Is America a failing democracy?

Republicans disregard Biden's win and press on to nullify the election results

Shahid Javed Burki November 15, 2020
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank


The terms “failing state”, “failed state”, “fragile state” came into use as a result of the analytical work done by economists and other social scientists working in institutions such as the World Bank. Since mid-1970s, the World Bank has been publishing the yearly World Development Report (WRD) which presents the institution’s view of the state of the global economy at the time of writing. WRDs also report on research done by staff on a subject the bank considers relevant at the time of publication of the document. In one of those the institution focused on “fragile” states. All those identified as belonging to this category of states were in the developing part of the world. Pakistan was considered one of the countries that met the criteria. No developed country was seen to be part of this group of nations. However, the state of political affairs in the United States at the time of this writing and around the time Americans cast votes for those they put in elected offices, some in policy circles had begun to wonder whether the country was heading towards becoming a failed state and a failed democracy.

The World Bank’s work in the area appear to have influenced the thinking of Joseph Tainter whose work, The Collapse of Complex Societies, published in 1988, became the seminal text in the study of societal collapse. “Civilisations are fragile, impermanent things,” he wrote in the book. “Nearly every one that has existed has also ceased to exist,” yet “understanding disintegration has remained a distinctly minor concern in the social sciences,” he complained. Scholars “have spent years of research on the question of why complex societies have developed but have devised no corresponding theories to explain the collapse of these systems.” The elections of November 3, in the US may provide an occasion to bring in scholarship in this neglected area of social science research.

The elections seem to have produced a result that should have put Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, on the way to assuming office of the country’s president on January 20, 2021. However, incumbent Donald Trump refused to accept the result and refused also to prepare for the transfer of power to the person who received at least five million votes more than the President. As Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, who now writes a weekly column for The New York Times, put it in the one he penned three days after the election day, “If we were looking at a foreign country with America’s level of political dysfunction, we would probably consider it on the edge of becoming a failed state — that is a state whose government is no longer able to exert effective control.”

What makes American political structure close to being dysfunctional is its not-fully representative structure. Every state in the country has two senators, which make up the upper house of Congress. The mid-western state of Wyoming with 579,000 residents has as much weight as California’s 39 million people. In terms of population, these two are respectively the smallest and the largest states in the country. The over-weighted states tend to be much less urbanised than the nation as a whole. And given the growing political divide between metropolitan and rural areas, this gives the Senate a strong rightward tilt. This structure is a legacy of the time when the US came into being. Then the 13 states that came together to form the United States of America and rebel against British rule developed a structure that gave higher level of representation to the small rural states than to the large and urban. This rural, small-town bias continued to be reflected in the way America was governed.

The 2020 election brought people out on the street, some dancing and others mourning. Biden, the president-elect, knows from experience how difficult such simple sentiments are to attain. “Another historic moment not long ago — the 2008 election of the country’s first Black president, Barack Obama with Mr Biden as his vice-president, also prompted dancing in the streets,” recalled Dan Barry writing for The New York Times. And it too was framed as a moment of healing unification. The feeling did not last long. But Mr Biden still recognised a need to call, once again, for the nation to come together. “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric,” he said. “To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again.” But the Republicans disregarded these appeals and pressed on to nullify the election results.

President Trump in particular did not share the sentiment expressed by president-elect Biden. He did not believe that a moment of healing had arrived. He and his close associates continued to assert that the election had been stolen from them. They launched a massive legal campaign to show that malpractices on the part of Democratic Party officials had resulted in electoral fraud. While launching dozens of cases in courts, they refused to help the in-coming administration make the transition. There was a logic in the position they took: the Biden administration could not be “in-coming” since it was not legitimately elected.

Always attracted to conspiracy theories to explain those who opposed him, President Trump maintained that he was a victim of a wide-ranging efforts stretching across the country in multiple cities, counties, states involving untold numbers of people. These people somehow collaborated to steal the election in ways he was unable to explain. As one analyst put it, “a presidency born in a lie about Barack Obama’s birthplace appeared on the edge of ending in a lie about his own faltering bid for re-election.” With those in the Republican Party not providing much support to the President, it was left to his family members to come forward on his behalf. “The total lack of action from virtually all of the 2024 hopefuls is pretty amazing,” Donald Trump Jr tweeted. “They have a perfect platform to show that they’re willing and able to fight but they will cower to the media mob instead.”

Trump’s handling of the presidency invited a great deal of academic scrutiny as the regime he had headed for four years marched towards extinction. When it goes, will it take the American political system with it? The answer came from Carlos Lozada who reviews books for The Washington Post. After reading 150 books that looked at various aspects of Trump’s governance, he published a short book, What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era. His main conclusion: “Trump may be the muse of the death-of-democracy bookshelf, but it is not a distinction he carries alone. Degraded norms, and disenfranchised, Chinese ambition and Russian revanchism, unprincipled political parties and unequal administration of justice — these are among the many maladies of democracy in our age. The scholars and analysts writing such books are, so far, better at diagnosing ailments than proposing treatments. It is almost as if, daunted by the scale of the problem, they have downsized their designs, as though our democracy is now so weakened that even mild medicine might prove too taxing.” In other words greater effort will need to be made to save American democracy from failing.


Published in The Express Tribune, November 16th, 2020.

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