Op-Ed | US Elections 2020: Towards Democracy or Authoritarianism? | Kaushik Pal

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The USA has never been as polarized as it is now. The election of President Obama in 2008, the first black President, brought out the anger in the racist segment of the white community. They helped propel a white nationalist President Trump into office in 2016. Now the pendulum is about to swing the other way, led by a nationwide realization of systemic racism and a recognition that Black Lives Matter.

 

2020 has been a year unlike any other. The Covid-19 pandemic turned the world upside down. Every person in the world has been affected, directly or indirectly. Yet, the biggest event of 2020 will not be remembered as the pandemic, but in what direction the most powerful country on the earth, took in November. Did it move towards authoritarianism and dictatorship, as we see in other superpowers like China and Russia, and eventually a majority of humanity? Or, was it able to save the shreds of its faulty democracy and lay the groundwork towards a world that speaks for the people? An inflection point in history awaits us.

An imperfect system of Electoral College and disproportionate power of Senators that does not do justice to equal representation, combined with the disenfranchisement of African Americans in particular, is a serious and long-standing issue. With the help of a partisan Supreme Court, these combined faults might prove to be a deadly cocktail that could derail the experiment of democracy in the USA and lead the country towards authoritarianism.

 

The Problems of the US Constitution

The United States of America was founded by visionaries. The Founding Fathers created a masterful, living document in what is the US Constitution. However, just like the imperfect humans who wrote it, the document has many imperfections in it. The Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal”. Let us leave aside, for the moment, where the women are in this statement. This statement did not apply to all people, especially people of color. The Constitution’s three-fifths clause said that for the purposes of representation, blacks would be counted as three-fifths of the white inhabitants. After President Lincoln freed the slaves, enslavement still continued, initially through the Jim Crow laws, and then through Voter suppression, and after the Civil Rights Act, through systemic racism and various other means of disenfranchisement.

The country has always had a strong two-party system. This system gives too much power to two parties and forces everyone else to choose one party or the other. Too often, the poorer segments of the population, as well as the minorities, do not feel that either party represents them. A third party can be formed, but the rules make it very hard for them to be a force to be reckoned with. Thus, they either do not vote out of apathy, or they do not vote as a form of protest. A simple solution to that would be a Ranked Voting system. In order to not lose any vote, every vote must indicate a first, a second, a third choice and so forth. Once the candidate with the lowest number of first-choice votes is eliminated, the second choice candidate of those “rejected” votes gets those votes, and so on. Eventually, a single winner floats up to the top and no one has to cast a first choice vote to the “lesser of two evils”, and no vote is wasted. The truly most popular candidate will always win in this method. Having multiple candidates will also not make a difference. This will also encourage more voter participation, which currently stands at only 55%.

 

Unequal Representation in the Senate

The US Senate was established with the rule of two Senators per state. The framers believed that all states should have an equal say and that the Senators would serve as “ambassadors” of the state and would cement ties with the national government. However, this rule favors the less populated, rural states, which tend to be conservative; and does not give equal representation to urban voters, who tend to be liberals. For example, the combined population of the lowest 20 out of the 50 states is equal to that of California. These 20 states have 40 Senators representing them. Yet, California has only 2 Senators representing the same number of people. By 2040, it is projected that 70% of the people will only have 30% of the representation in the Senate. A single voter in Wyoming currently has 70 times the representation than that of a Californian in the Senate. This goes against the “one person, one vote” philosophy.

In the Senate, there must be more representation of the urban people. Puerto Rico and DC have long been part of the USA, but with no Senators to represent them. Puerto Rico is a US territory and has a population that would make it rank 31 out of 50 states. The population of DC is more than that of Vermont or Wyoming. It is high time that these two territories are given representation through Statehood, and that would also add 4 more Senators and add some balance.

 

The outdated concept of the Electoral College

The Electoral College similarly ignores the wishes of the majority of the country and makes the wishes of a few key swing states very significant. The Electoral College was born out of a compromise. The founders were skeptical of Congress picking the President, as that might lead to corruption. At the same time, in the absence of real examples around the world, they thought that the majority may not have the acumen to pick a President. Not being fully informed about the candidates due to a lack of information, and the possibility of being steered by a herd mentality, the majority might vote for an unfit candidate. The Electoral College that sits somewhere in the middle of these two lines of thought, that allows electors to pick the President, was born. However, it has long lost its value. It is no wonder that in the last 28 years, the Republicans have won the majority of votes only once out of seven times (in 2004), which is a win percentage of 14% while winning the Electoral College and holding the Presidency in 12 out of the 28 years, which is 43%.

Fixing the Electoral College for good is complicated. Any amendment to the Constitution must be approved by two-thirds of both the House and the Senate, an unlikely scenario. It must then be ratified by three-fourths of the states, i.e. 38 states. This is a complicated process. However, the Constitution gives individual states a lot of power to choose their electors in a manner they deem fit. Most states currently award all their electors to the candidate that wins the popular vote in that state. If they either (a) pledge to award their electors to the winner of the national vote instead, or (b) if they pledge their electors in proportion to the popular vote in their state, as some states do now, then the problem of Electoral College will go away without an amendment to the Constitution.

 

The Power of the President over the Supreme Court

Yet another fault in the fabric of the Constitution is the power it gives a President to shape the highest law of the land, the Supreme Court, in a partisan way. The Justices are there for life, with no term limits. With the expected nomination of yet another conservative Supreme Court Justice, to replace the trailblazing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it is expected to become 6-3 in favor of the conservative minority, which does not represent the country’s majority population, which is liberal.

In the 2016 Presidential election, 48% of the electorate voted for Hillary Clinton, while 45% voted for Donald Trump, a normalized breakdown of 52-48, which is the same as what happened in the 2012 election. The Supreme Court is soon going to be 33% liberal, 67% conservative, which does not reflect the values of the people at all. This will probably stay for several decades because Supreme Court Justices are lifetime appointments. A solution to this imbalance would be if Biden, should he win, pack the Supreme Court with 4 more liberal Justices, taking the balance to 7-6 from the current 3-6, which is normalized to 54-46, that is closer to 52-48 than 33-67, and would be in line with the sentiments of the general population.

All of these faults above can combine very soon and prove to be crucial in the crumbling of democracy.

 

The 2020 Election

With less than 3 weeks to go, Vice President Joe Biden has a solid lead nationally and in the Electoral College votes and all indicators are of a landslide win for him. However, anything can happen, depending on how President Trump uses these imperfections in the system, to his advantage.

With a mountain of debt to repay and several court cases that President Trump is likely to lose once his Presidential powers are no more, he could face years in prison. It is no surprise that he will try to stay on to power by any means necessary. Having survived impeachment proceedings against him, he now feels empowered to go beyond the laws of the land, without fear. He is laying the groundwork in multiple ways, including spreading false conspiracy theories.

He is trying to disqualify his opponent, by trying to indict him in some falsified charges, as dictators do around the world. He is trying to slow down the Post Office by eliminating mailboxes and decommissioning several mail sorting machines, by disenfranchising voters in Democratic districts by closing down voting locations and limiting ballot drop off boxes, and even by calling out White Supremacists to arm themselves and “stand by” and intimidate voters in select districts.

As a last resort, he might also try to declare victory prematurely, and declare all mail-in ballots that are yet to be counted be disqualified, by highlighting and exaggerating the few inevitable mistakes that are bound to happen. The Democrats will counter-sue and probably win. Trump will then take that losing case all the way up to the Supreme Court, where his last hope is a partisan court that will rule 6-3 in his favor.

 

What lies beyond this historic Election

The USA has never been as polarized as it is now. The election of President Obama in 2008, the first black President, brought out the anger in the racist segment of the white community. They helped propel a white nationalist President Trump into office in 2016. Now the pendulum is about to swing the other way, led by a nationwide realization of systemic racism and a recognition that Black Lives Matter.

With each swing of the pendulum, both the Republican party and the Democratic party are being pulled towards their extremes. The Progressives have drawn the Democratic Party much more to the left and that pull will continue, should Biden win. Even though Biden is moderate in his views, he has formulated his policies that are more progressive than any President since Lyndon Johnson. Similarly, Trump has successfully moved the Republican party to the extreme right, with the support of the scared Republicans who enabled him and rebuilt it on a foundation that is backed by racism and feelings of white superiority.

Regardless of who wins, this polarization is expected to continue further.

 

 

Kaushik Pal was born in a remote college town in India, where he grew up with some great childhood friends who kept him on a straight path. He had no choice but to go to college there and get a degree in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Kharagpur. He now lives in Canton, Michigan, with his wife and two children, and gets paid by Ford Motor Company to drive a Mustang. Kaushik is the author of no books, and with all the time that he saved by not writing the books that he never wrote, he admires the amazing universe. He also amazed himself recently, when in a temporary moment of insanity, he actually ran a half-marathon, with the only goal being to survive to be able to vote in the 2020 election.

 

 

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