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The Political System in Historical Crisis
by Friedrich Steinfeld
Wednesday Oct 28th, 2020 3:04 PM
In his inaugural speech in 2017, Donald Trump emphasized that his presidency would return political power to the people. He sees himself as the only legitimate representative of the interests of the supposedly true people and, according to the logic of this political self-understanding, he cannot actually lose any election. Should he lose it, however, this could only be the result of election manipulation.
The Political System in Historical Crisis
Dangerous mix of issues in the US election campaign
by Friedrich Steinfeld

[This article published on Oct 10, 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

With its more than 200 years of democratic tradition, the USA is one of the oldest continuously existing democracies in the world. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President in 2017 was a massive shake-up of this political system.

Trump had won the 2016 election with the central message that the United States and its once outstanding geo-economic and geo-political role had been downgraded by Washingtonians and especially by the urban-cosmopolitan elites, and he recommended himself as an "external" (not from the previous political establishment) savior from further erosion of its once unchallenged hegemonic position.

"America first"[1] and "Make America great again" were his 2016 successful nationalist slogans. A mere continuation of this election campaign strategy in 2020, with the reduction of complex issues to simple (nationalist) formulas, has failed due to social reality.

Trump's exaggeration and cynicism

The massive spread of the coronavirus in the USA hammered the president's election campaign strategy for 2020, because he systematically played down the danger of the virus in public against his better judgment. This necessitated a more comprehensive and prolonged shutdown of the US economy, which brought down entire sectors of the economy and sent unemployment figures soaring to undreamt-of levels.

Due to the secular stagnation even before the Corona Pandemic, there could be no talk of an all-round flourishing US real economy. However, stock market prices in particular were in a strong upward trend, which was of great importance to many US Americans* in view of the high value of shares for their private old-age provision. Although stock market prices have recovered since the spring and unemployment figures have also fallen, the pre-Corona level has not yet been reached again by a long way.

The fact that Trump himself - along with his wife Melania and several employees* in the immediate vicinity - has now fallen ill with the corona virus because, in contrast to his democratic challenger Joe Biden, he demonstratively refrained from observing distance rules and wearing a mask, has once again been caught up in social reality. The Washington government district has become a hot spot of the epidemic.

Nevertheless, Trump tries to instrumentalize his illness for the election campaign with the message: "Don't let it dominate you. Do not be afraid of it. You will defeat it." Compared to the more than 200,000 dead in the USA alone who died on and with Corona, this represents an incredible cynicism.

Struggle for the Supreme Court as the center of the Kulturkampf

Changes to the American constitution are difficult and protracted. For this reason, the Supreme Court is of enormous importance in the further development of the law. The nine judges* appointed for life make final decisions on the most controversial political issues. The Supreme Court's rulings have set the course for the end of racial segregation, the legalization of abortion and the introduction of same-sex marriage.

The political orientation of the court is correspondingly important. Until the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a representative of liberal America, there were five conservative four progressive judges* facing each other. Chief Justice John Roberts, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, also helped the judges nominated by democratic presidents to a majority several times in recent years.

Ginsburg had been appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, the longest serving judge on the panel, and was the leader of the liberal-progressive wing, enjoying cult status among her supporters. On the other hand, the Supreme Court is also criticized as a "dysfunctional court" (Gertrud Lübbe-Wolff, Das dysfunktionale Gericht, FAZ, October 6, 2020), because there is no culture of consultation and discussion in this body.

All judges* one after the other comment on the disputed issue and then immediately cast their votes. No judge other than the last in the row hears the arguments of all his colleagues before the vote. This approach does not reduce polarization, especially in fundamental questions, but rather drives it forward.

Donald Trump, with almost strategic foresight, has made justice a central object of his presidency's policy and in less than four years has already appointed over 200 federal judges, including the two Supreme Court judges Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. In this way, he has shaped the judiciary for decades in accordance with his right-wing populist ideology.

The judges of the Supreme Court are proposed by the president and confirmed by the senate. For decades, a qualified majority of 60 votes in the 100-member chamber was required for this. But after the Democrats abolished this requirement for the regular federal judges (judges below the level of the Supreme Court), the Republicans did the same in return for the Supreme Court. Since then, a simple majority in the Senate has been sufficient for confirmation. As a result, even controversial candidates* have a chance, whereas previously a non-partisan consensus was usually necessary.

The Republican majority in the Senate - the Republicans have a majority of 53 of the 100 seats in the chamber - could again prove to be a decisive political lever in filling the position that became vacant after the death of Ginsburg, should the Senate be able to make decisions again shortly after several senators* fell ill. Trump has already nominated the conservative lawyer Amy Coney Barrett.

Barrett is considered a follower of the school of thought of the "originalists", for whom the original intention of the constitutional fathers is the yardstick of their jurisdiction. The mother of seven and a Catholic is considered to be anti-abortion, which makes her candidacy attractive to Christian-conservative circles. With the 48-year-old, the conservative judges* would have a clear majority of six of the nine seats on the Supreme Court.

Mitch McConnell, the majority leader in the Senate, made it clear that the confirmation would take place this year and thus before the new Congress is constituted. The Democrats have announced vehement opposition. They point to the imminent election and to the fact that McConnell refused to hear the successor to the conservative judge Antonin Scalia nominated by Barack Obama in 2016 because it was an election year. It remains to be seen who will benefit more politically from the dispute over the seat on the Supreme Court.

A further strengthening of the conservative majority in the Supreme Court would shift American society to the right in the long term. This applies not only to disputes over, for example, the legalization of abortion or the weapons law, but also to fundamental social conflicts. The Trump nominated candidate, for example, was critical of the constitutionality of Obama's healthcare reform. Immediately after the election, the Supreme Court must again deliberate on this law. With Barrett, a repeal becomes much more likely.

In view of Trump's statements that an election he lost could only have come about through manipulation, and that he therefore places a transfer of power to another president under massive reservations from the outset, the Supreme Court could also play a central role in decisions on the outcome of the election. Even if the conservative judges of the Supreme Court are not to be considered mere Republican vassals, a 6:3 majority could still tip the scales in controversial legal issues surrounding the outcome of the election. This is what happened in the election of George W. Bush: Despite indications of irregularities, a recount of votes was prevented in Florida, even though the Democratic opponent Al Gore had received a total of about one million more votes than Bush.

The key to majorities in the Supreme Court, as has already become clear, lies in the Senate.

The American Senate - an increasingly conservative-reactionary bulwark against social progress

The American Senate is the second chamber of Congress after the House of Representatives. Each state sends two senators regardless of its population. These are directly elected for six years by the eligible voters of their state. Every two years one third of the senators are up for election.

The impeachment proceedings against President Trump, which were initiated by the Democrats and ultimately failed by a Republican majority in the Senate, have already impressively demonstrated the Senate's position of power in the U.S. political system. It is significantly involved in legislation and has important control functions over the president. These include the ratification of international treaties, a say in the appointment of senior judges* and government officials* and the impeachment process, in which the Senate assumes the role of the court.

The fact that each state sends two senators to the Senate leads to an overweighting of low-population states in the Senate. The two senators from Wyoming represent only 580,000 inhabitants*, but the two senators from California represent almost 40 million.

Election researcher Norman Ornstein drew attention to another problem affecting the Senate in an analysis of the results of the Midterms Election 2018: By 2040, 70% of Americans* will live in only 15 of the 50 states, he predicts. This means that 30% of Americans will elect more than 70 of the 100 senators. The Senate would thus "definitely no longer represent the diversity and dynamics of the United States" (Süddeutsche Zeitung, November 18, 2018). What applies to the Senate also applies to the electoral system for the US President.

The election of the US President - an ever-increasing distortion of the popular vote

The President of the United States is not elected directly by the people, but by an electoral assembly, the Electoral College. This indirect election of the president through electoral staff is controversial.

Each state sends Electors to the Electoral College, the number of whom depends on the size of the population. The candidate who receives a simple majority of the voters' votes in a state always receives all the electors of the state (except in Nebraska and Maine). This also means that the voters' votes are without weight for the losing candidates of the other party ("winner-takes-all" principle).

In addition, the rural, low-population states are clearly overrepresented there, which Trump is also playing into his hands. For example, for every three North Dakota voters, there are about 250,000 women*, in Wyoming only 193,000, and in New York State, 684,000 women* for every 29 voters. Through this electoral system it is possible that a candidate is elected president who did not receive a majority of the votes cast.

In fact, such a case occurred in 1824 (John Quincy Adams), 2000 (George W. Bush) and 2016 (Donald Trump). In 2016, Hillary Clinton received a total of almost three million more votes than Trump and still did not become president. Trump's campaign in the current election is therefore not primarily aimed at getting as many votes as possible, but rather as many votes as possible in those states in order to get the majority in Electoral College.

In this context, "swing states" in which neither party has a structural majority are of particular importance. For this reason, election campaigns are concentrated in these states, even if they have only a few electoral staff, because relatively few swing voters* have to be won to get all the electoral staff in the state. For example, in the 2016 presidential election campaign, 99% of all campaign funds went to these states and 95% of all campaign appearances took place there.

The distorting structure of the voter vote in the presidential election is exacerbated by the historical trend of redistributing the American population from the less populous and rural regions to the urban centers, especially along the coasts of the United States. This redistributive trend is centrally related to the globalization of the capitalist economy forced by the political elites of the Republicans and Democrats, which has caused the traditional industrial structures of the U.S.-such as steel and aluminum production, auto manufacturing, etc.-to increasingly fall behind, while the digital and platform economy has taken an unprecedented upswing.

Due to the rudimentary character of a welfare state, a social cushioning of these economic transformations and structural disruptions was largely absent in the USA. In this new economy, whose requirements increasingly call for university degrees, the United States still holds a prominent position, but the exploitation of capital is no longer tied to the vastness of rural areas that require industrial production sites and structures, but primarily to office space located in the urban centers. Given the historical trend, it is conceivable that Trump could still win the election even if he lags behind Joe Biden with more than three million votes [2].

Overall, the existing political electoral system, both in terms of the Senate and the presidential election, increasingly raises the question of political legitimacy. It is increasingly becoming an anachronism. A reform of the constitution would be politically urgent. But that would seem virtually impossible. Not only must the Senate and the House of Representatives each agree to such a reform by a two-thirds majority. It also requires the approval of three-quarters of all states.

A politically dangerous mix in the US presidential election campaign

With the presidential election in 2020, the declining leadership power of the Old West will not only be faced with the task of overcoming the economic and social crisis, which has been massively intensified by the pandemic, and the worsening problems of systemic racism, but also with the danger that the crisis of its political system will worsen, with unforeseeable consequences not only for the United States itself but also for the entire world order.

In his inaugural speech in 2017, Donald Trump emphasized that his presidency would return political power to the people. He sees himself as the only legitimate representative of the interests of the supposedly true people and, according to the logic of this political self-understanding, he cannot actually lose any election. Should he lose it, however, this could only be the result of election manipulation by the Democrats, which was possible on a large scale, especially in the postal vote.

The supposedly true people, however, are in fact only a white middle class that is at least in part Christian conservative or Christian fundamentalist (evangelical), does not have a university degree, and is either in the process of social decline or at least fears it, i.e. a shrunken version of the people.

This shrunken variant of the people lives primarily in the states with a low population, which are characterized by rural and industrial development and are poorer in population, which gives it a predominant position within the system of political representation. Via the Christian-conservative to Christian-fundamentalist component - e.g., by means of a repeal or massive restriction of the legalization of abortion - parts of minorities such as the Christian-influenced Latinos and members of other social classes can also dock onto the populist revolt. The tendency of the members of this white middle class toward "white supremacy" offers potential for attracting whites from other strata to join a populist revolt.

With the growing fears of relegation of the white middle class, structural racism became entrenched, which could not be broken through an intensified identity policy for minorities, although in earlier phases of prosperous capitalist accumulation in the U.S. there had been increased opportunities for African Americans* to advance and for the formation of a black middle class and legal recognition as equals.

To politically mobilize his white electorate, Trump systematically stirs up feelings of victimhood and threat in U.S. society, which he tries to instrumentalize with law-and-order slogans against the sometimes violent protests of African Americans. In foreign policy, he stirs up these feelings of victimhood and threat towards China by referring to the "China virus" and the alleged systematic spying on American citizens by Chinese high-tech companies (Huawei, etc.), which are extremely successful on the world market.

In the course of a domestic political escalation, the right to private weapons ownership (Second Amendment), which is also anchored in the US Constitution, could play a fatal role. Even during the shutdown, after massive pressure from the National Rifle Association (NRA), gun sales continued in many places. The NRA is a well-organized gun lobby and has several million members. According to a report in the New York Times based on FBI data, Americans* bought nearly two million weapons in March alone. The private militarization of US civil society is well advanced. Trump's blatant sympathies with right-wing extremist militias armed to the teeth ("Stand by") creates a dangerous breeding ground for a conversion of political conflicts into violent forms.

What was intended to prevent a political predominance of populous states when the United States was founded more than 200 years ago when the constitution was drafted, is proving to be an ever-greater deficit in political decision-making processes in light of the trend toward redistribution of the population from the states with lower populations to the urban centers on the coasts. This is accompanied by the massive growth of the right-wing populist revolt. The great economic and financial crisis of 2008ff. has accelerated this economic structural change even further and intensified the social problems of the middle classes.

Under the conditions of a politically extremely divided nation and the vassal loyalty of a republican party converted to right-wing populism, which after initial skepticism and partial rejection of Trump has since renounced any independent programmatic approach and functions merely as a stirrup holder for its leader, the electoral and representation system could not only lead to a political blockade, but against the background of extensive private weapons ownership could even lead to violent conflicts and even civil war-like disputes. This would then create the greenhouse climate for a radical implementation of the policy of "law and order" by a president who has long praised himself as America's savior.

The conditions for an urgently needed in-depth political debate on the massive increase in economic and social inequality caused by a radical market policy, on the need to substantially overcome systemic racism in the USA, would thus be massively threatened. Not least against this background, the former US President Obama warned in his speech at the Democratic virtual party conference in August that re-election trumps would be a danger to democracy: "Do not let them take your democracy away from you.


1] "America first" is not a political invention of Trump, but was already the slogan of a movement with fascist echoes that emerged in the USA in the 1930s.
2] On the basis of the analysis of the election results of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections on November 6, 2018, the election researcher Norman Ornstein considered it possible that Trump could ultimately win the 2020 presidential elections even if his rival Joe Biden was ahead in the popular vote with eight to nine million votes (Süddeutsche Zeitung, November 18, 2018). Because more people would live and vote in 2020 in the urban states on the east and west coasts, where the Democrats generally do better than the Republicans...
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