II. The alienation and three malaises of democracy in the US
From a historical perspective, the development of democracy in the US was a step forward. The political party system, the representative system, one person one vote, and the separation of powers negated and reformed the feudal autocracy in Europe. The well-known French writer Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this in his book Democracy in America. The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, abolitionist movement, civil rights movement and affirmative action were highlights in the advancement of American democracy. The principle of "government of the people, by the people and for the people" articulated by Abraham Lincoln is recognized worldwide.
However, over the years, democracy in the US has become alienated and degenerated, and it has increasingly deviated from the essence of democracy and its original design. Problems like money politics, identity politics, wrangling between political parties, political polarization, social division, racial tension and wealth gap have become more acute. All this has weakened the functioning of democracy in the US.
The US has often used democracy as a pretext to meddle in other countries' internal affairs, causing political chaos and social unrest in these countries, and undermining world peace and stability and social tranquility in other countries. This makes many people in the US and other countries wonder if the US is still a democracy. The world needs to take a closer look at the current state of democracy in the US, and the US itself should also conduct some soul-searching.
1. The system fraught with deep-seated problems
The US calls itself "city upon a hill" and a "beacon of democracy"; and it claims that its political system was designed to defend democracy and freedom at the time of its founding. Yet, the vision of democracy has lost its shine in the US today. The self-styled American democracy is now gravely ill with money politics, elite rule, political polarization and a dysfunctional system.
(1) American-style democracy has become "a game of money politics"
The American-style democracy is a rich men's game based on capital, and is fundamentally different from democracy of the people.
Over a hundred years ago, Republican Senator from Ohio Mark Hanna said of American politics: "There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can't remember the second." More than one hundred years have passed, and money has not only remained "the currency" in US politics, but also become even more indispensable. For example, the 2020 presidential election and Congressional elections cost some US$14 billion, two times that of 2016 and three times that of 2008; indeed, they are known as the most expensive elections in American history. The cost of the presidential election reached another record high of US$6.6 billion, and the Congressional elections cost over US$7 billion.
The fact that the American people have to face is that money politics has penetrated the entire process of election, legislation and administration. People in fact only have a restricted right to political participation. The inequality in economic status has been turned into inequality in political status. Only people with enough capital can enjoy their democratic rights provided by the Constitution. Money politics have increasingly become an "irremovable tumor" in American society and a mockery of democracy in the US.
A US Senator had a sharp observation, "Congress does not regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates Congress." According to statistics, winners of 91% of US Congressional elections are the candidates with greater financial support. Big companies, a small group of rich people, and interest groups are generous with their support and have become the main source of electoral funding. And those so-called representatives of the people, once elected, often serve the interests of their financial backers. They speak for vested interests rather than the ordinary people.
In March 2020, Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley and former Secretary of Labor, published a book entitled The System, Who Rigged It, How We Fix It. According to him, the American political system has been hijacked by a tiny minority over the past four decades. Political donations are almost seen as "legitimate bribery”. They enable the rich to have more political clout. During the 2018 midterm elections, the huge political donations, mostly coming from the top 0.01% ultra-rich of the American population, accounted for over 40% of campaign finance. Money politics and lobby groups are restricting channels for ordinary Americans to speak out, whose voices expressing genuine concerns are overshadowed by a handful of interest groups. The oligarchs would enrich themselves with the power they have got while totally ignoring the interests of ordinary Americans.
On 23 September 2020, in an interview with Harvard Law Today, Harvard Law School Professor Matthew Stephenson said that the US is by no means the world leader in clean government, and certain practices related to lobbying and campaign finance that other countries would consider corrupt are not only permitted but constitutionally protected in the US.