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The Enormous Limitations of U.S. Liberal Democracy and Its Consequences: The Growth Of Fascism

Photograph Source: Anthony Crider – CC BY 2.0

When it looked like ultra-right-wing forces, led by former President Trump, might win the elections to the U.S. Congress on November 8, there was alarm that democracy in that country could suffer a huge setback, potentially even the disappearance of the democratic system itself. As political analyst John Nichols noted, “The November 9 election could be the last for a vanished democracy.”

After the results of the elections were known, it seemed that these fears were exaggerated.  Although the extreme right – the Republican Party – won the elections in the House of Representatives, one of two legislative chambers in Congress, it lost the elections in the other, more powerful chamber, the Senate, which continues to be controlled by the Democratic Party. Hence, there was an outpouring of relief in the U.S. media (except those close to the extreme right) assuming that democracy had been saved.

But is this optimism justified?  Does the U.S. have a democracy capable of resisting the rise of the ultra-right with fascist characteristics currently spreading worldwide? In this article I will present evidence that U.S. democracy has a baked-in bias towards the far-right that makes it very difficult to enact basic policies that benefit the majority of the people.  This bias has created fertile conditions in the U.S. for fascism to grow.  As someone who lived under a fascist regime in Spain, and knows fascism when I see it, I am alarmed by the growth of the ultra-right, with similar characteristics to the fascism I knew.  Its growth is a consequence of the grave limitations of U.S. liberal democracy.  Thus, it is premature to assume that a far-right takeover has been averted; on the contrary, it is time for urgent mobilization to stop it.

THE U.S. HAS ONE OF THE LEAST DEMOCRATIC SYSTEMS EXISTING TODAY IN THE DEMOCRATIC WORLD

In general, the U.S. democratic system has always been presented as one of the most advanced democratic systems in the world. Hence, many democratic countries readily accept the leadership of the U.S. government in international associations and alliances that claim to be defenders of democracy, such as NATO. Such a perception is promoted by the leaders of that government, including current President Joseph Biden who recently defined the U.S. as ” the most democratic country in the world. ” The evidence, however, indicates that the U.S. is one of the least democratic countries among the existing democratic countries today.What happened in the recent elections on November 8 cannot be understood without understanding the enormous limitations of its political system. Let’s look at the data.

THE UNREPRESENTATIVE SENATE, ELECTORAL COLLEGE, AND THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

The Senate is the most powerful legislative chamber in the U.S. federal government. It must approve, among other matters, the federal budget, the members appointed by the president to the Cabinet, and the members of the Supreme Court. The first thing that stands out when analyzing the composition of this chamber is that it is not very representative, since each of the fifty states has the right to elect two Senators, regardless of the size of its population. Thus, the state of California, which has forty million inhabitants, has the same number of Senators as the state of Wyoming, which has only half a million. A Californian therefore has eighty times less power to influence Senate elections than a citizen of Wyoming. As a result, small states wield much more power than big states. They also tend to be more rural, more conservative, less diverse racially and ethnically, and have more Republican Party voters (holding far-right views) than large states. As a result, the U.S. Senate, as an institution, has a far-right bias baked into its structure.

A similar situation occurs in the election of the President of the United States, which is conducted, not by direct election by the U.S. electorate, but by members of the Electoral College, which has 538 members elected by state assemblies using rules that also favor small rural states over large states with urban and industrial centers. This explains the conservative orientation of the Electoral College. Indeed, on five separate occasions the Electoral College has chosen the candidate who lost the popular vote to be President, most recently in 2000 and 2016, when Democratic presidential candidates lost to Republicans because of the conservative bias of the Electoral College. In 2000 the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, obtained 543,000 more votes than Republican George Bush, while in 2016 Democrat Hillary Clinton received 2.9 million more votes than Republican Donald Trump. (Although Trump falsely claimed that he had “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”)

Like the Senate and the Electoral College, the House of Representatives also has very limited representation. Voting districts are drawn up according to the electoral preferences of each state’s ruling party.  It is not uncommon, for example, for neighborhoods with a large Black population, who tend to vote Democratic, to be divided into small fractions that become part of majority White districts, in order to disempower Black people.  For many constituencies, such as poor minority and White working class people, there are also numerous barriers to voting, such as requirements for additional documents to prove identify or residence, long waits to vote on work days, and disqualification of voters with felony convictions. Republicans especially aim to eliminate programs like early voting and voting by mail, which allow more working class people to vote. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, lawmakers in 21 states have passed 42 restrictive voting laws since 2021 alone.

THE ELECTORAL PROCESS DOES NOT ALLOW PLURALITY AND FORCES BIPARTISANSHIP

The American electoral system forces a bipartisanship that prevents political diversity. The electoral system is not proportional, that is, the percentage of members that a party has in a legislative chamber is not the same as the percentage of votes that party received, which would make it possible to establish blocs by party based on the size of their electorate. The system is bipartisan, allowing in practice only two parties, one, the Republican Party, today ultra-right (mostly Trumpist) and the other, the Democratic Party, a liberal right-wing party similar to the liberal parties in Europe, close to the financial and economic establishments (primarily financial capital), and the main promoter since the Clinton era of neoliberal globalization. This party has a preferential relationship with the international association of liberal parties, appearing as an Observer.  When I was an advisor to presidential candidate Jesse Jackson in 1988, we tried to change that situation without succeeding, due to strong resistance from the apparatus of that party.

A new party has to win at least fifty-one percent of the popular vote in its target district in order to be represented. This implies that it doesn’t matter if a candidate gets forty-nine percent of the vote or just one percent. Without fifty-one percent, the district is lost, which makes it very difficult for new parties to appear. Hence, minority parties such as the Socialist Party present their candidates in the Democratic Party primaries and their candidates can be elected individually, but without constituting themselves as a parliamentary group. The best known case is that of the socialist Bernie Sanders who almost won the Democratic Party primaries in 2016, being one of the most popular politicians in the country. In the U.S. there is no left-wing party with representation in the Congress of the U.S. and this is partially due to the design of the electoral process to avoid that to occur.

THE FINANCING OF ELECTIONS IS PREDOMINATELY PRIVATE               

Another major limitation of the U.S. electoral system is that it is privately financed. Wealthy individuals and corporations fund the elections of Congressional representatives to defend their own interests. Hence, the Congressional committees in charge of regulating industry are made up of people close to corporations in those industries who, in theory, are regulated by the committee. A clear example is Democratic Party Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who receives funding from the coal and oil industries while serving as the Chair of the powerful Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the Senate. The same is true for the members of five key health committees in the House and Senate. Giant and powerful health insurance companies (which dominate the management of the health sector) fund candidates from both parties who will support their interests.  This is how health insurers cemented bipartisan support for their highly profitable Medicare Advantage plans that garner huge profits while driving up Medicare’s costs and skimping on seniors’ health care. This type of corporate funding of elections, which would be considered outright corruption in many European nations, is legal in the US. The U.S. Supreme Court has even ruled that corporations are “persons” and donations for candidates’ media campaigns may not be restricted because they are “free speech.”

The impact of private funding on U.S. elections reached its zenith on November 8, 2022. Those elections determined which party would control the federal and state legislatures, as well as many Governorships and other political positions. According to the Washington Post, fifty billionaire donors alone gave over $1.1 billion to finance the elections of their desired candidates. Between the super-wealthy, corporations, and smaller donations, a whopping $17 billion was spent on the midterm elections. Billionaires also gave huge sums to finance candidates for election to the judiciary such as judges. One of the billionaires in the Chicago business class (Barre Seid) gave an astounding $1.6 billion dollars to promote the election of conservative judges who will safeguard their economic interests and guarantee control of the legal system. The overall impact of private funding of elections, is to diminish the popular election process for representatives, senators, governors, and judges, as well as referendums, widely used at the state level. (The Largest Political Donation in U.S. History Took Place in the 2022 November Election, Truthout, November 11, 2022)

Corporations can donate unlimited amounts for the purchase of media space in which there is no regulation.Consequently, candidates with the most funding have a greater chance of gaining public exposure. Most of the media, including television, radio, and social media are owned by corporate behemoths, or by billionaire tycoons whose primary objective is the promotion of their commercial and political interests. A clear example is the billionaire and richest man in the world, Mr. Elon Musk. Musk recently bought the hugely popular social media company, Twitter. As the same time he reiterated his allegiance to Trump and reinstated Trump’s Twitter account, giving Trump, now a candidate for the 2024 presidential election, access to a powerful system of global communication (or miscommunication, given Trump’s proclivity to falsehoods).  Musk ironically defines himself as a libertarian, even though he is, in large part, a creation of the federal government.  He has received over $7.0 billion in government contracts and billions more in tax breaks, loans, and other subsidies for his firms SpaceX, SolarCity, and Tesla.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF CONSERVATIVE BIAS AND PRIVATE FINANCE ARE A LACK OF SOCIAL, LABOR, AND ECONOMIC RIGHTS OF THE MAJORITY OF THE POPULATION.

One consequence of what has been said above is the great disconnect that exists in the U.S. between the policies that people want and what their institutions (governments, legislative chambers and the judicial system) deliver.  Examples of this abound. For example, the Supreme Court recently repealed Roe vs Wade, the 1973 decision which gave women the right to an abortion as a matter of privacy. Yet the right to abortion is supported by most Americans, including voters, as attested to by positive results in five state referendums. In fact, advocacy for the right to abortion increased turnout by young voters on November 8, helping Democrats to win more of their races than expected.

The Supreme Court has also repealed popular laws for the protection of the environment and for workers’ rights. Meanwhile the Senate refuses to regulate access to guns even though the major cause of death in children and young adults is gunshot wounds and most Americans favor gun control. There is opposition in both the Senate and the House of Representatives to increasing taxes on the profits of large corporations, another measure with popular support in the US. Most of the population also favors reducing barriers for workers to unionize, and over two-thirds think there should be a right to health care, a right that does not exist in the U.S.

Another proof of the grave limitations of U.S. democracy is that a higher share of the population lives in poverty in the U.S. than in dozens of other nations. The poverty rate (11.7 percent) and child poverty rate (20.9 percent) are among the highest out of thirty-five developed countries. Inequalities in wealth and income by social class, race, and gender are also among the worst in the world’s liberal democracies.

THE HUGE CRISIS OF THE LEGITIMACY OF THE POLITICAL CLASS: THE ORIGINS OF THE ULTRA-RIGHT

As a result of these limitations of U.S. liberal democracy, there is a lack of credibility and legitimacy in the political system. People without a college degree, who make up the majority of the U.S. population, overwhelmingly believe that “the corporate class” controls the government. This explain why voter participation in the U.S. is very low compared to other democracies, with almost half of the population eligible to vote in federal elections abstaining, and an even higher share, 70 percent, abstaining from voting in state elections. The working class is especially distrustful of government and the majority abstain from participation in voting at a higher rate than in any western European country.

It is this crisis of legitimacy of the political system that explains the growth of the ultra-right that presents itself as anti-establishment and anti-federal government. There are many points of similarity between the growth of fascism and Nazism in the 1930s during the Great Depression and the situation now as I have shown in a recent article, (Vicente Navarro, “The Predictable Resurgence of Fascism and Nazism On Both Sides of the North Atlantic and Its Consequences” Counterpunch, December 9, 2022). That growth has also stimulated higher participation from those forces that rightly perceive themselves as threatened by this supposedly anti-establishment movement. This is one of the reasons why participation increased in the last elections in 2020 and 2022: to stop Trumpism. In 2022, this mobilization against Trump, rather than greater approval of the Biden administration’s policies, helped the Democrats hold on to the Senate. People are especially dissatisfied with Biden’s management of the economic crisis. Inflation, perceived somewhat as related to the Ukrainian war, is one of the public’s biggest concerns and a majority of the population, fifty-four percent, hold President Biden responsible.

CONCLUSION: THE ULTRA-RIGHT HAS INCREASED ITS POWER

It is a mistake to read the U.S. November elections as a weakening of the ultra-right – that is, of what is defined as Trumpism. Its power has increased, as it now controls the Republican Party and the House of Representatives. On the other hand, retention of control of the Senate by the Democrats occurred despite Biden’s policies, not because of them. Biden’s popularity, inside and outside of government, is low, while many of his policies have been disappointing. Even in the case of abortion, his response to the Supreme Court decision was timid and late. Biden’s failure to establish a public option in the medical care system to expand health services was similarly disappointing. And the overwhelming influence of economic and financial interests on the apparatus of the Democratic Party and on Democrats in the Senate has diluted many of the proposals made by the President. The Democratic Party itself was an obstacle to motivating voters, as was seen in New York, where party leaders trying to eliminate progressive forces dampened the mobilization against Trumpism.

The historical evidence shows that the only way of stopping fascism and Nazism, or their equivalence in the 21stcentury, is to profoundly transform and expand entitlements for universal social, labor, civil, and political rights that will benefit the majority of the population.  What in Europe is called the Welfare State is currently dramatically under-developed in the U.S. The commitment to developing universal social, political, and labor rights for the whole population (and not only for very vulnerable populations with very limited resources) would require greater spending in social areas and programs, with active government intervention to redistribute wealth and income.  Greater investment in protecting the environment and reducing global warming are also needed to guarantee the survival of humanity. These policies will require a significant change in foreign policy and a large reduction in military expenses.

The first proposal of the Biden administration seemed to take the New Deal as its inspiration, raising a set of hopes but unfortunately most of the promise was dramatically diluted. And the reasons are explained in this article. The U.S. political system is clearly aimed at making it very difficult to develop the needed policies. This is why it’s so important and urgent to demand the political changes that the majority of people desire and that the political class does not deliver.

It is urgent and necessary that transformative policies be adopted to unequivocally improve the lives of the majority of people. Deep democratization is necessary to achieve that splendid initial phrase “we the people” in its Constitution: “We the people” affirms that the government of the U.S. exists to serve the people. The majority of the U.S. population does not believe that their government is serving them, leading to a crisis of legitimacy of the political class. Deep democratization, therefore, is urgently needed to overcome the enormous limitations of U.S. liberal democracy. A failure to promote transformative policies in the near term will inevitably lead to the triumph of neo-fascism.