The United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., U.S. /Getty
December 15, 2021
Editor’s note: Josef Gregory Mahoney is a professor of politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai. The article reflects the author’s opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.
There has been an active debate among American scholars and pundits for many years over whether the United States is a republic or democracy. One of the keys to this discussion is the argument advanced by some, particularly those on the right, that these two terms are somehow opposites – that one cannot be both at the same time, and that the U.S. is definitively a republic and not a democracy.
Originally published at CGTN
On the face of it, this assertion is ridiculous. It’s absolutely possible to be both a republic and democratic, and to whatever extent one regards the U.S. as democratic, it nevertheless has something approaching universal suffrage plus regular elections that determine who governs in turn. So why do rightists argue to the contrary?
On the one hand, some are neo-traditionalists who wish to return to the very limited suffrage that existed when the U.S. was founded. At that time, only white male citizens of means could vote.
Neo-traditionalists, who are disproportionately white, unsurprisingly long for those “good old days” given their grotesque hagiographies of the nation’s “founders” and the sacristy they accord the unamended constitution. In fact, some readily admit that this limited form of democracy is not very democratic, but that’s how the country was designed and worked best. And given that it doesn’t work very well presently, they argue, we should return to the old ways.
On the other hand, there are also many who promote this view, who are simply racists, ethnocentrists, and often misogynists and homophobes. These probably include many neo-traditionalists as well. While some dislike women having the right to vote, and some would like to have other restrictions that discriminate against LGBTQIA+, poor and working-class voters, what they especially dislike is the fact that whites in the U.S. are losing their position as the overwhelming majority of the population.
Recent census data indicate the white population declined from 63.7 per cent in 2010 to 57.8 per cent in 2020, and some experts predict whites will become a minority sometime in the 2040s, constituting less than half of the total population, above all due to higher birth rates among U.S. Hispanics and Asians.
Of course, some are simply capitalists or huffing the ideology of capitalism contrary to their own class interests. To this end they believe private property rights are sacred, taught as they are to conflate personal and private property, but in some way acknowledging that private property rights are indeed the undemocratic cornerstone of American democracy.
And they do this especially because some public policymaking and youth opinion is a lot more inclusive and egalitarian than they like. Indeed, some believe the current trends indicate a nascent American socialism is on the rise, evidenced in part by increasing youth concerns for social justice, including enthusiastic support for candidates like Bernie Sanders, among others.
That said, gerrymandering persists as a problem, creating and protecting local white majorities, and these are being reinforced by new efforts to limit voting rights and access, aimed especially at minorities, the poor, and the working class.
New laws are being proposed to place currently independent election boards under political control. Further, the constant rightwing drumbeat that elections can’t be trusted, that they’re manipulated by foreign powers, corporate interests, malicious AI, and even “Satan,” has undermined trust in elections overall, thereby supporting the thesis that the U.S. isn’t really a democracy and isn’t supposed to be one.
One adds to this the continuing problem of the Electoral College system, which has been rigged to favour conservative candidates even when they lose the popular vote (e.g., in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s vote count exceeded Donald Trump’s by nearly 3 million, but he was still elected president).
And further, given the intense political polarization in the U.S. today, roughly half the population tends to view its leaders as illegitimate, and thus, view democracy as a farce or simply contrary to their interests.
‘The West has no patent on democracy’
This brings us to recent comments from Jiang Jinquan, head of the Policy Research Office of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, who said that democracy is not a “patent” of the West, and described U.S. plans to host “The Summit for Democracy” as a “huge irony” aiming to split the world.
As Jiang knows, Joe Biden’s plan to host such a summit is to rally “democracies” against “authoritarian” states. The main purpose here is to reassert the U.S.’s hegemony as the so-called leader of the free world in order to reinforce its current efforts to deploy a new anti-China containment strategy.
This is what Jiang means by aiming to split the world, and furthermore, why he sees it as ironic, insomuch as China supports non-interference, peace, mutual development, respect and recognition, true multilateralism in a multipolar world, and so on.
But he also means that the West has no patent on democracy given the fact that the Chinese system, described as “anti-democratic” in the West, has liberated and secured more than 1.4 billion people, protected their health and welfare, eliminated extreme poverty and lifted more than 770 million out of poverty altogether since its reform in the late 1970s, accounting for more than 70 per cent of poverty alleviation worldwide.
In contrast, in that same period of time, many Western countries, especially the U.S., have been moving in the opposite direction with increasing poverty, declines in real wages, an eroding middle class, increasing violence against minorities, increasing suicides and depression, alcoholism and drug addiction — all of them coming to a head recently given the spectacular failures in governance associated with Washington’s response to COVID-19 and reaching a new low with Trump supporters attempting a coup against Congress on January 6.
Consequently, Jiang’s implication is that China’s people-centered approaches and efforts to build socialism are much more democratic than what we see in the U.S. today, and therein lies the irony. But it goes further than this.
Even if the U.S. is substantially democratic in terms of its domestic affairs, it is almost absolutely undemocratic in its foreign affairs. This stems from the fact that the U.S. president, however actually elected by American voters, exercises power akin to an “imperial presidency,” as Arthur M. Schlesinger first described in 1973, in response to concerns that presidents were exceeding constitutional limits in domestic affairs while also egregiously exploiting their near unchecked power in foreign policy.
This has included going to war in many countries; building a global system of secret prisons; extraordinary renditions; assassinations; torture; spying on everyone, including allies; lying to the United Nations; and whenever possible, unilateralism.
And specifically relating to China: lying about China’s political system and ambitions; promoting decoupling, new “red scares” and a new cold war; spreading racist and Orientalist lies about what’s happened in the country’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and Wuhan; and stoking tensions in Taiwan region and in the South China Sea.
Indeed, Washington policymakers speak openly of trying to reestablish American hegemony over the Asia Pacific region, of once again subjecting China to American “domination.”
Need we say more? But clearly, although China is singled out especially these days for abuse, in fact, everyone is suffering from these kinds of exercises of American power, including Americans themselves. Such is American democracy.
It aims to split the world, in part because it’s already split itself.
Originally published at CGTN
About the author
Josef Gregory Mahoney is a professor of politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai, where he also directs the International Centre for Advanced Political Studies and the international graduate programme in politics. He was previously with the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau in Beijing, then China’s leading think tank.
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