American Democracy Has Narrowly Revived

Joseph Preston Baratta
Professor of World History and International Relations at the Worcester State College, MA, USA

The new president has been inaugurated, but the former one has assembled political forces that still threaten the republic. The nation has been in turmoil since the elections in November.

Before the national elections, the Tyrant claimed he could not lose. He threatened to send militant thugs to intimidate citizens at their voting places. He appointed a new postmaster general who promptly began removing post boxes and restricting voting by mail. He urged state officials to throw out late ballots and guard against fraud and theft. When the results were tentatively announced the day after the election by the Associated Press, he refused to graciously concede to his opponent, and in fact has not conceded to this day. Weeks went by without an official count of the popular vote. When it was announced – 81,293,495 for the Democrat, 74,223,755 for the Republican – the Tyrant claimed he had still won the election, which he charged was stolen. He then initiated some 60 legal suits in state and federal courts, every one of which found no fraud. His attorney general, William Barr, Republican, stated officially that the Justice Department had uncovered “no voting fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”  When the Electoral College found the count as 306 to 232 (270 being necessary to determine the presidency), he pressed electors to reverse the popular vote. He made a phone call to the secretary of state of Georgia to “find 11,780 votes,” and threatened legal action against him if he did not –  an action which later became one of the articles of impeachment.

It happened that Georgia scheduled runoff elections for its two senators on January 5th. The people elected two Democrats, which had enormous significance for the future, since the Senate would then be equally divided, 50–50, leaving the vice-president, who presides over the Senate, to break the tie. That led to the extraordinary events of the next day, January 6, when the Senate was to formally open the certified votes of the Electoral College and declare the winner. The Tyrant whipped up a great crowd (10,000) of his supporters, who marched on the Capitol, where the vice-president was presiding over the official count. They overcame the weak police security, marched into the historic building with their banners flying (including one of the Civil War Confederacy), and ransacked the Capitol. Their goal was to break up the count and enable the current president to claim he had been re-elected. “Hang Mike Pence” was a call heard among the mob. “Put a bullet in the noggen of Nancy Pelosi” was an ambition of one of the rioters written on social media before the event. A mock scaffold with a noose was even erected on the expected inauguration platform. Although the mob left within hours – with only one death of a policeman and one of a protester –  what the president would have done, if his protestors had succeeded, can be imagined. The press called the event an “insurrection.”  But it was plainly an attempted coup d’état, by a president who was about to end American democracy.

What are the deeper causes of this crisis?   The country is deeply divided. The elections were actually very close. Only eight Republicans in the Senate and a handful in the House have broken from the former president. Although, in response to the insurrection or attempted coup, articles of impeachment have been sent to the Senate for trial (even after he has left the capital), conviction seems unlikely. Almost half the country refuses to accept that things can go on as usual. Injustices are too deep, going back decades to divisions during the Vietnam War, stagflation, abandonment of the IMF gold standard, Milton Friedman-style liberal economics, reductions of progressive taxation, increasing national debt, and globalization benefiting principally the rich. The outgoing president mobilized a “base” of mostly white workers whose jobs have gone abroad. They have deep grievances against “elites” in Washington who have made the working class pay for financial liberalization. Jobs, unions, homes, family life, religious values – all seem threatened. Workers support the Tyrant because he “hears them” and promises to “drain the swamp.” He would “make America great again,” if that could be done by isolationism and protectionism. Americans want globalization to slow down.

It does not yet appear, as I predicted on these pages four years ago, that the Republicans will split into a fascist party following the lead of the Tyrant and a traditional Robert Taft conservative party, nor the Democrats into a traditional liberal party on the model of Roosevelt’s economic bill of rights and a “left” progressive party led by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and many others. The two-party tradition is very strong in the U.S.A. lest we slip into the frustration of European multi-parties. Two parties, broadly liberal and conservative, may be necessary to the sustained success of democracy.

But politics must come to grips with modern problems. There has not been an increase in real incomes of ordinary Americans since the Carter presidency (1980). The richest 10 percent increased their share of total pretax income from about 33 percent in the late 1970s to 50 percent by 2012. The top one percent alone now capture more than 20 percent of total income, double their share they received before Reagan. Between 2009 and 2012, the top one percent have captured 95 percent of all gains from economic growth (Emanuel Saez). Between 1973 and 2011, productivity increased 80 percent, but median hourly compensation rose only 11 percent (Lawrence Mishel).  The average pay for the 25 highest-paid hedge fund managers climbed from $134 million in 2002 to an astonishing $537 million in 2012 (Steven Kaplan and Joshua Rauh). Meanwhile the highest income tax bracket has fallen from 70 percent in the Nixon period to 35 percent (Reagan) to 23 percent today – less than what the middle classes pay (Saez and Zucman). Reenacting a progressive tax code will be the key to justice, including racial justice, in the country.

The real heroes in this crisis of American democracy were the middle-ranked state officials and lower-ranked election commissioners and poll workers – often Republican –

who patiently obeyed the law, did their duty, and insured a fair vote. One of the best was the secretary of state of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, a conservative Republican, who stood up to the president and insisted that Mr. Biden had won fair and square in Georgia. Many judges, often appointees of the recent president, maintained the rule of law. Generals and common soldiers firmly faced what they would do if given unlawful orders to intervene in civilian politics or to launch a war in the usual way of tyrants. Near the end, the former president discussed with his latest secretary of defense and General Mike Milley about launching missiles on the nuclear facilities in Iran. We were reminded of how fragile is nuclear deterrence, dependent on “rational” leaders of sovereign states.

The winner of the election, now that the inauguration has properly been completed, is President Joseph (“Joe”) R. Biden Jr., 78, and Vice-President Kamala Harris, 56. Mr. Biden was an old senator from Delaware until he joined the Obama administration as vice-president. He has long experience in American government and is known for compassion and collaboration across party lines, unlike the Tyrant. Ms. Harris was twice elected attorney general and once senator of California. She is the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica. Technically Black (as Americans divide the human race), she is vividly aware of the plight of minorities. She is a tough prosecutor, rather “left,” and is already being mentioned for the presidency in 2024. Also, the whole House of Representatives (435 seats) and one third of the Senate (35 seats) were elected. The Democrats still have a majority in the House, though they lost some seats. In the Senate, Republicans now are tied with Democrats. There is prospect for long overdue action.

So begins the government of the United States for the next four years. Mr. Biden has begun to form his administration, which will not be confirmed by the Senate until after January 20. Named so far are Antony Blinken, 58, secretary of state, Jake Sullivan, 43, national security advisor, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, 68, UN ambassador. These three are most significant from a foreign policy point of view. Blinken has been deputy secretary and advisor, Sullivan aide to such officials, and Thomas-Greenfield a career diplomat. Other appointees, like Janet Yellen, a Keynesian economist and past chairperson of the Federal Reserve, to Treasury, and John Kerry as “envoy” on climate change, are very suggestive of future policy.

The Biden administration intends to return to American leadership abroad, but friends and allies must bear in mind that America must put its domestic house in order. The elections were not a mandate for a Democratic party legislative and executive revolution as in the New Deal of 1933. The fears of the Tyrant’s supporters for the old core of America before globalization will have to be addressed. Progressive change – as in ending the coronavirus pandemic, returning to W.H.O., restoring the economy, raising the minimum wage, passing a uniform voting rights and democracy law, protecting Obamacare, passing an infrastructure bill, enacting a progressive tax code, getting it right this time on racial justice, restraining the police, protecting labor in an age of artificial intelligence, protecting the schools from assault weapons, moderating immigration as befits a nation of immigrants, cooperating with other nations on green energy, and returning to international leadership among allies and adversaries – will have to be moderate. Americans must reunite the sweet land of liberty.

In foreign affairs, President Biden has already signed executive orders to return to the Paris accords on climate change. He aims to return if possible to the Iran deal, and negotiate START-4 on nuclear weapons. Whether he can revive the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) and Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaties seems impossible. Completing the Comprehensive Test Ban (CTB), which eight nations, including the U.S., of 44 actual and potential nuclear powers, are preventing from entering into force, looks for the far future. But a “new EU-US agenda for global change”, as proposed by the E Commission in December seems possible. There is also some potential for a return to the Partnership for Peace in NATO in order to reach the Common European Home proposed by Mikhail Gorbachev. Several Italians of the European Federalist Movement and I have been reviving this idea.

In President Biden's inaugural address, he said “Democracy has prevailed”. This is wishful thinking, though courageous. Biden is the right man for the times. But saving American democracy is not enough. There is a world to save. Look at Earth from the perspective of the moon. Or from Saturn on Voyager I, as interpreted by Carl Sagan. Earth is just a pale blue dot, lost in a sunbeam.

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