I hail from a country (Norway) that doesn’t have mandatory voting, yet gets close to 80% of eligible voters turning up at the polling booths, around the same as in Australia. Although I am philosophically opposed to mandatory voting as a contradiction in terms of a free democracy, I am also not too fussed about it. It is not on my list of important democracy reforms.
The United States have a very different system of voter registration, obfuscation and various other means of limiting participation – let alone the strange notion of voting on a workday. Around 57% of eligible voters turned out in the 2016 Presidential election, but traditionally the number is much lower for the mid-term elections – last time (2014) it was 37%.
Early calculations by Time Magazine shows around 50% turned out on Tuesday. It may prove to be the highest ever mid-term turnout, but it still puts the US well down the list of voter participation in “true” democracies.
No doubt the higher voter turnout must be attributed to the polarisation caused by a combative President Trump and mobilisation by those opposed to his divisive ways.
Trump declared his party’s losses a victory and blamed the “fake news” media for everything else. No surprises there.
The good news is the Democrats now have a majority in the House of Representatives. It means a strengthened ability to curb the worst excesses of a President with little regard for democratic decision making.
Also in the good news column is that a record number of women will serve in Congress – still only 22%, but in the right direction. And not just women, but a record number of non-white women, the first Native American woman and the first Muslim woman. And that’s not all! There will be more scientists than ever before in the next Congress, too!
The mid-terms is also the election of State Governors, and for the first time an openly gay man was elected to that role in the state of Colorado.
Well under the radar of many commentators another positive was that some States have started the process of removing party political considerations from setting electoral boundaries, making it an administrative function overseen by the judiciary. Gerrymandering is a much bigger threat to true democracy in the US than it is in Australia.
The bad news is the Senate not only retains a Republican Party majority, but it even increased by two. So although a Democrat led House is good, a Republican dominated Senate ensures that the chances of an impeachment for any of Trump’s transgressions remains a distant prospect.
Unless it gets a lot uglier.
True to form, Trump wasted no time in drawing up the battle lines, including sacking Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions; paving the way for a likely next move – eliminating the threat of the Robert Mueller investigation proving ties with Russia and its election meddling in 2016.
Donald Trump is a street-fighter. Much in the same way as Hitler and his henchmen took over Germany in the thirties, whipping up hatred against the Jews, Trump will continue to fuel the fires with his base anti-immigrant messages of nationalism and thinly veiled racism.
And it matters to all of us, not just because the US remains (arguably) the most powerful country in the world, but because others see Trump’s “success” as an endorsement of divisive and elitist policies of self-serving aggrandisement. Brazil was the most recent country to elect an anti-democratic bigot as their President last week. In recent years Turkey, Venezuela and The Philippines have descended into autocracy, while Putin’s Russia have reverted from the the nascent democracy that emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall in ‘89.
In Beijing the un-democratically elected leaders continue to wield their ever increasing influence up the next Silk Road, seemingly not too worried about the revelations of “re-education” camps as there is no leader of the “free” world to take them to task (if there ever was, but that’s another story).
And while we may still not be under any immediate threat of dictatorship here in Australia, there are signs it is not beyond the realm of possibility. The Abbott/TurnbullMorrison government have implemented several undemocratic measures under the guise of terror threats – free speech is no longer a fully protected right if you reveal Government mis-deeds. And although the “It’s OK to be white” debacle in the Senate may be seen as just pure ignorance and incompetence, it also reveals a sinister under-belly in the political discourse.
And while Prime Minister Scott Morrison may not be a Donald Trump, pretend to be fair dinkum and don’t have Presidential executive powers, I am not entirely convinced that all of Morrison’s colleagues fully appreciate the importance of unfettered democracy as a guarantor of our freedoms.
Our next election is no mid-term, it is a test of our collective willingness to embrace a less divisive future.
Participating in democracy, and not just elections, matters more than ever.
Kim Wingerei is a former businessman, turned writer, blogger and commentator; passionate about free speech, democracy and the politics of change. Author of “Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change”. Follow @ kimwingerei.com