The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The American political system is broken

A crowd watches results for Hillary Clinton on election night at the Jacob K. Javits Center New York. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Mehdi Hasan is a British broadcaster and author based in Washington. He is the host of “UpFront” on Al Jazeera English.

Consider the following scenarios: What if Venezuela held a presidential election and President Nicolás Maduro claimed victory with fewer votes than his main rival? Or if Russian liberals won the most votes in the country’s legislative elections but failed to secure the most seats in the Duma? Or if Iranian authorities tried to prevent members of the country’s largest minority group from voting?

Can you imagine the howls of outrage from the White House press secretary? The pious calls from the State Department spokesman to respect the will of the people and protect minorities? Yet all of these undemocratic travesties occurred. Here in the United States, in front of our noses.

Much has been written since Election Day about the need to resist the “normalization” of racism and misogyny. Less has been said about the “normalization” of democratic dysfunction, the signs of which are all around us.

 Take the popular vote. Sorry, Americans, it’s just not “normal” for the candidate who came in second to be declared the winner of the race for the second time in the space of a mere 16 years. In 2000, George W. Bush was elected the 43rd president of the United States despite winning about 540,000 fewer votes than his Democratic opponent; in 2016, Donald Trump has been elected 45th president despite trailing Hillary Clinton by 2 million votes.

None of the other Western democracies have anything comparable to the archaic U.S. electoral college — which Trump himself once dismissed as a “disaster for a democracy” and which Americans across the political spectrum have been consistently in favor of abolishing — and therefore have not experienced anything similar over the same period. In the United Kingdom, for example, the last time a political party won the most seats in parliament while losing the popular vote was in 1974. Before that? 1951.

Take campaign spending. The United States continues to spend more on elections than any other country on Earth, with the 2016 race for control of the White House and Congress costing a record $6.8 billion. For comparison, consider India: With a population almost four times that of the United States, the price tag for the 2014 Indian parliamentary elections was almost $2 billion less.

Consider also the 2016 Senate race in tiny New Hampshire (population: 1.4 million), where an astonishing $120 million was spent by the two main candidates and their supporters. By contrast, in the U.K. (population: 64 million), where the 2015 general election has been described as the most expensive British election on record, the combined spending of all U.K. political parties reached … $60 million.

Only in the United States is money considered “speech” and corporations classed as “people.” Most other democracies recognize the latter position in particular, to quote former U.S. Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens, as undermining “the integrity of elected institutions” and the “cause of self-government.”

 Take turnout. The United States falls far behind most other developed democracies, coming 31st out of the 35 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). How many Americans are aware that more of them stayed at home on Nov. 8 than voted for either Trump or Clinton? Or that, despite the closeness of the race, turnout fell from 58.6 percent in 2012 to 58.1 in 2016?

Compare and contrast U.S. voter turnout with recent rates in OECD member states where voting is compulsory, such as Australia (91 percent), Belgium (87 percent) and Turkey (84 percent). “Of the five highest-turnout OECD countries in recent elections,” noted a recent Pew study, “three have laws requiring their citizens to go to the polls.” Few Americans are aware that the state of Georgia, in its pre-independence 1777 Constitution, made voting compulsory and “subject to a penalty.” Is it time for the United States to invoke the Georgia precedent?

Take voter suppression. It looks like U.S. politicians across the country have mastered the dark art of denying certain citizens their right to vote. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, 15 states had new voting restrictions in place for the presidential election as “part of a broader movement to curtail voting rights, which began after the 2010 election.”

Consider the swing state of North Carolina. On the eve of the election, a federal judge said she was “horrified” by the “insane” process by which people were “being purged” from the voter rolls. In July, a three-judge panel ruled that the state’s 2013 voting law could only be explained by “discriminatory intent” and “hinged” on a concern that “African Americans … had too much access to the franchise.”

To be clear: Republican politicians have spent years  trying to prevent black people from voting. To quote one longtime North Carolina Republican strategist: “Of course it’s political. Why else would you do it?” 

Take gerrymandering. The practice of redrawing the boundaries of electoral districts to secure party-political advantage is neither new nor exclusive to the United States. Yet the difference is that gerrymandering in the United States is actively encouraged, to quote Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris, by “leaving the processes of redistricting in the hands of state politicians, rather than more impartial judicial bodies.”

Democratic systems that show little evidence of gerrymandering tend to be those that recognize the blindingly obvious connection between an impartial election management body and an impartial election process — Australia, for example, has the Australian Electoral Commission, Canada has Elections Canada and the U.K. has four boundary commissions, all of which are either independent or operate at arms-length from the various executives and legislatures.

In the United States, however, the Republicans, who currently dominate state legislatures, have perfected the practice of gerrymandering, pulling off, in the words of investigative journalist David Daley, “the most audacious political heist of modern times.” Republican dominance in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, notes Daley, are a result of “maps that were drawn after the 2010 redistricting.”

Is this really what we define as democracy? Or is this, to quote the president-elect, a “rigged” system? Rigged not against Trump and the Republicans but against the poor, against ethnic minorities, against Democrats but, above all else, against basic democratic norms and principles and pretty simple notions of equality and fairness?

This isn’t a time for denial or deflection. The American political system is broken. Far from being the “world’s greatest democracy,” to quote President Obama, representative democracy in the United States seems further hollowed out with every election cycle.