For polarised US democracy, mid-terms bring a tiny reprieve

Many newly elected Republicans deny that Trump lost the 2020 White House election. Photo; AFP
Many newly elected Republicans deny that Trump lost the 2020 White House election. Photo; AFP


  • This week’s outcomes in America suggest a loosening of Trump’s grip on the Republican party.

To understand just how fractured the US has become, consider the brutal assault of Paul Pelosi by an intruder who was seeking to take House speaker and Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi hostage and break her kneecaps. Paul Pelosi, 82, suffered serious head injuries and could have been killed had police not shown up promptly. Yet, few Republicans have condemned the attack. Instead, more than a few Republican politicians have fuelled bizarre conspiracy theories on social media suggesting the attacker was a gay lover of Paul Pelosi. This was even retweeted by Elon Musk, Twitter’s new owner—in an indication of just how irresponsible his stewardship of Twitter is likely to be—before he deleted his retweet.

In their seminal book ‘How Democracies Die’, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that there are “four behavioral warning signs" that suggest a democracy is in peril: “We should worry when a politician 1) rejects the democratic rules of the game 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents 3) tolerates or encourages violence 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media." The near certainty that the Republicans will control the House of Representatives after this week’s mid-term elections in the US has raised concerns they will seek to impeach President Joseph Biden, despite having no cause to do so, and launch investigations into the business activities of his son Hunter Biden in a bizarre tit-for-tat against an entirely legitimate probe of the attack on Capitol Hill on 6 January that was encouraged by then President Donald Trump. Many newly elected Republicans deny that Trump lost the 2020 White House election.

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Given this ugly backdrop, the better-than-expected results for the Democrats in these mid-term elections and the lack of violence so far is a cause for optimism. The thumping re-election of Florida governor Ron DeSantis and the likelihood that he will seek to be the Republican candidate for US presidency in 2024 also raises the prospect that Trump’s stranglehold on the party might be contested, which is a good thing for inner-party democracy—and for America.

Democracies the world over have become so dysfunctional because of the excesses of right-wing populism in the past couple of years that moderates have begun to look for silver mines under every cloud. Biden’s congratulatory tone on Thursday even as his party looked set to lose the House is but one example. The narrow defeat of President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil last month was unalloyed good news, but the fact that he very nearly won after having completely mismanaged the pandemic, is worrying. Even by the standards of the far-right, Bolsonaro’s dismissal of World Health Organization (WHO) advice on social distancing during the covid pandemic, which he likened to a little flu, was unique. Bizarrely, Bolsonaro said the WHO encouraged young children to be gay and to masturbate. He later deleted this Facebook post. In Italy, the newly elected far right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has signalled that she wants to distance herself from feminists. She has relatively few women in her cabinet in a country that far lags the EU average for women’s labour participation. Her office initially insisted that she be referred to as “Mr President" before settling for the use of the masculine article ‘il’ rather than ‘la’ before her official title.

All of this is representative of the right’s canny dog whistles, from the US to Italy, as many members of the electorate react against what they see as political correctness in dealing with women’s rights, and gay and transgender rights. Strangely, even a politician such as Trump has the support of the Christian evangelical right because he and his political colleagues indulge in this, most recently in absurd claims made about Paul Pelosi’s attacker being in his underwear.

The better showing than expected by Democrats in mid-term polls notwithstanding, democracies worldwide are under siege from a cacophony of lies amplified by social media. A New York Times podcast this week with American novelist George Saunders reminds us that he referred to social media as the “Braindead Megaphone" a decade-and-a-half ago. Long before Musk fired much of Twitter’s moderation team, setting us up for more extreme claims and more polarization, Saunders wrote, “If we define the Megaphone as the composite of the hundreds of voices we hear each day that come to us from people we don’t know, via high-tech sources, it’s clear that a significant component of that voice has become shrill, incurious, ranting, and agenda-driven. It strives to antagonize us, make us feel anxious; convince us that the world is full of enemies." The political polarization and conspiracy theories only promise to get worse with Musk running Twitter.

So too does the politicization of the judicial process in countries like the US and India. On Thursday, a Mumbai court characterized the Enforcement Directorate’s case against Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut as a “witch-hunt" and released him on bail. The term could just as easily be used for the continuing detention of Umar Khalid and journalist Siddique Kappan, both of whom had bail pleas dismissed last month. As Levitsky and Ziblatt observe, a democracy is in peril when civil liberties are routinely disregarded. Just as our judiciary and enforcement agencies tend to do today.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent. 

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