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Why the US is a model of how not to be a democracy

Thanks to Trump, the whole world woke up to one of the most poorly kept secrets of American politics.

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Democrats all over the world wait anxiously for the much-deserved departure of Donald Trump. It could be a long wait and could well extend to another four years. At the time of this article being published, the vote count appears to be leaning towards Trump. Yet, those who care for democracy, must be grateful to Trump for something. He has singlehandedly demolished one of the biggest myths of our time: the myth of the greatness of American democracy, the idea that the US was as an exemplar of democracy, a model for others to emulate. This may be a painful realisation for many. In the last instance, this is good news for Democrats.

Now, Trump should not get all the credit for demolishing the American model. He simply ensured that the whole world woke up to some of the most poorly kept secrets of American politics. Above all, he left no room to doubt that, like everywhere else, some of the top leaders in this great democracy were intellectually and morally challenged. That someone like him could bully his way to the White House and, perhaps, retain it for another term reveals something very disturbing about the American public. His mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic blurred the imaginary distinction between the first and the third world. His appointment to the Supreme Court, just before the elections, threw light on what a scandal apex judicial appointments in the US are. His not-so-hidden support for  White supremacists in the face of the #BlackLivesMatter movement exposed the underbelly of racial divisions in the US. Finally, the global attention he brought to the presidential election 2020 has served to expose the shoddy electoral system in the US. Clearly, the US could learn a thing or two from India on how to conduct elections and carry out a quick and clean count of votes.

In sum: Thanks to Donald Trump, the world learnt that the US is just one of the democracies in the world. It has its strengths and its weaknesses. It needs to learn from other democracies before it preaches the same to the rest of the world. No matter who emerges victor, the process and the outcome of the current election is bound to reinforce this lesson.

Also read: Americans face stark choice as election day 2020 dawns

Not a model

I learnt this lesson much earlier, thanks to my friend-cum-co-author-cum-teacher, the late Alfred Stepan. A great scholar of comparative politics, Professor Stepan (and the late Juan J. Linz) could talk about intricacies of authoritarian regimes in South America, the Catalan issue in Spain or the Russian minority in Ukraine with as much ease as he would discuss the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka or the Burmese transition to democracy. He was passionate about India (an M.F. Husain in his drawing room reminded everyone of his India connect) and curious to understand every single detail of Indian politics. (He travelled to Mizoram to understand how the state returned to normalcy after 1987). I learnt a lot from him and Professor Linz while co-writing a book, Crafting State-Nations.

Towards the end of his life, Professor Stepan started reflecting on his own country, the United States, by placing it in a comparative perspective. He was no Left-wing critic of American capitalism. He was quintessentially American and passionately liberal-democrat. His conclusion, much before Trump was anywhere on the scene, was unambiguous: if the world is to democratise, the US is not a model to emulate.

I was an easy convert to this view, as I have always suspected moral claims from the global North. But I have found this a tough lesson to take across in a world obsessed with the US of A. Trump made my job easier. Today may be the right day to mention four key reasons why the US is not a model for a democracy. The first two are related to institutional design and the other two are about the nature of politics.

Also read: India wants US-style govt system, but forgets America doesn’t have ‘one nation, one election’

Flawed systems

The first is the famed but deeply flawed “presidential” system of the US. It is well known that the US-style presidential system institutes regular conflict between the legislature and the executive, leading to routine deadlocks. Alfred Stepan theorised it differently: the real problem with the presidential system of government is that it makes power indivisible and coalition making that much more difficult. This comes in the way of the power-sharing so necessary for the accommodation of diversities. Also, the American system leads to several veto points. Stepan demonstrated brilliantly that the greater the number of veto points in a political system, the higher the inequality in that society. He never failed to remind us that among the long-standing democracies, the US was the most unequal country. That is why any attempts to replicate the US-style presidential model, whether in South America or in the ex-USSR countries, has mostly been a disaster.

The second element of the US model is its unique federalism. In the US, every power is assumed to be with the state, unless specifically given to the centre. You can see this even in how they conduct national elections. Each state has its own rules of who can vote, under what procedure, when and how. Not just that, each state has its own timetable of when they would count results, whether votes received after today would be accepted and what would be the deadline for completing the count. The states zealously guard these rights in a society that is otherwise increasingly homogeneous. This was held out to a “pure” model of federalism. Stepan reminded us that this was by no means a model, that it was a feature of a certain kind of “coming together” federalisms and need not be replicated by countries where various units were already together before they adopted federalism.

The US is a textbook example of what political scientists call “symmetrical” federalism. Every federal unit has exactly the same powers. Every state, tiny or gigantic, has two seats in the US Senate. And the Senate is more powerful than the House of Representatives that reflects the population strengths of various states. Stepan pointed out that accommodation of deep diversities requires special situations to be recognised and given special treatment. Therefore, “asymmetrical” federalism of the kind we have in Canada and India is more suited for living with deep diversities. Here, too, the US is not a good model.

Also read: How counting of votes takes place in US states & why we shouldn’t expect a final result soon

Trump adds to the list

Trump has added two more reasons to the list of why the US is not a model for democracies. One, Trump’s presidency has exposed how hollow the American two-party system is. Both the major parties are devoid of ideological orientation or organisational depth. Far from providing a choice, the two-party system is a model of choicelessness. Even if Biden were to win this election, he would be a paler copy of Trump, minus the vitriolic. Two, the last four years have proven how fickle, gullible and manipulable the American public opinion is. Alex de Tocqueville had noticed it more than two hundred years ago. Trump proved that the onset of mass media and social media has made it worse. Whether he wins or not, he has shown that you can get away with lies, hatred and bigotry. Worse, he has shown that you can do so in the face of the most powerful media in the world that repeatedly called him out. Clearly, free speech offers little assurance that truth shall prevail. The US is not the first place in the world to offer this sombre lesson. India is among the long list of countries to offer similar lessons.

The world awaits a new theory of democracy. Meanwhile, we can begin by celebrating the demolition of the US-led model of democracy. Not just because the dismantling of any hegemon brings vicarious pleasure. But because this realisation sets us on the right path. There is no model of democracy. There is no golden route to the finished product called democracy.

Democracy is a treacherous journey where you clear the path as you go along. This is as true of Donald Trump’s America as it is of Narendra Modi’s India.

The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.

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  1. Isn’t he the politician co-traveller of Aravind Kejriwal and who had been kicked out of AAP along with Prashant Bhushan? Swaraj India? Is it a political party or an NGO?

    ‘Clearly, the US could learn a thing or two from India on how to conduct elections and carry out a quick and clean count of votes.’ That could easily classify as the most hilarious election joke of the times.

    I will not discuss Prashant Bhushan’s tweet about the CJI using a hepter service provided by MP Government when he was to hear a petition seeking disqualification of MLAs who had defected from the congress or his apology for that post because the petition had become redundant after by elections had been conducted in those constituencies.

    I shall list three personal experiences.

    One. I had received my Voters Identity Card after getting my name entered in the electoral rolls. 10 days later when I went to cast my first vote, my name was found in the list of deleted names! I had complained to the District Electoral Officer and an observer. NO outcome. Same year some people had approached the high court after having similar experience, after having voted in earlier elections found their name deleted from the electoral rolls without their knowledge. The high court did not take cognisance of the crime which was committed where by a fundamental democratic right had been denied to a considerable number of citizens. It dismissed the petition stating that even if they had cast their votes it would not have affected the results differently.

    Two, senior member of the IAS from a north Indian state had been designated as an observer to a district in Kerala. He was seen playing golf in the neighboring district. When the issue became hot he was withdrawn. An application under the RTI Act, seeking information on action taken against the delinquent public servant got the response that he was merely sent back to his parent cadre.

    More recently, that is during the Lok Sabha Elections of 2019, a political party used the walls of my property for election propaganda, without my permission. I complained to all authorities right from the District Electoral Officer (who is also the District Collector and District Magistrate) , through the State Electoral Officer and the Central Election Commission. No action has been taken so far.

    The Representation of Peoples Act also bans candidates/political parties from using public spaces for election posters/banners/graffiti. There are teams formed by the District Electoral Officers to remove such banners and deface the graffiti. The cost is required to be recovered from the candidates. I once got the cost require to be recovered (though it was notional and not at all comparable to the cost incurred) but the shocking revelation was when I later submitted another application to find out how much had been recovered an dwaht action had been taken against those who had not paid. Response? Zilch! Nothing.

  2. “Clearly, the US could learn a thing or two from India on how to conduct elections and carry out a quick and clean count of votes.”Shri Modi was elected through this good process.

  3. I think the true test of democracy lies in the extent of freedom citizens enjoy in a system. Till a few decades ago, the US citizens were the freest in the world and therefore US was the best democracy. Things have changed dramatically since 9/11. The freedoms of citizens are ensured by limiting the government overreach through inviolable guarantee of rights of citizens, individual rights being more important than the collective rights of communities, fierce enforcement of these rights and freedoms through independent courts of law and power to the citizens of withdrawing their support from the government and recalling their representatives.
    Rest everything is meaningless semantics.

    • Very, very well put!
      How many so-called “democracies” in the contemporary world would really measure up to these norms, one wonders?!

  4. We should not forget that America’s ex president Mr Barak Obama who is an exemplary leader in the history of US was also been elected from the same model. This article actually reminds me of what Mr M.K. Gandhi once said about our constitution ” No matter how good we have made our constitution, if the people working within it are not good, the entire constitution is futile” and this is what seems me true in case of America or American model.

  5. This whole election process was very confusing, your article helped up in clearing some of my doubts, even though i still confused even now 🙂
    Thanks for this nice article Mr. Yogendra Yadav.

  6. This is a joke.!
    We can’t manage our own underdeveloped democracy and we are preaching advanced democracies what and how to do it.//

  7. Cheer up author. Trump is losing and Biden is winning. So the US remains the beacon of democracy. It’s India which is a fake democracy having elected Modi rather then an entitled monarchy . How dare Indian voters.

  8. Another flaw I noticed in a democracy such as India is that well governed states like we have in the South have no chance to form a government at the centre and instead we have national parties mostly based in the North that have poor track records repeatedly elected to the centre regardless of how bad their performance is.

  9. According to Leftist thinking and system of Governance of an nation should be modeled on Russian or Chines model , even though two great models are in leftist states of Cuba and North Korea ARE also available to copy and adopt… . . All other model– democratic or non-democratic are just useless and are doomed to failure. According to leftist thesis , all countries will have to become Communist utopia . Till that time comes , ENJOY THE DANCE OF DEVILS OF f DEMOCRACY.

  10. Yogendra Yadav completely misses the point. The problem with US democracy is minority rule. Several smaller states can hold up popular will. Campaign Finance and feckless Election Commision is another problem. Redistricting is conducted by a elected politician, there’s no campaign finance laws.

  11. The US was not meant to be a democracy by its founders, and strictly speaking it is a Republic, but not a democracy by the people, for the people, and of the people! The founders, who were roch land and slave owning aristocrats, didn’t trust ignorant voters to decide the future of the country, and so they came up with the idea of electoral college consisting of delegates elected by the states, that would elect the president, and not the people! The college normally respects the verdict of the voters, and validates it. But it has power to ignore the choice of the voters, and pick a person, even the one who hasn’t contested the election, and declare him the president, THUS DISENFRANCHISING ALL THE VOTERS! So no wonder that all the Americans have their eyes on which candidate is winning how many electoral college votes, and not on popular votes. A candidate must win minimum 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. Also, until about a century ago, even the senators used to be appointed by their respective states, and not elected by a popular vote! 2. A democracy means a rule by the majority. In the US it is a minority rule in the senate! Every state, small or big, sends two senators. Thus the senators from small states represent fewer citizens than the senators from big, more populous states. But the smaller states being more than the big states, their senators, representing a minority population, rule the senate! 3. The states are like independent countries that is because they wanted it that way. The 13 british colonies that declared themselves independent in 1776, took 13 years of discussions and negotiations, before they agreed to join the federation of the states, and signed the constitution of the United States in 1789, after making sure their rights were protected!

    • lol ..a democracy does not mean rule by majority. It means rule by elected representatives. And now that you mention it is much better that every state gets the same number of senators than states being rewarded with more votes just cause of uncontrolled population growth. Look at out own Bimaru states. States with the worst kind of governance with rampant corruption, unemployment, illiteracy and worst kind of social indicators are easily able to decide who should rule India at the Centre. No wonder we have the worst kind of governance at the centre too.

  12. These poeple think they are the torch bearers of everything. Untill their ideological leaning party are in power democracy is intact once they loose democracy is in danger.

  13. Good article. I remember in earlier days, Advani wanted a Presidential system – at that time, the BJP was frustrated because they did not have power. Now, they have a majority, I do not hear the demand for a Presidential system.

    The US has declined in more than one way. Democracy can lead to people who are anti-democrats. Whether the system can survive depends on the institutions. Hitler got elected, but finished all the institutions. In India, that path is underway – a little more gradual than Hitler.

  14. Right .one fine morning Mr jadav discover USA has no democracy.. Reason…. Donald Trump win.
    What a Liberal thought!

  15. Another zero credibility article by this Champagne sipping fake zholawallah. Who reads this guy’s garbage?

  16. The US 2020 elections remind me of Bihar elections of the 1990s except that the language spoken is English! Trump ranting about vote fraud, rigging, going to the court…..??

  17. Mr. Yadav has serious issues with US and Indian style democracy. Guess after France’s hardline stance against Islam and Islamic terror, even French democracy would not seem appealing to him.
    Maybe he can take a cue from Swami Nithyananda and establish his own “Kailasa” which would be a “true” democracy unlike those of US, India or France.
    What is quite surprising is that secular/liberal folks like Mr. Yadav never discuss and condemn the Saudi/Iranian/Egyptian/Turkish political systems. Their ire and outrage is reserved for secular democratic polities.

    • I am trying to understand your very Hindu mind.

      The Saudi/Iranian/Egyptian/Turkish political systems are not appealing , even to the public there, so why should he compare with them ?

      He compares with the various existing democracies -which are being undermined by the rise of rightwing anti-democrats in India, US, Hungary, Brazil, Germany, France. … You want to divert from this problem.

  18. **** VOTE WISELY ****

    People of India,
    Do not forget Demonetisation.
    Do not forget how you and your elderly parents were forced to stand in a queue for endless hours all for the sake of Demonetisation.
    Do not forget how poor street vendors and small traders lost all their savings in one day.
    Do not forget how small businessmen were forced to pay taxes, even when they earned nothing.
    Do not forget how BJP-bootlickers took loans from banks and brought down the whole banking system in India.
    Do not forget how banks swindled all your hard-earned money by way of minimum balance penalties.
    Do not forget how the BJP-favouring Corporate Sector manipulated the stock markets.
    Do not forget how they destroyed the Academic System and caused suicides among our students.
    Do not forget how they tried to instigate caste-based riots among you.
    Do not forget how they tried to instigate community-based riots among you.
    Do not forget how they stirred your passions and pit you against each other.
    Do not forget how they played with your emotions and diverted your attention away from real issues.
    Do not forget how we lost a significant percentage of our borders to the Chinese.
    Do not forget how the Govt of India cheated you over the last seven years.
    People, Do Not Forget how INDIA suffered.

    **** VOTE WISELY ****

    • Being jhollachaap he would be poor and show that he is till Rahul baba gives him some morsel collected from honest taxpayer. He is intellectually too has gone below poverty line.

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