As the rest of the world looks upon America’s 2016 presidential race and what has become a disgrace of a democratic system, its bewilderment can be organised around a series of hows and whys.
How can a political and policy freak show like Donald Trump become a serious contender for the job America touts as “leader of the free world”?
Why has the democratic “competition of ideas” become so degraded that Trump’s thought bubble to ban more than 20% of the world’s population (Muslims) from entering America has passed relatively unimpeded into mainstream policy debate?
More broadly, how can the race for America’s top job be so short on facts and logic that nearly every leading 2016 presidential candidate is uttering outright lies, mostly false statements or half-truths at least half the time they open their mouths?
Why will it take nearly $US2 billion in campaign funding to win this year’s presidential race and lead a country founded on the idea that “anyone can become president”?
Why, in this day and age, has the top job devolved into a dynastic possession? If Hillary Clinton becomes president in 2016, two families (Bush and Clinton) will have alternated in the White House for 24 of the 32 years from 1989 to 2021.
How and why can the US government spy on its own citizens with a scope and intensity that make the KGB and other former communist spy agencies look like rank amateurs?
Questions such as these go on and on. Separately and collectively, they speak to the absence of the bare bones of a fair, free and moderate democratic system.
Running out of defences
The dwindling ranks of those who line up to defend America’s system are able to do so only if they view it through a prism of its lofty 18th-century ideals, rather than 21st-century realities. They typically counter critiques with one or more of the following three arguments.
First, there have always been demagogues, money politics and lies in politics. What is occurring in America today is just a variation of these age-old themes.
Yet everyone else, including many ordinary Americans, recognises America’s political system has crossed into a new era of extreme dysfunctionality and inequity. After all, has not a tipping point been reached when the US Congress becomes such a warzone of hyper-partisanship that its current legislators are the most unproductive on record?
Aren’t we seeing money politics played out on a cosmic scale when corporate interests spend US$2.6 billion per year to twist what little legislation is passed in Congress to their own ends?
A second argument is that the antics of a Donald Trump are needed to shake up a complacent political class and raise issues that better mirror public opinion.
But that begs another question. Has the American political system fallen so low that it requires a massive injection of anti-democratic behaviour to make it more “democratic”?
The third line of defence is the claim that beneath the mess that is presidential and congressional politics lies a vibrant sea of local and state-based democracy. More than 500,000 public positions are contested via grassroots elections.
The reality, however, is the fish is rotting from the head down.
Disengagement compounds the damage
Many Americans – thanks to the media’s relentless coverage of Washington politics – view the value of their broader democratic system through a national lens. As a result of congressional gridlock and a string of high-level corruption and ethical scandals, they are turning off and away from the system wholesale.
The proportion of US citizens who trust government is down to less than one in five.
American democracy’s legitimacy crisis is even worse among young Americans. They have been deeply disengaged from what they view as a highly combative, negative and self-serving system. They hardly ever discuss politics, let alone think of pursuing a political career in any shape or form.
This raises the real prospect that increasingly more of America’s democratically elected positions will become less contested. Alternatively, they will be captured by the same ideologues and extreme activists who now dominate and distort the national political and policy scene.
The big irony in the massive decline in the quality of America’s democratic governance over the past two decades is this: it has coincided with a period in which the US has aggressively stepped up its efforts to promote and embed this same system around the world.
US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as America’s support for the Arab Spring of 2011 have been predicated on replacing autocratic regimes with American-style representative democracy. Jawboning China to adopt more democratic practices likewise reflects the same bizarre tendency among many of America’s political and policy elites to promote what are damaged goods at home as being somehow “ripe for export”.
Many liberal democracies across the Western world are suffering deep-seated ills as their institutions and practices fail to keep up with the 21st-century world. Yet the US has become the outlier of Western democratic dysfunction.
Any assertion it continues to be a beacon for democracy is surpassed only by Trump’s most fantastical claims.