OPINION - US elections: democracy is on the ballot (again)

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

I have a rule: no American politics at the dinner table until you can name two European leaders not called Macron or Scholz.

It is odd, bordering on unhinged to know about the congressional redistricting process in Ohio or the names of each US Supreme Court justice but not be able to say who runs Sweden or Croatia, countries at the heart of a continent we can literally see from our shores on a clear day.

Of course, the central flaw in this admittedly snobbish affectation is that what happens in the US, not just who the president is but which party controls the legislature, the judiciary and yes, even the redistricting process, matters a great deal to Britain, as it does the rest of the world.

Voters head to the polls today in the US for the midterm elections. Every member of the House of Representatives, one-third of the Senate, and two-thirds of the state governorships are up for grabs. At present, Joe Biden’s Democratic Party has the narrowest of majorities in the House and Senate. They are expected to lose the former, while the latter is essentially a toss-up.

I don’t want to downplay the serious problems, political, economic and social that the UK faces. But when we talk about a febrile atmosphere in Westminster, it often describes the excited glances among MPs and journalists over whether the home secretary will survive the week.

In the US, that term might instead allude to the attempted kidnapping and assault of Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, whose husband was hit on the head with a hammer and required surgery. In the days following, instead of shock and universal condemnation, right-wing conspiracy websites and even some Republicans baselessly suggested the attack was some sort of false flag event.

In Britain, publication of the latest constituency Boundary Commission proposals led to virtually no fanfare. In the US, Republicans in Wisconsin have so gerrymandered local districts that in a 50:50 state, Democrats win only one-third of the seats.

Indeed, the Republican candidate for governor, Tim Michels, was secretly recorded claiming “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin if I am elected governor.” Not because of any perpetual popularity, but because free and fair elections would essentially cease to matter in the way you or I might recognise.

How does this relate to Britain? In practical terms, Republicans in control of one or both houses of Congress may try to halt any further appropriations of cash and weaponry to Ukraine. Divided government could also lead to further trade tensions and severely limit President Biden’s ability to act on climate.

But there’s a broader point, too. The US is the world’s most powerful country and important democracy. Its health impacts on ours. And it is in a bad way. The threat of political violence, never far beneath the surface, feels ever-present. One of its two main parties has somewhat given up on democracy, using the ‘big lie’ – the false claim that the 2020 presidential election was ‘stolen’ – to undermine voting rights. Meanwhile, the party’s likely nominee in 2024, Donald Trump, is under investigation for his role in the January 6 2021 attack on the US capitol.

Elections work best when they matter, but not so much that one or both sides believe the other’s victory represents an existential threat. In such circumstances, people can convince themselves any action on their part to prevent that outcome is legitimate.

There’s a great quote I was reminded of recently, from a 1944 speech by the American jurist Learned Hand (what a name for a judge) in celebration of an “I Am an American Day” event, where new citizens swore the Pledge of Allegiance. He reminds us:

“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it”.

Elsewhere in the paper, London’s tired, poor huddled, masses, yearning for a damn train, have called on rail chiefs to get a grip amid widespread disruption to the network despite the fact that RMT strikes were called off last Friday.

In the comment pages, director of the Social Market Foundation James Kirkup says Keir Starmer is breaking Leftist taboos in his deadly serious drive to win power. While Wimbledon relaxing its rules on white underwear? About bloody time, says Katie Strick (I don’t write the headlines...)

And finally, younger men are having a cultural moment (so I’m told), with Cher revealing she’s seeing a man 40 years her junior. Our dating columnist Lucy Holden is already a convert.

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