Quote: A fish does not know water until it jumps from the fishbowl (Chinese proverb, date unknown).
In the news: On Biden’s first overseas trip, a foreign policy gears for domestic consumption (Mike Memoli and Carol E. Lee, NBC News, 6.08.21)
In context: Baseball, mom and apple pie, all warm fuzzy images of America, land of the free and home of the brave. Those symbols were nowhere to be found in the US election of the Covid year 2020, when many speculated that the world’s great superpower was in decline.
Others saw America rebooting to a global reality after a long journey from the George Washington “cannot tell a lie” to Trump saying “stolen” when a legitimate election was held. Trump contested the result even though there was no basis. His claims were dismissed by all courts from local to the Supremes, and still a third of America believed the Trump lie about a fraudulent vote. The gullibility of those who believed the lie was perhaps telling about other vulnerabilities in need of address to prevent the feared decline.
The world was used to America as the leader in all things democratic, but the authoritative Pew Research Center has highlighted areas where America lagged behind other advanced economy peers. Voter participation was one. The 2020 election saw a record number of Americans voting at the rate of 77.5% of the voting age population. That number was up from the 55.5% who voted in 2016. But even with that record number, the voter turnout rate was below that of Denmark, for example, which had an 87% voter turnout in its last national election held in 2014, according to the Global Citizen activist group in a 2021 article on why the turnout rate was usually low in the United States,
Democracy loving America, it turned out, fell short on making it easy for citizens to vote. The 50 states had different systems and requirements. In 2002, an Act requiring a photo ID to vote was signed into law by George W. Bush, who was named president by a Supreme Court decision. As of 2021, 36 states required a photo ID to vote, which was not easily obtained by the elderly and many in rural and economically depressed areas with limited access to the government offices issuing the ID’s..
Further, most states had complicated registration routines. Most democratic US peers had automatic voter registration whereby citizens were registered to vote in tandem with other certifying procedures. In the United States that would be based on Social Security number s.
States in America also had confusing laws regarding voting methods, including vote by mail, absentee and early voting. Some sent ballots automatically to eligible voters, in other states the ballots had to be requested by the voter. States differed on the voting status of groups such as prisoners and they had varying systems for counting the votes. Then on top of those hurdles, social influences regarding age, gender and socioeconomic circumstance factors could dampen the desire to vote. Finally, the Tuesday voting day was a deterrent for working citizens not in position to take unpaid time off from work to stand in long lines to vote. In the 2020 election, Trump made a tossed salad out of those state voting complexities.
According to the Global Citizen, Blacks who voted for Obama in 2014 did not show up for Hillary Clinton in 2016 because they lacked enthusiasm. Others failed to show because they felt their vote wouldn’t make a difference. The combination handed Trump the presidency in 2016 and he later thanked Blacks for not casting a Hillary vote. That was a mistake they seemed intent to avoid in 2020.
The 11-hour wait lines for casting a vote created a sensation around the world, according to the BBC. Most of those lines were in predominantly Black and minority areas with few polling sites. Those lines became community sensations, with local eateries providing food and refreshments to those in line while voters themselves provided impromptu entertainment. In the 2021 ruckus created by Trump and allies in wake of his electoral loss, those amenities became the target of “voter security” measures instituted by Republican state legislatures intent on control of vote tallies even as the Trump mob threatened with bodily harn the state electoral professionals who had refused to taint the vote in Trump’s favor.
In the Covid-weary global world of 2021 battered by fires and floods due to global climate change, the twice-impeached former US president was under investigation in multiple US states for a range of crimes ranging from tax evasion and election tampering to fomenting a coup. He was also floating the idea of another run for president in 2024 with Republicans at the ready to service his needs regardless of his decision. The mob that had staged the attempted coup to derail the democratic process was hailing itself as a band of patriotic heroes demanding protection of their Constitutional rights. Clearly democracy in America was derailed and in need of urgent, radical overhaul to properly function again.
The blueprint for such remedial intervention was amply mapped out by scholars and analysts. Political journalist Mehdi Hasan in 2018 noted seven areas where American democracy could be strengthened to make the government truly representative of its people. Elimination of the quaint Electoral College now skewed to the rural 1700’s would give an equitable voice to the modern urban population. A new federal voting rights act could simplify the convoluted and fraud prone current state system.
Further, Hasan called for eliminating gerrymandering, the redistricting system that artifically delineated voting base areas for political advantage. Likewise, he said the filibuster had to go. It was a dated tool aimed at bipartisanship in an age when one party was obviously not interested in cooperative problem solving. The “dark money” allowed into politics by the 2010 Supreme Court needed to be reversed and term limits set on Supreme Court appointments instead of the lifetime appointments currently enjoyed. Finally, to make America a truly representative democracy, he said the vote the right to vote should be granted to the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the numerous terrirotires that had a stake in the outcome of US elections.
The attempted coup in America created shockwaves around the world. Both allies and adversaries expressed dismay as live coverage carried images of the US Capitol being ransacked. “Canadians are deeply disturbed and saddened,” said Canada’s Justin Trudeau. “Disgraceful,” said the UK’s Boris Johnson. Venezuela condemned the acts of violence and brought attention to the US foreign policy of using aggression against legitimately elected democracies around the world. “The looking of democracy,” said a Sweden’s official. All called on Trump to accept the election result. They expressed faith in the American democratic institutions and in Joe Biden to steer America past the turmoil.
Plenty of the world’s near-200 countries had their hands full with transitioning to a global world. Most were democracies emerging from autocratic rule. Coups were common in those countries fighting corruption as a major enemy. Other countries newly democratized as some in middle and eastern Europe were democracies in name with dictatorial leaders corrupting the democratic process to slide their countries back into veritable autocracies. But no stable democracy slid into an autocracy it had never known, a phenomenon made all the more appalling by the fact that one man was able to corrupt the democratic process in a feat the world had not seen since Germany nearly a century earlier..
In short, the attempted coup fomented by the sitting US President when he lost the 2020 US election brought America into alignment with the rest of the world’s near 200 other countries. America was no longer exceptional, exempt by its Constitution from the troubles plaguing less advantaged countries. Coups were happening around the world, from Mali and Haiti to Guinea. The Army still held Myanmar. Cuban unrest against its communist regime was short-lived while China cracked down on Hong Kong democracy activists. Russia lay low, no doubt advising Belarus on how to handle pro-democracy activists working to topple a Russian-backed dictator based on clear evidence of voter fraud. By contrast in America, a would-be dictator tried to bring down a democracy based on clear legal evidence of NO voter fraud.
The irony was inescapable among three of the world’s most prominent powers. Russia and China were autocracies, in essence. Their dictator rulers held on to their positions by putting down opposition by any means possible. The opposition fought tooth and nail until the dictator was toppled. That day seemed far off in Russia and China but democratic America had been able fend off a hostile take-over by a dictator due to the strength of its foundation in democratic institutions.
According to the Democracy Index operated since 2006 by the UK-based Economist Group, America fell in 2015 from a ranking as a full democracy to the status of a flawed democracy. The drop was due to a measure of a populations faith in its institutions. Apparently, Trump saw America as a distressed property that he acquired in 2016. Unwilling to give it up when he bankrupted the country, he receded to background activity while duly elected Joe Biden repaired America’s democracy.
Flawed or not by international standards, America’s democracy had enabled it to fend off a hostile take-over by a marauding horde. The task after that was to strengthen the democratic institutions and the people’s faith in them so that the persistent and invader could not take over again.