It’s time to call US democracy what it is — a failure

As we learned in kindergarten, you cannot accept the rules of the game only when you win. Try telling that to the GOP.

Kari Lake, Arizona Republican candidate for governor, speaks to supporters at the Republican watch party in Scottsdale, Arizona, in November.
Kari Lake, Arizona Republican candidate for governor, speaks to supporters at the Republican watch party in Scottsdale, Arizona, Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Lake is among many Republican candidates who have cast aspersions on the US electoral process [Ross D Franklin/AP Photo]

Polls closed on Tuesday evening in the United States’ latest democratic spectacle: the midterm elections — a topic the rest of the world has already had to hear far too much about and will continue to hear about, as some of the results may take days or weeks to confirm.

What we do know is that the “red wave” promised by Republicans did not exactly pan out; while the GOP is likely to take control of the House of Representatives, a deadlock looms in the Senate. The outcome of the crucial Senate race in Georgia will likely be postponed to a December run-off.

The delays and uncertainty mean the timing is ripe for a new cycle of election denialism, with growing mistrust in state institutions suggesting it will be increasingly difficult for the US to keep up democratic appearances.

In this year’s race for the Senate, House and other offices, a majority of Republican candidates have denied or cast doubt on President Joe Biden’s victory in 2020. So we will likely see quite a lot of politicians triumph in an electoral system they themselves have denounced as fraudulent.

Not that those who lose are guaranteed to accept the verdict either. Kari Lake, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Arizona who was narrowly trailing Democrat Katie Hobbs late on Tuesday night, outlined her approach as follows: “I’m going to win the election, and I will accept that result.”

Meanwhile, as the “red wave” fails to inflict its intended damage, there will undoubtedly be a deluge of baseless allegations of fraudulent postal ballots and other claims of deceit and underhandedness, and potentially even legal challenges à la Donald Trump in 2020.

As we learned in kindergarten, you cannot accept the rules of the game only when you win. And while the rules in this case are undeniably unjust — albeit not in the way election result deniers say they are — the current electoral tantrum is setting the stage for a potentially massive electoral meltdown in the presidential race of 2024. The US electoral system is once again up for appraisal in the country the Electoral Integrity Project previously ranked as having the worst elections out of all Western democracies.

Indeed, the flaws of US democracy have long been glaringly apparent, but this century has propelled them further into the spotlight.

In 2000, for example, a majority of US voters cast their ballots for Democrat Al Gore. There ensued protracted national drama over hanging chads and Electoral College votes in the state of Florida, and the US Supreme Court eventually handed the 2000 election to George W Bush instead, who went on to make a name for himself laying waste to Afghanistan and Iraq along with the English language.

In 2016, too, presidential contender Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election to Trump. This was, again, thanks to the machinations of the Electoral College, a slavery-era relic whose arcane and convoluted nature was designed to give more power to slave states and to ensure that “democracy” would never be, you know, democratic.

There is also gerrymandering — a tradition as American as apple pie, whereby partisan state legislatures engage in not-so-subtle voter redistricting in order to dilute the electoral power of demographics likely to vote for the opposing party. Imagine how up-in-arms the US would be over such behaviour in, say, Venezuela.

Then there is the issue of campaign finance and the sheer amount of money that goes into the whole electoral process — funds that could certainly be used for healthcare, affordable housing, education, or any number of other initiatives that would better serve the needs of the average US inhabitant than a perpetual election cycle sustaining a two-party monopoly.

In 2010, the Supreme Court reversed campaign finance restrictions to allow corporations and wealthy donors a more transparent hand in buying political influence. In these latest midterms, federal and state spending was expected to exceed $16.7bn, making them the most expensive midterms in the history of the US — funny, when common Americans’ economic struggle was the hottest election topic.

And in September, The New York Times found that at least 97 members of Congress had “bought or sold stock, bonds or other financial assets that intersected with their congressional work” or had reported similar financial activity by their spouse or child. Talk about a racket.

To be sure, while US democracy ostensibly consists of “rule by the people” and all that good stuff, the system thwarts any approximation of actual popular control over anything. Citizens are, of course, permitted to periodically traipse to the ballot box to participate in the whole democratic charade and symbolically validate the continued tyranny of a bipartisan elite.

And yet even the largely cosmetic exercise of the right to vote has suffered widespread additional obstructions in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, which two-thirds of Republicans continue to claim was won by Trump and not Biden. Numerous states have implemented voting restrictions, from the elimination of ballot drop-off locations to more creatively sinister manoeuvres like banning the distribution of water to voters, which inevitably disproportionately affects minority voters waiting in long lines.

Speaking of disproportion, there is also the matter of the US Senate, described in the New Yorker as the “almost comically malapportioned body that gives Wyoming’s five hundred and eighty thousand residents the same voting power as California’s thirty-nine million”. It’s an arrangement that was also devised to favour white landowners.

Again, equal representation has never been the name of the game. To date, the US has had a total of no more than 11 Black senators.

Ahead of the midterms, Biden warned that “democracy is on the ballot for all of us”. Never mind that Biden himself is complicit in a fundamentally undemocratic panorama where “one person, one vote” has never been an option — and where merely trying to comprehend the Electoral College can give you an aneurysm.

Significantly, most Americans favour replacing the Electoral College system with a direct popular vote. But listening to that majority would be dangerously democratic.

Earlier this year, a Brookings Institution report worried that US democracy was “failing”, and that in doing so it was, God forbid, putting capitalism at risk. The solution, according to the report’s authors, was for US corporate capitalist heavyweights to intervene even more heavily in politics, ie to do more of what made the US an undemocratic corporate plutocracy in the first place.

This midterm season, it has once again been made painfully clear that electoral democracy in the US is failing. But since US democracy was designed to be undemocratic, is it not also succeeding in its failure?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.