Three aspects of the US system

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 24 Nov 2020

While the world remains riveted on the US election process, friction in the wheels of the smooth transfer of power leaves questions arising as to the health of the American polity

I hope readers don’t get turned off by the ongoing commentary and analysis of the American question. Bear in mind that an element of fatigue is the counterpoint to the extreme excitement and concern stirred by the US presidential elections and sitting for hours on end switching back and forth between CNN and Fox News to follow what is happening on the other side of the Atlantic, despite the time lag.

There has been no sleight of hand in the explanations of the legal and constitutional rules and no hyperbole in repeated and now actualised predictions that Trump would not leave the White House peacefully, and that he would cast aspersions on the integrity of the elections, accuse his Democratic adversaries of fraud and stay in the White House as long as the law permits. 

By the way, this is not the first time this phenomenon has occurred in US history. The precedent was set by the second president, John Adams (1798-1801), who had served as George Washington’s vice president for eight years. His sole term was also characterised by bitter hatred, rancour and polarisation between his Federalist Party (the equivalent of the Republican Party today) and the then Republican Party (the equivalent of the Democratic Party today), led by Thomas Jefferson who would become the third president (1801-1809).

The reasons for the differences between the two sides are not of concern here. What matters is that the final days of Adams’ term occasioned intense litigation, debate and mutual mudslinging which culminated in Adams’ departure from the White House (which he was the first to inhabit) at the last moment and his return to Boston with no farewell and without attending the inauguration of his successor.

But when I say that a similar scenario is playing out today, my point is not “the more things change the more they remain the same,” but rather that the US political system could probably use some reform. The abovementioned problem with Adams gave rise to the 12th amendment in order to make the electoral process smoother and easier to validate. Given that the world has changed quite a bit since then, is a new amendment in order?

There is an obvious legal/constitutional aspect to this matter that is not as straightforward as it may appear. On the surface, there is no question of the legitimacy of the process, as Joe Biden has won both the popular vote and a majority of Electoral College votes. However, Trump’s charges of electoral fraud are not entirely unfounded.

The Democrats’ claim that the instances of dead people voting or forged signatures on mail-in ballots are too few to have made a significant difference in the outcome is a practical argument, not a legal one. Calling Trump stubborn and ignorant because he has been unable to furnish evidence of major fraud that would have had a significant impact on the results does not refute the existence of the crime per se, in what Biden supporters and even defectors from the Trump camp have called the “most honest” electoral process.

Around 3,000 pro-Trump ballots (reported variously at 2,700 and 3,301) had initially been eliminated and then suddenly discovered in the recounts. That this could have happened in the land of Apple, Microsoft and Silicon Valley gives a face to some legal and constitutional flaws, one that runs counter to the general trend elsewhere in the world. In other countries, it is those in power who commit the electoral fraud whereas in this case it was the opposition.

The political aspect of the problem seems more fundamentally American. In the case of Adams versus Jefferson, the two sides locked horns over the Anglo-French conflict at the time of the French Revolution and, domestically, over the Alien and Sedition acts. Today, the Trump and Biden camps have locked horns over the US’s transactions with the world abroad and over immigration and the media at home. Yet, Trump is not Adams and Biden is not Jefferson. Also, Americans today are sharply divided over almost all vital issues that concern their country, from the US’s world leadership to healthcare.

Alongside these is the old tug-of-war over federal versus state powers. Equally old are the disputes over Black (former slaves) and other minority rights, even though the Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” They say the devil lurks in the details. Here he lurks in the laws that translate the constitution into practice. These are governed by votes, Supreme Court rulings and, more importantly, the times in which the votes are cast and the Supreme Court rules. 

Which brings us to the third aspect of the problem, which is ideological. In large measure this, too, dates back to the founding of the republic and the contradiction between the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. The contradiction has affected approaches to legislation and legal actions involving such grand concepts as equality, freedom and even the pursuit of happiness, a concept with a long and complex philosophical history even if advances in media technology have lent it the taint of a predatory marketplace.

In those distant days when the printed press was the sole news outlet, Adams used the media as much as his successor in the White House today, fighting journalists and adversaries whom he called “traitors” and “enemies of the people”. Democrats, today, had spent much of Trump’s term in the search of a direct link between him and Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

Their accusations were grounded in ideological judgements over what is moral and immoral, in which framework the Evangelicals had an important part to play in the processes of demonising the opposing camp. But what made this year’s electoral battle so bloody was not just the skirmishes that erupted in major US cities after the murder of George Floyd, but also the political rift that paralysed the US legislature to the dismay of the American people and the amazement of the rest of the world. 

The three aforementioned aspects of the current American question do not exclude the existence of others. Some of these are shaped by current socioeconomic conditions while others are as old as the republic and, to judge by the recent electoral experience, will grow much, much older.

Yet other facets have to do with the geography of industry and technology in the US. It is no coincidence that the blue states are the coastal industrial ones where there are high concentrations of advanced technology centres and higher levels of education, while the red states are located the rural, agricultural and oil producing southern and inland parts of the country. Given the electoral climate that occasioned the largest turnout in US history, with about 150 million votes cast, the divide in the US is not just legal, political and ideological, but consummately demographic and geographic. 

When all is said and done, Americans can feel happy that the whole world is still riveted on their elections. What they do not know or prefer to ignore or, like their president, do not even care about is that the rest of the world might reach conclusions that many in the US would rather not contemplate. Such conclusions would have to do with a long list of issues, beginning with the question as to whether democracy is the best system of government, as many generations of Americans wanted the world to believe, and not ending with the question as to the centrality of the US in a world where rivals are converging on the helm.

*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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