America’s Broken Democracy

Brahma Chellaney, The New Indian Express

In his national security strategy released in October, U.S. President Joe Biden promised to focus on restoring a damaged democracy at home. But the first-ever indictment of a former president in American history is likely to deepen the divide in an already bitterly polarized United States. Biden, far from promoting national reconciliation and healing as president, has proved as divisive as his predecessor, Donald Trump.

After the unsealing of the indictment, the criminal case against Trump looks even weaker than expected.

Indeed, some of former Trump’s fiercest critics, like Mitt Romney, have slammed the Manhattan district attorney’s case against the former president (who is running again for the same office) as flimsy and designed “to fit a political agenda.” Legal experts say it sets a dangerous precedent to go after political opponents. The district attorney belongs to the same party as Biden, against whom Trump is running.

According to a Quinnipiac University poll, more than two-thirds of Americans think U.S. democracy is broken. America’s image as a flawed democracy is likely be reinforced by the weaponization of the justice system, which is what Trump’s indictment represents.

The essence of democracy is that those in office will not misuse their power to go after political opponents. Yet high-profile political prosecutions through the misuse of the judicial apparatus are increasing in democracies.

For example, Brazil’s current president, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, was in 2017 convicted for alleged corruption and jailed until the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the judge who presided over the trial was biased against da Silva. Indeed, that judge became justice minister under President Jair Bolsonaro, who possibly would not have been elected in 2018 had da Silva not been in prison.

Stretching the law to target Biden’s leading opponent will make it more difficult for the U.S. to heal the deep split in society and transcend hardened polarization. Trump’s indictment followed the FBI’s unusual raid last August on his Mar-a-Lago residence in search of classified documents. Ironically, classified documents from Biden’s time as vice president were subsequently discovered at his Delaware home and elsewhere.

As president, Trump’s remarks often bore the hallmarks of bombastic assertions. But he also at times displayed refreshing candour and honesty on U.S. national security and foreign policy, which made him a key target of the “Deep State”, thus spurring false Russia-collusion claims and two failed impeachments.

To be sure, democratic ethics and values have come under growing pressure across the free world. The fever of polarizing politics has risen largely because the quality of political leadership has declined in almost all democratic countries. Instead of seeking national reconciliation, leaders have fanned the embers of divisive politics.

Media outlets have helped amplify such hyper-partisanship. They not only reflect but also drive the polarization in many democracies. Instead of adhering to a guiding ethic to report news objectively and in a balanced way, many newspapers and TV channels market, not report, news. According to one Gallup poll, Americans’ trust in the media has sunk to just 36%.

Many democracies are intensely polarized — from South Africa and India to South Korea and Brazil. Public trust in politicians across the democratic world has reached an all-time low.

But the U.S. is so polarized that it has been referred to as “One America, Two Nations.” It has morphed into the Polarized States of America, with both sides of the political divide resorting to inflammatory rhetoric and fuelling the deep divide.

Thanks to the widening schism between the two sides — which are segregated in their own ideological silos — tolerance for opposing views is increasingly in short supply. Such is America’s political divide that people holding rival beliefs are unwilling to even communicate with each other.

The partisan divide extends even to foreign policy. While U.S. public opinion surveys show that China has left Russia far behind to become America’s greatest enemy, far more Democrats than Republicans remain fixated on Russia. This has a bearing on actual policy, with Biden more focused on a declining Russia than on a globally expansionist China.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to move further away from the healing and unity Biden called for in his inauguration speech. Far from helping to end what he described as the “uncivil war” between liberals and conservatives, Biden has added fuel to the divisive politics. As Biden acknowledges in his national security strategy, “We live at a moment of passionate political intensities and ferment that sometimes tears at the fabric of the nation”.

U.S. hyper-partisan politics is plumbing new depths, cementing political divisions and poisoning national discourse. It is also undermining America’s international standing. This has emboldened the world’s largest and longest-surviving autocracy, China, to cheekily lecture the U.S. on human rights and democracy. For example, Yang Jiechi, the leader of the Chinese delegation at the March 2021 talks in Anchorage, Alaska, delivered a 16-minute jeremiad against U.S. hypocrisy and double standards.

Instead of fixing its broken democracy, the U.S. seeks regime change in the countries it targets — from Russia to Myanmar and Iran. It also lectures other countries, including India, on human rights, even as the human rights situation remains appalling within the U.S., where police kill more than 1,000 civilians each year.

For example, the State Department annually releases country reports on human rights practices that target America’s friends and foes alike. Meanwhile, the killing and maiming of unarmed Black people by police in the U.S. continues to increase.

The blunt truth is that hyper-partisan politics and debilitating polarization are not just weighing American democracy down, but also threatening to erode America’s global pre-eminence. After all, the bitterly divisive politics impedes the pursuit of long-term objectives.

Given the relative decline of its power, the U.S. needs a dynamic, forward-looking president who can unify an increasingly divided country. A poll last year found that almost two-thirds of Americans believe that the U.S. is on the wrong track under Biden.

Against this background, the last thing America needed is a criminal case against a former president that represents a further erosion of legal and democratic norms. More than China or Russia, America’s biggest enemy is within: It needs to find ways to move past its politics of polarization and vituperation so as to heal the wide divide in society.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground”.