Is the US a flawed democracy?

Gerrymandering is not a new concept but it's now getting worse

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, with Representatives Adam Schiff (L), Jerry Nadler (2nd L) and Carolyn Maloney (R), speaks during a press conference on ”Protecting Our Democracy Act” in the US Capitol in Washington, on December 9. AFP
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Almost everyone interested in governance agrees that the venerable US democratic system is in decline.

Many Americans seem oblivious though, so used to thinking of themselves as unparalleled practitioners of democracy that systemic breakdown seems absurd. Unflattering comparisons with other democratic systems are assumed to be merely insulting.

However, international recognition of US democratic deterioration is finally overcoming a traditional hesitancy to pass judgment on Washington. In 2016, The Economist newspaper included the US among the "flawed democracies". It is considered a "deficient democracy" by the Germany-based Democracy Matrix and a "backsliding democracy" by the European think tank International IDEA.

Both domestically and internationally, this corrosion is usually associated with the Republican Party and, especially, former president Donald Trump.

That is persuasive given that, under Mr Trump, Republicans have been developing an ethos of refusing to accept electoral defeat; instead seeking to manipulate or dispense with legal and constitutional processes when they deem that necessary and possible.

If Mr Trump is nominated again in 2024, win or lose, a constitutional crisis of the kind he tried unsuccessfully to engineer following his defeat last year seems inevitable.

Yet one of the most undemocratic, indefensible aspects of the damaged US system is broadly shared between the two parties: extreme partisan gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering signifies politicians drawing electoral districts in otherwise illogical manners to maximize their party's advantages. It is democracy in reverse, with politicians picking their voters, rather than voters selecting their representatives.

This practice is as old as the American Republic.

The word was coined in a March 26, 1812 Boston Gazette article that noted that the baffling shape of a new Massachusetts Senate district resembled a salamander. Targeting then-Governor Elbridge Gerry, it dubbed it a "gerrymander".

Yet the power to draw electoral boundaries in the US falls to legislative bodies made up of precisely those politicians whose fortunes depend on the outcome of the elections which they are literally shaping. So, historically, such abuses have been difficult to avoid, and often destructive. But now it is getting much worse.

Efforts to transfer accountability to nonpartisan commissions or other disinterested bodies, or to get courts to intervene, have largely failed.

Though the problem is hardly new, its abuse is reaching a peak, and being practiced by Democrats as well as Republicans.

In Maryland, the Democratic-controlled state assembly recently approved a proposal that seems intended to undo the state’s only Republican-held congressional district. And the New Mexico legislature has proposed a map that would likely ensure that in that state, too, all its congressional seats would go to Democrats. They build on earlier examples of partisan gerrymandering by Democrats in Illinois, among many others.

These cases are alarming because Democrats insist that gerrymandering is a Republican abuse they yearn to eliminate. And, indeed, Democrats in Congress have been pushing legislation that would greatly curb gerrymandering and it is being blocked by Republicans.

Any commitment to principles is only demonstrated by taking risks with significant potential costs

But the partisan gerrymandering underway in Maryland, especially, allows these arguments to ring hollow.

Some notable wealthy liberals who support more equitable taxation policy, yet who still pursue tax avoidance and minimisation, are on thin enough ice when claim they must play by the existing rules even though they oppose them. Despite their claims, gerrymandering Democrats don’t even have this argument, because they are actively making the rules not gaming an existing system beyond their control.

It is a big mistake since Republican gerrymandering nationally is operating at a much deeper level of cynicism and danger.

Following the 2020 census results, Republican legislatures have redrawn enough districts to ensure that gerrymandering alone will probably yield five additional Republican members of Congress.

In Texas, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Georgia, new maps mean Democrats must win huge and highly improbable supermajorities to unseat Republican state legislative control. These minority-rule plans all make the corrupt Maryland shenanigans look high-minded in comparison.

The Joe Biden administration is suing Texas over its extreme gerrymanders. The Federal government is constitutionally mandated to ensure a “republican form of government” in every state. In the language of the Constitutional era, that means effectively a majoritarian and equitable voting system, exactly what gerrymanders seek to deny.

Yet in 2019 the Supreme Court insisted only Congress, not courts, could limit such abuses.

The Democrats’ voting bill would require courts to disallow gerrymanders if they effectively disenfranchise large numbers of voters or egregiously advantage one party. Such legislation is vitally important for salvaging American democracy from the structural imperfections that, like gerrymandering, have become dysfunctional.

However, another structural defect, the Senate filibuster, threatens to block these crucial reforms. Although all Senate Democrats support the bill, at least two of them don't want to change this rule that effectively allows Republicans to block any legislation that isn't budget-related.

Democrats would have a much stronger argument on principle, with the public, and arguably even with their two main Senate holdouts – Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema – if some of their own state legislatures weren't ruthlessly engaging in such practices and giving the appearance of also being cynical and power-hungry.

Democrats would protest that their leader is not a would-be authoritarian, who tried but failed to overturn the last election by any means he could muster, including what would have amounted to a coup. And they aren’t systematically placing reliable Trump loyalists in charge of overseeing elections and vote counting – exactly the state power structures being locked in by Republican gerrymanders – so that if he tries again he could succeed.

But that is exactly why it is so crucial that Democrats don't muddy the waters with the blatant partisan gerrymandering they’re attempting in Maryland. The Biden Administration would have a better claim against Texas if they also acted against the less egregious maladministration by their allies in Maryland.

If, as Democrats convincingly insist, there is now only one American party firmly committed to upholding, protecting and maintaining the fundamental principles and practices of democracy, it cannot be enough to insist you are not as bad as the other side.

Any commitment to principles is only demonstrated by taking risks with significant potential costs. Otherwise, it’s just talk.

Mr Trump invariably rationalises his transgressions with the fiction that "everybody does it". Democrats have an obligation to prove to Americans, and the world, how wrong that is.

Published: December 12, 2021, 2:05 PM