Scott Chipolina offers the second in a series of Justice Everywhere posts on the US midterm elections and what they say about the state of American democracy. (For the first in the series, see Emilee Chapman’s ‘The United States Needs a Democracy Movement‘.)
The November 6 midterms saw some 113 million Americans cast a ballot. This is the first time in American history that over 100 million voted in a midterm election. Prima facie, this record-setting voter turnout might indicate a thriving democracy. Yet other observations indicate just how far from secure American democracy is.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe conducted a review of the November 6 elections, producing some worrisome findings, including:
- Disinformation: There are deep concerns about instances of online disinformation campaigns, from both domestic and foreign sources, as well as about the transparency of online advertising. A good example can be found from Twitter’s dedicated midterm election page, which included tweets that circulated outright falsities about campaign issues. For example, this tweet from Bill Mitchell, who claimed the Democrats ‘paid for the Honduran Caravan hoping to create another “separating families” crisis just in time for the midterms’.
- Free press: The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. During these elections, journalists and news media have been subjected to verbal attacks and accusations from government officials. Concerns grew when CNN received a package containing explosive material in an attempt to stifle their work. Such attacks raised concerns about the safety of journalists, and undermined public trust in the essential role the media plays in democratic society.
- Voter registration: Although the number of citizens eligible to vote is estimated to be above 250 million, the total number of registered voters is estimated at 192 million. Despite the ongoing discussion of gerrymandering, this issue has become urgent in light of, for instance, what happened in the governor’s race in Georgia, contested between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp. In the days leading up to the election, “Kemp’s office put at least 53,000 voter registrations on hold – the majority of which applied to black voters – citing Georgia’s so-called “exact match” law.” There are striking democratic pitfalls here, the most fundamental of which is that a competing candidate was in the position of overseeing election registrations and having remit over their acceptance. One would be hard pressed to find a more undemocratic absurdity in a country as supposedly free as the United States.
On the day of the midterm elections, Dan Slater wrote an illuminating article on the nature of authoritarianism, and how authoritarianism materialises in states where democracy fails or is failing. In essence, authoritarianism can occur either as electoral authoritarianism or illiberal democracy: the former references rulers’ gaining power through manipulated elections; the latter relates to rulers who win elections freely but go on to abuse their power.
The current makeup of the US evidences that both these forms of authoritarianism have begun to take hold of the political process. The findings discussed above are symptomatic of the administration’s unrelenting effort to suppress voters, champion disinformation, discriminate against minorities and immigrants, and frame members of the press as enemies of the people.
The route to America’s democratic recovery lies in its institutions. Political circumstances such as these test the resiliency and democratic credentials of those institutions, and it is incumbent on the now House Democrats to restrain an administration that has shown disturbing disregard for democracy.
Speaking to foreign policy, Congress commands significant power, including “the power of the purse, the power to declare war, and the power to regulate the armed forces, trade, and immigration.” A top priority in this regard should be President Trump’s immigration policies, arguably the most undemocratic and un-American agenda in the White House today. Despite temporary opposition from the courts, the administration’s attempts to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) should be targeted with renewed vigour. As the executive director of United We Dream, Christina Jimenez claimed, the Democrats’ success in the House provides “an opening for us to stop the administration and hold the administration accountable.”
Beyond foreign policy, the Democratic-controlled House can also shed light where American democracy may most need it – the President’s conflicts of interest and ties to foreign adversaries – by requesting access to the President’s tax returns. As Matt Ford wrote in June, “if Democrats retake either the House or the Senate this fall members of the tax committees can obtain Trump’s tax returns directly from the IRS by using a provision in federal law that grants those committees special access to help craft legislation.”
I could continue to list a grand plethora of political decisions the Democrats can make to provide a counterweight to Trump. Beyond any particular policy challenge however, lies congressional oversight. Policy counters will, ultimately, come and go. Congressional oversight remains a constant against an administration sliding the US into an autocracy. Since 2016, Congress has been unified by a Republican Party that has lined up rank and file behind President Trump. For example, between January and November 2018, there have been only 14 full committee hearings conducted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that were not related to nominations. When compared to other administrations, this figure pales. For example, between 2009-2010 the same Committee conducted 45 hearings not related to nominations. Another striking highlight in the lack of congressional oversight came in July of this year, when the House Judiciary Committee notched up three years since its last hearing on the government’s immigration policies. These represent gross abdications of Congress’ duty to retain the checks and balances upon which American democracy depends.
Arguing that the essence of America’s course-changing playbook lies in congressional oversight may not sound as exciting as House Democrats requesting the President’s tax returns. However, it remains the foremost tool available to preserve American government as per its design, because it “can force administrations to rethink decisions.”
Democracy is unrecognisable without accountability, and, for two years, the Trump administration has largely operated unaccountable either to Congress or the wider American electorate. If House Democrats are willing to put in the long yards, President Trump will finally have to come to understand that America’s institutions are here to outlast his administration.