American empire and paradoxes of liberal democracy

January 24, 2021

From day one, President Joe Biden starts undoing his predecessor’s most divisive policies

Joe Biden took oath as the United States’ 46th president on January 20, ending Donald Trump’s turbulent four years.

In his inaugural address, the new president called for social justice, economic equality and national unity. He promised to overcome the pandemic crisis that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. He also announced his resolve to rebuild alliances with other nations and work on international agreements.

This also marked some unprecedented developments in American democracy in the early days of January. January 6, in particular, will go down in history as one of the darkest days of American democracy for several reasons.

The Congress certified the Electoral College votes that day and declared Joe Biden the next US president. Nevertheless, this routine task was only possible after surviving an invasion of the Capitol by violent Trump followers, which claimed five lives.

When Congress was certifying the ballots, Trump was inciting his followers in front of the White House to march to the Capitol. Consequently, his frantic mob, armed with their anger, sticks, and guns, stormed the Capitol building vandalising the very symbol of American democracy.

Congressmen and women were hurriedly escorted to a safe place before returning to the Capitol to complete late at night their unfinished work.

Stunned by the TV footage, people all over the world are still trying to figure out what happened that night. It is unimaginable for many that a sitting president of the most powerful democracy in the world could behave like a cult leader, but it happened.

Some, however, saw it coming. The unfortunate insurrection can be understood by analysing the socio-economic realities deeply rooted in America’s liberal democracy.

The end of the American Civil War in 1865 saw the beginning of the economic transformation, which soon left European nations behind, including Britain, France, and Germany. In the aftermath of WWII, the US became an invincible surmountable superpower based on its advanced technology, a booming economy and its military might.

It was all due to the capitalist economy that concentrated the national wealth among a highly influential group of businessmen. The newly-developed railroads and highways helped them infiltrate every part of the country, especially the West.

Along with this corporate economy, liberal democracy evolved with modernity, individualism, and secularism that separated the government from religion. Powerful corporations, however, grew to the extent that they gained full control of Congress and the political leadership.

Labour unions were weakened under the system so badly that they could not challenge the top capitalists. Although the system provided prosperity compared to some other countries, the capitalist class grew without bounds. At the same time, domestic and foreign workers and the lower strata of society remained in poverty.

For Eric Levitz, an American journalist, legislators consistently cut taxes on the wealthy and services for the poor. At the same time, regulatory agencies serve as training grounds for the firms they regulate.

Levitz also identifies several contradictions of the system: the Supreme Court expands the rights of corporations but restricts the organised labour; the criminal justice system refuses to prosecute bankers for laundering drug money but gives life sentences to low-level crack dealers, and the central bank supports financial firms but refrains from helping the homeowners whom they exploit.

The 21st Century began with an unprecedented series of recessions, which increased unemployment shrinking incomes of middle and lower classes. During the first recession of 2001, unemployment rose to 6.3 percent by 2003. The disastrous effects of 9/11 further accelerated the economic downturn.

Then came the great recession of 2008-2009. The GDP dropped for three quarters in 2008 and the first two quarters of 2009.

The two recessions had a deep impact on minorities and badly hit the majority-white workers who were unemployed as manufacturing companies closed. Cities in Michigan and elsewhere, once home to thriving auto industries, became ghost towns.

Meanwhile, the income gap between the top affluent groups and the lower classes widened to an unbelievable level. The slogan often raised in protest rallies that the top one percent of the population owns most of the national wealth became a reality.

Pew Research Centre’s report Trends in Income and Wealth Inequality further elaborates this disparity: “Since 1980, incomes have increased faster for the most affluent families – those in the top 5 per cent – than for families in the income strata below them. This disparity in outcomes is less pronounced in the wake of the Great Recession but shows no signs of reversing.”

Today, wealth distribution is highly unequal in the US compared to other developed countries like France, Britain and Canada. Economic inequality, combined with increasing poverty, led to public distrust of politics, democratic institutions and the media.

Fast-changing demographics also contributed to growing frustrations among the white population. For some time, the growth rate of minorities has been unbelievably faster than whites, who, according to the US Census Bureau, will become a minority by 2050. This also means that the majority will lose control over economic resources and political power in the long run, if not immediately.

That explains why hate crimes against ethnic and religious minorities rose to the highest level in the aftermath of the great recession in America.

The police have killed an astonishing number of African Americans across the nation since Barack Obama became the first black president. CBS News reported that police killed 164 African Americans in the first eight months of 2020.

In all recessions, minorities, immigrants and foreign-born workers come under extreme pressure. They ultimately bear the brunt of economic downturn and unequal distribution of wealth.

When Congress was certifying the ballots on January 6, Trump was inciting his followers in front of the White House to march to the Capitol. Consequently, his frantic mob, armed with anger, sticks, and guns, stormed the Capitol building vandalising the very symbol of American democracy.

It was against this backdrop that hate groups, including far-right extremists and white supremacists, rose to “make America great again.“ These disenfranchised groups were also looking for a leader who could take them to the forefront of American politics.

Donald Trump was a leader who responded to their emotional appeals and made unfounded theories his main political agenda. Using his charm and straightforward rhetoric, he became the popular demagogue of these groups. With their votes, Trump proved all the election polls wrong and won the presidential election in 2016.

As soon as he came to the White House, Trump imposed a travel moratorium on some Muslim countries, started building the “beautiful” wall along the Mexican border, imposed new restrictions on immigrants calling them criminals, and supported police despite their brutalities against African Americans. He took these measures to reinforce conspiracy theories, further strengthening his solid vote bank.

Everything was going his way until the coronavirus held the world hostage in 2020. The pandemic crisis exposed the president’s incompetence, who not only remained ineffective in controlling the deadly disease but publicly mocked the leaders who kept social distancing and used masks as preventive measures.

As it looks, he was more concerned about winning the second presidential term than saving citizens’ lives. During the four years of his leadership, Trump did little other than presiding over an unproductive and chaotic administration.

As a result of hopeless government policies to control the pandemic, 3,000 Americans die each day; 400,000 have lost their lives so far. Additionally, 20.8 million Americans have lost their jobs, unemployment has risen to 14.3 percent, and the stock market has crashed. These developments have plunged America into its third recession so far.

Consequently, Joe Biden won the 2020 election with over 81 million popular votes and a clear majority Electoral College votes. However, the real surprise was not that that Biden won the election, but fact that Trump received over 70 million popular votes.

America is hugely divided in 2021. As it shows, two significant trends have something to do with the circumstance that led to the violent attack on Capitol building. Economic disparities are creating mistrust in the political system. This, in turn, is targeting minorities and immigrants unjustifiably.

Unfortunately, most political elites and the mainstream media are fixated on mending the broken pieces of democracy, side-tracking the real circumstances that led to vandalising the Capitol and increasing hatred against racial, religious and ethnic minorities.

In fact, it is economic deprivation and ethnic divisions that have exposed paradoxes and vulnerabilities of liberal democracy in the most powerful nation in the world.

The new Democratic administration has monumental tasks to accomplish. Overcoming the deadly pandemic appears to be one of the most significant crises to be resolved first. Joe Biden plans to raise the corporate tax from 21 percent to 28 percent and increase the tax for top-earning groups.

Paying attention to the economy, unemployment, immigration, health, education, and ethnic polarisation will help ease tensions in American society. It will also go a long way in restoring the public’s confidence in government institutions.

As we have seen, the absence of social justice and economic disparities have been the primary sources of social unrest in contemporary America.

After all, removing Donald Trump from the White House does not mean he has lost his political power. Without addressing inequalities and social justice, there is a possibility that the Trump saga will come back to haunt the nation.

The author is co-editor of a recently published book, From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media, State and Society in Pakistan (Routledge, 2020). He is an academic scholar and a freelance writer based in the   United States

American empire and paradoxes of liberal democracy: From day one, President Joe Biden starts undoing his predecessor’s most divisive policies