War for the Soul: the crumbling facade of American democracy

Image: @Mike_Pence/Twitter

There is no such thing as a quiet American election. At the ripe old age of 35, I have to travel back decades to find a Presidential election not considered a global existential crisis. Joe Biden has labelled the 2020 election a war for the soul of the United States. He’s not the first to use the label. It sells in a country leading the world in percentage of citizens who believe in angels. US democracy has always been well-marketed.

The timing of this Presidential election is a double whammy as the world faces two existential crises at once. What happens in America next will change the history of the Covid-19 pandemic and likely the history of the 21st century. However terrifying, however depressing, we are right to pay attention.

It also requires some time travel to find a US election not racked with scandal. I remember the sense of otherness in 1998 when it became clear there might have been tampering in the voter count. The notion something might be rotten in the state of Florida seems almost comic now. But in the 90’s, the international community was severely thrown.

The mounting reports of gerrymandering by Republicans and Democrats and the overt moves to restrict people of colour from voting followed. It was worrying, but my parent’s generation especially felt they could look away. Republicans and Democrats, like our own two-party-preferred behemoths, have always tried to rob each other of voters. But suppression of voters is an American vice.

Australians are required to vote, a luxury US citizens have never enjoyed. Passively suppressing attendance at the ballot box was just a quirk of the American system. It once seemed safe to believe aggressively, systemically suppressing voters, would never be allowed. In 2020, we are watching those assumptions collapse.

It’s not easy being an engaged vote. The signs of rot in the system are apparent to everyone. But political leaders are unlikely to involve themselves in anything as grubby as the effectiveness of democracy unless their oponants are involved. Australia’s constitutional monarchy faces problems with representation, racism, citizenship, micro-parties and a seemingly unstoppable shift away from the political centre. Australian policy on immigration has drawn global criticism for its cruelty. We’ve got troubles of our own, but we are yet to face the crisis of self currently overwhelming the US and the UK.

However often the gears are shifting, our democracy is still functioning. In its way, Covid-19 has been an effective marker. Australians have publicly argued about how to best manage the pandemic, but our perception of a good result has never been successfully challenged. Quality of life and quality of care has won the day as the political message in Australia, despite repeated attempts to shift the conversation elsewhere.

The intense public scrutiny following every government mistake has been the deciding word. We may bicker and squabble, but Australians do still give a damn about each other. Examine the opposite end of the spectrum and you find the US and Brazil, nations drowning in a war for the soul.

Whatever mess the US is in, they’ve been the apex predators of international trade for the best part of a century. If they continue to lengthen and worsen the COVID-19 pandemic through political mismanagement, the results will be global. Major US trading partners will be forced to either follow suit or look to different markets to stay financially afloat.

The US economy is reliant on its own self-worth as the home of the worlds most valuable brands and businesses. The risks posed in turning to China as an alternative hub of global financial operations remain daunting.
At time of writing, most polls point to a Biden victory and a pursuit of policies easing the pandemic in the US as the world ramps up to the release of the first legitimate vaccines. But the honking swan song of American democracy and its inevitable impact on this election cannot be ignored.

The Obama administration proved the best we will see from an American Presidency is a stall in US democracy’s demise. Whatever the intentions of presidential candidates from either side of the aisle, they no longer have the support to make serious repairs. COVID-19 has heightened the effects of the collapse.

Watching revered US figures like Michelle Obama address the recent online Democratic National Convention spoke volumes. The tone in US politics is a return to sovereign and peasant, the “real Americans” doing it tough, being addressed by the aristocracy from ivory towers. The marketing to normalise these settings has been staggering to behold. Drama series are imminent on Stan and Netflix. The American Game of Thrones, tune in nightly at 6.

America’s 45th Presidency has been played out overwhelmingly on screen and online. The daily public relations absurdities and the popularity of social media have hamstrung successful reporting. The result has been a series of disastrous shifts in American public policy.

From the gutting of the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy to the steady purge of veteran experts from foreign policy institutions, catalysts have unfolded, drowned out by the deafening narcissism of the most powerful Twitter on earth. Global media has been reduced to a shambles, vulnerable to the ideologies and profit-seeking of host companies and outmoded by digital platforms more interested in collecting users than facts.

It’s confronting as a first-year journalism student to face the possibility the US may only have state sanctioned media by the time I graduate. The impact of a less democratic America has already been shocking. At the end of four years of benign despotism, the idea of four more and an election victory achieved through systemic corruption, or worse, violence, is soul crushing. That’s where we are in 2020. The US no longer hosts elections but curated civil wars. As outsiders, all we can do is watch.