 2012, captured just four out of the state’s 13 seats in the US Congress.

In striking down new Wisconsin voter restrictions that were sold as a counter to voter fraud, US District Judge James Peterson was withering, observing that the state “could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past”.

The tricks vary from state to state: put fewer polling stations in minority communities; get the cops to harass them about their voter registration; insist on them producing the kind of photo ID they are least likely to have; set aside their votes if they can’t prove US citizenship; restrict access to absentee and early voting; and launch criminal investigations into voter registration drives.

Behind all this voter suppression, there’s a serious push among conservatives to “shrink” democracy.

A vocal proponent of this is Trump supporter and Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel – he seriously argues that capitalism has to be saved from democracy. The gist of Thiel’s argument is that the creation of the welfare state and allowing women to vote has empowered too many people who are hostile to capitalism.

The Federalist’s David Harsanyi is a believer too. In an op-ed in The Washington Post earlier this year, he shamelessly urged the “weeding out of millions of irresponsible voters who can’t be bothered to learn the rudimentary workings of the Constitution, or their preferred candidate’s proposals or even their history”.

Trump’s riff about “real” Americans – “we” native-born whites, against the black and brown “others” – plays to the same ideal. In the glory days that the GOP candidate promises to restore, the riff-raff would be kept in their place.

Trump is right – things are rigged; Americans, all of them, do need to take back their country. But as much as the GOP candidate likes to think everything is about him, the truth is that a vast conspiracy, to coin a Clintonism, has been accomplished in the broad light of day – but the victims are the American people.

In a recent Gallup poll 67 per cent of voters said Trump has neither the personality nor the leadership qualities for the presidency. They at least, appreciate that the makeover America needs requires more intellect and sophistication than, say, gatecrashing a house party.

So Hillary Clinton gets the nod? That would be a pity too – as a status quo candidate she represents more of the same; perhaps some tinkering at the edges, but certainly none of the root-and-branch surgery that this country needs.

Hillary Clinton: more of the same, not the root-and-branch reform the US system needs.Hillary Clinton: more of the same, not the root-and-branch reform the US needs. Photo: AP

This week I found Ira in Atlanta. Breaking from a conference where he was speaking on leadership, he told me he still thought that “caricature of democracy” was a bit harsh.

But almost 230 years on from the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, at which such heroes as Washington, Madison and Hamilton stitched together a document which today is fought over as if the Civil War still raged, Ira offered this: “I’d characterise it as an ongoing series of experiments to find the right balance of representative democracy, some of which go wrong and leave soot all over our faces after they blow up, and before we’ve had a chance to remedy them.”

Bill, on the other hand, had retreated to the farthest corner of this notional republic – he was in Hawaii. It was 4am when he replied to my email, pleading sleeplessness brought on by an affliction he said had beset the many Americans who are not idiots: “Election anxiety.”

Here’s what Bill said: “Where this election is going has many parallels in history; many times leading to catastrophe on a global scale. I believe this country will eventually find its way back from the abyss and catastrophe will not ensue.

“And that’s because we’re better than your characterisation of us.”

Thanks, Ira. Good luck, Bill.