Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
U.S. President Joe Biden has framed America’s confrontation with China and Russia as an open-ended contest between democracy and autocracy. If that is true, a U.S. victory will depend not only on the country’s ability to outcompete its adversaries, but also on its success at safeguarding democracy at home.
On the former imperative, the United States is well-positioned to succeed, thanks to a series of diplomatic masterstrokes. For starters, at the recent G7 and NATO summits, Mr. Biden cemented a broad alliance spanning Europe and Asia against Russia and China. This follows the quick mobilization of Western governments to support Ukraine and punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for the war he launched there in February.
Mr. Biden has also taken advantage of Chinese aggression toward its neighbours to consolidate American alliances in East Asia. The Quad – comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. – has been deepening its strategic cooperation.
At home, however, the pillars of America’s democratic institutions are crumbling. Despite his election defeat in 2020, Donald Trump maintains a vise-like grip on the Republican Party. Some 70 per cent of Republican voters still believe Mr. Trump’s lie that his loss was due to massive electoral fraud. Unwilling to risk losing support, nearly all congressional Republican leaders either parrot these lies or maintain a cowardly silence.
Meanwhile, in 2021, at least 19 states – all but two of them Republican-controlled – enacted 34 laws to restrict access to voting. And a month before the 2020 election, congressional Republicans pushed through the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, despite having refused even to hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee during Barack Obama’s final year as president.
This points to the most alarming recent development for U.S. democracy: the politicization of the country’s highest court. Now packed with far-right justices, the Court issued a series of radical rulings last month that undermine women’s rights, environmental protection, and public safety, while severely damaging its own standing as an independent institution.
As bad as things are, the crisis of American democracy may be just beginning. The Republican Party seems likely to regain control of Congress in November’s midterm elections. And one cannot rule out the possibility of Mr. Trump returning to the White House in the 2024 presidential election – a development that would put U.S. democracy in grave danger.
It is not hard to explain why Mr. Biden is winning the cold war abroad, but losing the fight for democracy at home. The U.S. and its allies are still far ahead of their autocratic adversaries in critical areas, not least military and technological capabilities. Moreover, Russia and China consistently engage in the kind of aggression and bullying that drives smaller countries into the arms of the US.
To defend American democracy, however, Mr. Biden – and U.S. democrats more broadly – must overcome structural obstacles embedded in the country’s constitution. By design, the U.S. system gives some voters far more influence than others. Most glaringly, while seats in the House of Representatives roughly correspond to a state’s share of the U.S. population, all states get two seats in the Senate. Today, Republicans hold 50 per cent of the Senate’s seats, but represent only 43 per cent of the U.S. population.
Republicans also benefit from a poisoned media environment in which firms like Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News reap massive profits by promoting lies and conspiracy theories.
None of this bodes well for America’s prospects in the new cold war. Yes, there is still a chance that the Democrats can retain enough power to defend American democracy. In this case, the U.S. could continue to build on the positive momentum the Biden administration has generated with its recent foreign-policy maneuvers.
But if the Republican Party continues its assault on U.S. democracy, the U.S. will, at the very least, lose its ideological appeal. It might still manage to rally its democratic allies to challenge China and Russia, but only on the basis of narrow national interests, rather than shared values. What is now an ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies could thus become an all-out clash of global titans.
That is best-case scenario. In the worst case, the consolidation of minority rule and the rise of an illiberal regime in the U.S. could unleash civil unrest, pitting a de facto disenfranchised majority against an increasingly authoritarian minority. It is hard to imagine that a country beset by such turmoil could possibly lead a coalition of democracies on the world stage.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022. www.project-syndicate.org
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