By Kang Jeong-koo, former professor of sociology at Dongguk University
As supporters of US President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in the early days of 2021, the true face of democracy in the US came into full view. Was this just some sort of mutant development? Or was it the eruption of structural and institutional issues?
People often look at the US as an exemplar of democracy, human rights, and advancement. Here in South Korea, members of the “Taegukgi brigade” have come under that spell, waving the Stars and Stripes at their rallies. Cultural sycophants of all stripes have sung the US’ praises over and over.
It’s time now for us to leave behind our ingrained practice of seeing “democracy” simply in the trappings of representative democracy and the separation of powers. Instead, we need to judge it rightly by the standards of true democracy – where the people are the ones who exercise control. We also need to move past our fixed framework of viewing the “election” as the core of democracy, while giving short shrift to practical substance. Before approaching this serious task, I want to take a look at the antidemocracy that has reared its head in the US’ social institutions.
First of all, the US presidential election system violates the principle of majority decision by all US voters. A candidate who wins by even a single vote in a state-level election captures all of that state’s electors. This results in a contradictory and antidemocratic situation where candidates like Hillary Clinton or Al Gore who win more votes overall end up losing in the electoral college.
Second, the system of apportioning two Senate seats to every state — in contrast with apportionment proportionally based on population in the House of Representatives — is itself a violation of majority rule. California, which has a population of nearly 40 million people, elects the same number of senators (two) as Wyoming, which has the smallest population of any US state (an estimated 579,315 people as of 2017). In effect, each California senator represents 20 million people, while each Wyoming senator represents 290,000.
Defenders argue that this is a reflection of the US’ historical origins as a federation. But nearly 200 years have passed since then, and there is no justification for violating the principle of majority rule — especially when it comes to the election of senators addressing federal matters, as opposed to just state senators.
Third, the winner-takes-all approach to selecting the heads of the Senate and House committee is antidemocratic. It could be argued that the purely “first-past-the-post” system – without any proportional representation – violates the principle of majority rule on its own. In practical terms, however, it’s a system adopted in many countries besides the US. But there’s an antidemocratic element to applying the winner-takes-all format to the heads of congressional committees, since it ensures that those committees don’t represent an absolute majority of voters, or at least half of them.
Restrictions on voting rights are a fourth issue. In most countries, voters have their due right to vote, but the US requires them to complete prior registration before voting. This has its origins in an antidemocratic attempt to “legally” remove or reduce the votes of black Americans, migrants, manual laborers, rural residents, day laborers, and others. For all that the US prides itself on being a paragon of democracy, it continues to throttle its own system by leaving these restrictions in place.
Fifth, it represents the ultimate in bankrolled elections, with no publicly managed election system. There used to be a limit on individual donations to individual federal election candidates and parties, but that ceiling was eliminated in 2014 by the Supreme Court. Corporations and others can also make unlimited political donations to “super PACs.” In October 2020, the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a US research group, estimated the combined costs of the last presidential and congressional election at US$14 billion (US$6.6 billion presidential, U$7 billion congressional). That’s more than the combined total costs of the 2016 election (US$6.5 billion) and the 2012 election (US$6.2 billion).
This back-scratching between politics and business has left the US helpless to do anything about extreme economic inequality. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders pointed out that three people in particular own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the population by income. Structurally, this weakens the ability of the public to exercise control or to show that they are the ones in charge. The US has been devolving into a status system of entrenched class differences, and the young people running up against this have started fundamentally questioning the US system of democracy, which has proven useless at resolving the problem. Some of them have been turning to Trump-style populism. It’s hard to be anything but pessimistic about democracy’s future prospects.
In closing, I would suggest that if the US had more of a true democracy – where the people are capable of exercising control as the ones in charge – we would never have seen the sort of the cataclysmic numbers that have been coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic there, with 21,857,616 infections and 369,990 deaths as of Jan. 8. True democracy is a crucial matter with direct bearing on each and every one of our lives.
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