US must renew democracy at home, to strengthen democracy abroad

January 22, 2021 10:04
Photo: Reuters

Raucous riots. An unrepentant incumbent leader. A nation divided. And democratic institutions challenged by un-democratic forces.

Scenes that America had for long disparaged as the produce of authoritarian states took Capitol Hill by storm on January 6. In many ways, the events that day epitomise how far the country has descended from its historical role as a paradigm for democracy – that many had turned to as source of inspiration and thought leadership.

A 2020 Pew Research poll revealed that just 41% in the UK express a favourable opinion of the U.S., the lowest percentage in its survey history. Just 31% of the surveyed in France see the U.S. positively – equalling the ratings from March 2003, when the two countries were at loggerheads over the Iraq War. Only 9% in Belgium view Trump as capable of “doing the right thing in world affairs” – and even the staunchest American ally in the region, Japan, saw Trump’s support dwindle to 25%.

Trump’s tenure has left the country acrimoniously split, and democracy hanging in tethers – from blatant conflicts of interest in his personnel appointments, his open abuse of social media platforms to harass his critics, to his recent attempts to thwart the results of elections, America has borne witness to some rather ignominious acts from its leader, over the past four years.

More generally, American democracy has lost its glow. The country’s soaring COVID-19 figures, seemingly irreparable divisions across racial and ethnic lines, and Trump’s flip-flopping, kleptocratic reign have left many deeply disillusioned. The Republican Party’s open courting of Trump’s claims of electoral fraud have compromised the country’s integrity across the world – fundamentally damaging its credibility as a paradigm for fair elections and political representation. On the other hand, the Democratic Party establishment’s repeated failure to address the deeply rooted scepticism and grievances of the white working class has rendered it both out-of-touch and unrepresentative of the workers who lost out under globalisation and the financial crises over recent decades.

Some suggest that America could rehabilitate its image abroad through more active engagement, aid provision, and re-engaging with multilateral institutions whilst empowering its allies. Yet this proposal is inherently handicapped, given that America today possesses neither the perceived legitimacy to enforce or uphold democratic ideals, nor the domestic stability required for cogent policymaking and sustainable, long-termist planning. The former renders the country hypocritical in its calls for more open, inclusive governance. The latter aptly accounts for the scepticism that traditional allies have displayed towards the country – as epitomised by Germany and France’s recent snubbing of the incoming administration through advancing the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment.

The country would benefit, instead, from genuine and sustained efforts in renewing democracy domestically, through targeting the fundamental issues that precipitated its recent decline. Biden must hence pay more than lip service to reconciling liberals and conservatives, the havers and have-nots, those who have flourished and those who have lost their family and lifetime’s worth of wealth under the pandemic. More structurally, American politics must cater to more than just the powerful and the rich; limits to campaign financing, an end to strategic gerrymandering, and the enfranchisement of the poorest of the poor, must all take place with urgency – lest it be too late for the country’s decline to be reversed.

These reforms are easy in principle, yet arduous in practice. Biden must helm a razor-thin Democratic majority in the Senate, in driving forward policies that may well be opposed by the Establishment elite that have come to promulgate politics at home. Additionally, he must address the 74+ million who voted Trump in November, amongst which many will feel dissatisfied, if not fundamentally opposed, to the results of an election they deem as illegitimate.

To rejuvenate democracy, the entrenched establishment must eschew the elitist, alienating discourse that has left the majority of the country behind. Democrats must tread the fine line between not excluding those who disagree with the administration, and conceding too much to individuals who fundamentally reject democratic norms.

It is tempting to argue that America can do both – it can both renew democracy domestically, and advance democracy abroad. Yet reality is unkind: resources and political capital are scarce, and Biden must prudently prioritise in view of the adversities and adversaries that loom over him. Rather than funnelling funds into instigating new wars, or initiating humanitarian interventions that often end in botched civil strife, it is high time for America to pick its battles in a way that enables it to stand a better chance in the long run.

Arrogance and hubris may induce some to think that a dysfunctional America could still promote its brand democracy abroad, as a means of amplifying its soft power and sphere of influence, especially as a stop-gap measure against its rising challengers.

Yet in doing so, they should not be surprised about the conspicuously limited appetite for said kind of democracy – distorted and skewed by the uber-wealthy, and fundamentally arrogant at its core. American democracy is by no means the sole exemplar, if at all, of democracy out there – countries can look towards German federalism, Swiss direct democracy, or Japanese representative democracy, for starters.

For all its complaints about those who refuse to comply with the international order, it is high time for America to step up to its side of the moral equation. Rebuilding and re-establishing a functional democratic order is not only integral from a governance-centred point of view, but a necessary prerequisite for America to regain its stature and standing abroad – should it wish to.

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Assistant Professor, HKU