The US has been a constantly evolving democracy ever since it was founded in 1776, but its survival as a democracy is now gravely endangered. A set of loosely interconnected developments at home and abroad is responsible for this crisis.
From abroad, the US is threatened by repressive regimes led by Xi Jinping in China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia who want to impose an autocratic form of government on the world.
But the threat to the US from the domestic enemies of democracy is even greater. They include the current supreme court, which is dominated by far-right extremists, and Donald Trump’s Republican Party, which placed those extremists on the court.
What qualifies the majority of the court as extremists? It is not merely their decision to overturn Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 case that recognised a woman’s right to choose whether to give birth. What qualifies them as extremists is the arguments they used to justify their decision and the indications they gave of how far they might be willing to go in carrying out those arguments.
Justice Samuel Alito, the author of the majority opinion, based his ruling on the assertion that the 14th Amendment protects only those rights that were generally recognised in 1868, when the amendment was ratified. But this argument endangers many other rights that have been recognised since then, among them the right to contraception, same-sex marriage, and LGBTQIA+ rights.
Carried to its logical conclusion, this line of reasoning could even allow states to ban interracial marriage, as some did until 1967. It is also clear that this court intends to mount a frontal attack on the executive branch. One of the most consequential rulings of the court’s just-completed term denied the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to issue regulations needed to combat climate change.
It doesn’t take long to find the common denominator in the court’s recent decisions: support causes promoted by Trump’s Republican Party and weaken or outlaw causes favoured by the Democratic Party. Consider gun laws. The court’s radical wing listens closely to the pro-gun lobby. So, though a recent epidemic of mass shootings created such a national outcry that even some Republicans supported a new federal gun law, the court compensated the National Rifle Association for the loss by striking down a longstanding New York law that placed strict restrictions on carrying concealed handguns (New York State immediately passed new gun laws, that are likely to end up before the supreme court).
The supreme court used to be among the most highly respected institutions in the US. Through its recent decisions, the extremist majority has driven its approval rating to a historic low, and disapproval of the court to new highs. The dissenting opinion in the case that overturned Roe v Wade flatly stated that the majority decision “undermines the court’s legitimacy.” Unfortunately, the minority is likely to remain in the minority for a long time, because the extremists are younger and hold a majority of six to three.
There is only one way to rein in the supreme court: throw the Republican Party out of office in a landslide. That would allow congress to protect through legislation the rights that had been entrusted to the protection of the supreme court. It is now clear that doing so was a big mistake. Congress must act, starting with protecting a woman’s right to choose. If the filibuster must be amended to achieve that, so be it.
But when it comes to organising a landslide victory against the radicalised Republicans, opponents face almost insuperable obstacles. Republicans have not only stacked the supreme court and many lower courts with extremist judges. In states such as Florida, Georgia, and Texas, they have enacted a raft of laws that make voting very difficult.
While these laws focus on disenfranchising African Americans, other minorities and young voters generally, their ultimate goal is to help Republicans win elections. As a Florida federal judge recently wrote in striking down one of these laws, they were enacted “with the intent to restructure Florida’s election system in ways that favour the Republican Party over the Democratic Party”.
These laws would be bad enough if they only targeted who can vote. But Republicans are now going even further, by attacking the vote-counting and election-certification process. From changing the law to make subversion of the electoral system easier, to recruiting believers in Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him to oversee the process, we are watching Republicans attack the US system of democracy from every angle. And here, too, the radical supreme court has done its part, gutting the federal Voting Rights Act and allowing naked partisan redistricting to weaken minority voting power.
Fortunately, I am not alone in claiming that the survival of democracy in the US is gravely endangered. The US public has been aroused by the decision overturning Roe v Wade. But people need to recognise that decision for what it is: part of a carefully laid plan to turn the US into a repressive regime.
We must do everything we can to prevent that. This fight ought to include many people who voted for Trump in the past. I am a supporter of the Democratic Party, but this is not a partisan issue. It is about reestablishing a functioning two-party political system which is at the core of US democracy. — © Project Syndicate
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.