You don’t need to have been following the long-running sagas of the indictments, or potential indictments, of the former US president Donald Trump closely, to note that at almost every turn, the political allegiance of one or other players is mentioned; sometimes it’s right in the foreground of the story.  Not just the participating members of Congress but the judges, attorneys-general and also the lawyers.

One reason is that in many states, civic officials, right down to the local sheriff, members of school boards and the committees that administer elections, county, state or federal are all elected by popular vote with a wide franchise. The candidates must contest the office in a competition of ideas and ideals. In the US you are either a Democrat or a Republican. Small parties and independents are vanishing.  

Is this grass roots democracy at work, and is this how it was envisaged in the closing years of the 18th century?

When the US constitution was written, news travelled at the speed of a horse. Most news and politics were local, but the newly minted republic needed mechanisms whereby local issues could be ruled on in a manner expected of a democracy, and larger issues communicated upwards, finally to the halls of the nation’s congress. This, plus the lack of administrative infrastructure, outside the major population centres,  seem key factors.  The first US congress however, established  1776,  was quite weak and reflected that. 

Each state was equally represented in a single chamber and each had a veto over most actions. The congress had limited authority over foreign affairs and military matters, and no authority to collect taxes, regulate interstate commerce, or enforce laws, nor could it undertake the collective defence of the twelve founding states.  

This unworkable central structure was scrapped by the Philadelphia convention of 1787 that drafted and approved the Constitution of the United States. This constitution is still in force today, albeit with 27 amendments, each ratified by 75 per cent of states and six un-ratified to date. 

States in the US are powerful entities, much more so than in Australia, though our states still retain sovereignty. As an extension of the powerful position of a US state, the internal administrative divisions of county and city share that power, and exercise much local authority including running local police forces and overseeing the manner in which elections are supervised.  And, as a consequence of that early desire for local democratic autonomy, many such appointments come through a political process dominated by party loyalties and, as voting is not compulsory, the necessity to motivate the people to get out and vote.

A recent decision in North Carolina illustrates the corrosion of the democratic process by determinedly partisan politics.  As reported in the New York Times, the Senate and congressional district boundaries used in 2022 elections last November, did not sufficiently favour the Republican Party so the party draw new maps with boundaries that would further favour the Republicans for elections in 2024. 

The new boundaries were challenged and the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that new maps of the state’s legislative and congressional districts  were illegal gerrymanders. At that time the court had a majority of Democratic justices. On April 29, the same court, now led by a newly elected Republican majority, looked at the same facts and arguments and reversed its own decision. The gerrymander would stand.

The practical effect is to enable the Republican-controlled General Assembly to scrap the court-ordered State House, Senate and congressional district boundaries, and redraw them in its own favour at will.

This electoral rorting is happening in other parts of the US, especially in Republican controlled states. Sometimes it reflects opportunism in the wake of an election. In other cases, like the stacking of school boards, it is the outcome of a planned and considered campaign. In the US, schools have boards, often elected from the general community, not just the cohort of parents. And many have great power including the right to hire and fire the staff, including the principal.

The Washington Post on January 19 last year told the story of the takeover of a school board in Virginia’s Spotsylvania County by a loose coalition of ‘parents’ rights’ candidates, and the firing of the long serving school superintendent (principal). 

The firing in Spotsylvania is a dramatic example of a parent-led takeover of school boards that is happening nationwide, with mothers and fathers seeking seats, recalls of sitting members or both. Although parents have long served on school boards, this crop of activists is campaigning to restructure American public education so that parents, whether or not they come from an educational background, can serve as final arbiters for a wide range of issues, from whether masks should be optional to what books are available in children’s libraries

These take-overs are seeing the reshaping of schools’ curricula based not on educational or social needs but on political and religious prejudice. In time it will result in a national community with limited, shared world knowledge and educational experience, and so less able to analyse the issues of the day and come to common cause, be ‘One Nation under God’.

These are issues that we have largely avoided in Australia (so far!) as we follow the Westminster blueprint for democratic governance. Politics certainly plays a part in appointments to high office, but rarely is it an issue of first contention, except for the appointment of senior diplomats at our embassies to our most important allies.  

In essence, it is easier for any public officer to fulfil their duty if they do not also have to keep happy a political rump of either left or right opinion to keep their job. It is easier to serve the public good.

So I ask the question: Is the US dying of too much democracy?

Vincent O’Donnell

Media Researcher and Analyst.

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