By Manoj Joshi
The scenes we have recently witnessed in Washington—the assault on the US Congress, the sustained challenge by the losing side to what was a free and fair election, and the polls implying that significant sections of the country don’t accept the legitimacy of a Biden victory—suggest that an existential crisis has gripped America. Those who think that Biden’s arrival will have a magical transformative effect are deluding themselves. True, having a normal, decent and restrained human being as president, instead of a narcissistic demagogue, should make a difference. But that’s not going to be enough.
We have arrived at a stage in the United States, where personalities, pandemics, and geopolitics have piled on a range of structural issues, leading to a situation which will require uncommon leadership and effort to overcome.
Separated by two oceans from Eurasia, the United States long revelled in its relative immunity from the troubles of the rest of the world. But today, fault lines have opened up within the country itself. This is obvious when the very seat of the government comes under a mob attack, when a pandemic rages unchecked for a year, and when the election process and the government lacks legitimacy in the minds of a majority of the people. The depth of the crisis is evident from the fact that even after experiencing unprecedented mayhem in the US Capitol, as many as 145 (out of 435) members of Congress, including sevem (out of 100) Senators voted to throw out Pennsylvania’s electoral votes in a bid to hand the election to Trump.
In some measure, all this is not an entirely domestic development. Adversaries like Russia have used cyber and disinformation campaigns to undermine Americans’ trust in their government for some time now. The report that some of the most sensitive parts of the US network were hacked by Russia for over nine months only confirms the image of the US as a flailing super power.
In these circumstances, to presume that Biden and his team will curb Russian adventurism in Europe, push back the Chinese in the South China Sea and elsewhere, and to restore the damage done to multilateralism by Trump is to expect too much. 2021 will be about dealing with the physical and economic consequences of COVID-19, as well as addressing issues of legitimacy and governance that have emerged in the US. Only if successful at dealing with these challenges would Biden be able to focus on a larger global agenda.
COVID-19 is only peaking in the United States now. Denial and then mismanagement by the Trump Administration has contributed hugely to this. Even now we are seeing that the US, which was the first country to roll out a vaccine, is unable to vaccinate its people according to the schedule it had set. Checking the ravages of the virus and then getting the economy back on the rails will be the absolutely number one priority of the administration.
The structural issues
The US claims to be the world’s leading democratic country, but is it?
This is a 244-year-old question. US democracy was flawed from the beginning when it accommodated the notion that people could hold other people as slaves, and those slaves could be counted for the purpose of representation but have no representation themselves. This continued for an unconscionably long time. After a brief burst of freedom, Black people were again enchained, this time by a web of laws and informal processes that has denied them equal rights, which leads to the sometimes violent upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement.
A second strand of this was the issue of representation. In the grand compromise, the states were given equality with each having two senators, while the House of Representatives was based on population—mind you, 3/5 of a Black slave was counted as a person for the purpose of representation and taxation in the Congress. This meant a deliberate over-representation of slave states in terms of electors. Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, states used a variety of means to deny voting rights to Blacks. As it is, over time, population movement has ensured that states with a rural, largely white, population are over-represented in the government. Today, Wyoming with a population of 500,000 has 3 electoral votes (1 elector for 166,000 people) while California with a population of 40 million gets 55 (1 elector for 700,000). The system whereby Presidential votes are cast for electors who then formally transfer them to the candidates, has a built-in anomaly in that in most states it is a winner-take-all system, which results in a situation where a person may win a majority of the votes cast, but still get fewer electoral votes than his rival and lose the election. This is how Hillary Clinton lost to Trump in 2016 and Al Gore to George W Bush in 2000.
Further, Wyoming has as many senators (two) as does California. Unlike most countries, the Senate is not just another upper house, it is far more powerful. It must approve of top-level appointments, including the Cabinet, sub-cabinet appointees, Supreme Court judges, as well as the usual legislation. The Senate has set its own rules, which demands that legislation be passed only if it has more than 60 votes out of 100.
Another important fix needed is to stop the gerrymandering of electoral districts to favour incumbents, or the enormous money that is needed to contest elections. Efforts towards reform have been fitful at best.
Supporters of archaic rules and practices in the United States claim that many of these clauses are aimed at upholding conservative principles and preventing radical change. But in reality, these are based simply on racism, and the desire to deny political power to the minorities who are mainly non-White. At some point, the US needs to modernise its system to make it fairer for all Americans, rather than just the Whites.
Another structural problem arises from rising inequality within the United States. Everyone knows that its rich are spectacularly rich—Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and so on. But what the US has lost out on over the years has been the promise of prosperity for the average American. Slowly, but systematically, the American rich and the upper middle class is pulling away from the majority in terms of education, lifestyle and even geography. Upper middle classes have seen a growth in their average real household incomes since 1967, while the others have remained stagnant.
A special report in The New York Times notes that while America’s economy almost doubled its size in the last four decades, “a small portion of the population has pocketed most of the new wealth.” The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is only likely to deepen the unequal distribution of prosperity in what is said to be the richest country in the world. The net result is a fading of the American dream. As a Harvard University project notes, 90 percent of the people born in 1945 grew up to earn more than what their parents did. This figure has been steadily declining and today only half of all the children earn more than their parents did. Perhaps, the worst manifestation of inequality lies in the matter of health. The COVID-19 pandemic brought out the number of Americans who lacked health insurance. The US is the only rich country that lacks universal healthcare coverage. Efforts to redress this through the Affordable Care Act were opposed by the Republicans and today there are nearly 30 million people without health insurance.
This inequality is, not surprisingly, reflected in the way the government works, benefiting the rich, rather than the neediest. Though he promised to fund a revitalisation of America’s crumbling infrastructure, all that Trump managed was a tax cut, which like previous tax cuts, benefited the rich like himself. This cannot but generate a sense of despair and unhappiness in a large section of the population, who today take recourse to drugs, wild conspiracy theories and uncommon violence. It is not that the US has run out of resources, or ingenuity or, for that matter, of philanthropy. It is just that government policy, skewed by ideology, is promoting a culture which is proving to be self-destructive.
These problems cannot but have an impact on the rest of the world, since the United States remains the leading nation, which is looked up to for its leadership on a range of issues. When it manages to overcome the COVID-19 emergency, the Biden Administration is likely to embrace allies and work with them to take on China. Its National Security Adviser designate, Jake Sullivan, has spoken of the need to compete with Beijing “from a position of strength,” even while working with Beijing on a range of issues.
But this “strength” must flow from the sinews of a vibrant US society. The Chinese challenge is layered and, for the US, its military aspect is fairly minor. There is another aspect which is more significant—competition in the areas of technology and global influence. While Biden has spoken about putting serious money to “buy American”, “Make it in America”, “Innovate in America” and “Invest in all of America” and so on, without a dramatic rise in federal funding in R&D, the US cannot hope to maintain its lead over China. Neither can the Americans compete with the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative through anaemic initiatives like the Blue Dot network or the Economic Prosperity Network. The Americans need to put down serious money to compete, but as everyone knows, they must first fix their own infrastructure before they can offer to fix that of the others.
The problem is not with democracy; it is doing quite well in Germany, Japan or Canada. It is with the US. Its problems, too, are no secret, but they require a fix which only the Americans themselves can deliver.