The U.S. is Showing the World that Democracy Doesn’t Work

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Before leaving for the Glasgow Summit last week, President Joe Biden announced that he wanted to arrive in Scotland with the message that Democracies can still get things done. As reported in Politico, “Biden touted his latest step (securing a “framework” for the Build Back Better Act) as a huge boon for the country that could prove democracies can still govern and keep pace in a world with powerful autocrats.”

This has been a familiar theme with Biden. In August, after the U.S. Senate passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill (which is still awaiting House approval), he made a similarly grandiose statement: “This deal signals to the world that our democracy can function, deliver, and do big things.”

Biden protests too much.

American democracy’s myriad shortcomings seem to be weighing heavily on the president’s mind. One would hope so. They have been worrying progressives ever since the crypto-authoritarian Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016.

By all accounts Biden and the Democrats are doing a terrible job of showing the world that Democracies can get things done. Nothing illustrates this better than Biden’s inability to get something as basic and essential to democracy as voting rights legislation passed, even with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress.

Likewise a provision in the Build Back Better Act that would have allowed Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, a money saving provision which was overwhelmingly popular with the American people, was killed by a single pro-Big Pharma democratic U.S. senator who is deep in the pocketsof corporate lobbyists.

Another prime example of American democracy’s inability to get anything done is the gutted climate change action in the Build Back Better Act—one even more important than voting rights since it involves the future of an entire planet.

Biden pledged to slash U.S. carbon emissions 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. But now that coal baron Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has cut the Clean Energy Payment Plan out of the Act, environmental analysts saythe bill will fall short of reaching Biden’s goal of cutting U.S. emissions in half by 2030. Rather projections suggest the measure would reduce emissions to only about 35 percent, according to an article in Bloomberg.

You would never know this from the breathless coverage Biden’s bill has received in the media which has lauded the bill’s climate change provisions as transformational. Democrats, of course, are celebrating that they should have something–anything–to show their constituents ahead of midterm elections, and many environmental groups seem to be happy that Democrats will get anything passed at all.

The current climate change provisions in the Build Back Better Act means we are just kicking the can down the road yet again. Democracy, in essence, is showing itself unable to get things done, to save itself from authoritarianism and climate catastrophe.

There are many theories why democracy is struggling so mightily to save itself, but it may be as simple as the old “iron law of oligarchy” which states that “all forms of organization, regardless of how democratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop oligarchic tendencies, thus making true democracy practically and theoretically impossible.”

Here’s where I’m supposed to say, but wait, there is cause for hope.

I’ll have to get back to you.