These Untied States

Jul 20, 2022
The White House
Image: Flickr / angela n.

In a recent New Yorker, Andrew Marantz paints a grim prospect of the United States becoming more like Viktor Orban’s Hungary, when a Republican President and Congress, a real possibility after the 2024 elections, use the full range of constitutional possibilities to maintain a government that does not represent a majority of the American population.

Remember that electoral turn out in the United States hovers around 60% of the eligible population, on the lower side for liberal democracies; that it is possible for a President to lose the popular vote but still be elected—as Trump was in 2016; that the House of Representatives is based on electorates whose boundaries are drawn by state politicians and heavily gerrymandered; and that a majority of the Supreme Court are ideological conservatives whose recent rulings on guns, abortion and the environment have echoed what even a decade ago would be regarded as the ideas of right wing crackpots.

The Economist has already labelled the United States a “hybrid regime”, taking account of the various blockages that consistently favour the Republican minority: their current evaluation came before recent Supreme Court rulings, which are likely to see the United States fall further. And the conservative New York Times columnist, David Brooks, has recently itemised the ways in which most Americans feel the political system is failing them.

Brooks points to deep dissatisfaction with the existing state of politics: he claims that a majority of Americans do not believe the system works. He notes in passing the gerontocracy that dominates the system: it is possible that the 2024 presidential election will pit an 82-year-old incumbent against a twice impeached 78-year-old former President. The most powerful Congressional figures, Mitch McConnell [Republican] and Nancy Pelosi [Democrat] are of the same generation. The most youthful holders of power are the deeply conservative justices whom Trump managed to name to the Supreme Court.

In November the United States will hold elections for the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate. Few expect the Democrats to hold their already small majority in the House; there is a slightly better chance of retaining the Senate, but even with a bare Democratic majority it has become impossible for President Biden to win support for his most significant domestic agenda. As long as Joe Manchin sits in the Senate—he is up for re-election in 2024—he will block most of the legislation supported by his own party colleagues.

In the past there were many Senators from both parties who were willing to cross the floor in ways Australian politics rarely experience. This has become less and less frequent, as the two parties become more ideologically divided, and the costs for breaking with the party increase. [Manchin represents West Virginia, a state that has become reliably Republican in presidential contests and is a bulwark of coal. Manchin, who represents less than two million people has the same vote in the Senate as a Senator from California, which is over twenty times larger.]

As we learn more and more about Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 elections the silence of the vast majority of Republicans is the greatest cause for concern. Those few Republicans who have consistently refuted Trump’s claim to represent their party have been largely sidelined and are being replaced by ideologues whose closest counterparts in Australia would hover on the fringes of One Nation or Clive Palmer’s party.

Many Republicans now favour a national ban on abortions, even in the case of rape or incest; would abolish all restrictions on gun ownership, allowing individuals to carry military weapons into public spaces; oppose any teaching in schools that suggests racism is a crucial element of American history. And some of them are openly seeking to interfere with the electoral process to ensure they never lose again.

While American politics polarises more around cultural than economic issues, life expectancy in the United States declines and the gap between rich and poor increases. A 2018 study of 28 OECD countries found that, on average, the top 10 percent of households owns 52 percent of wealth, while the bottom 60 percent owns 12 percent. But in the United States the top 10 percent held 80 per cent and the bottom 60 percent held less than three. The United States spends far more per capita on health care than any other country—and still lacks genuine universal coverage.

There are many Democrats who recognise these problems, President Biden amongst them, but they seem unable to build the sort of electoral majority that would overcome the structural barriers that favour Republicans. In his New Yorker article Marantz raises the prospect of a continuing erosion of democratic government which will see the United States resemble Turkey and Hungary more than countries such as Australia.

Yet there seems to be bipartisan agreement that we should further integrate ourselves into American military and political ambitions. The Albanese government has had the good luck to come to power during the Biden Administration, whose commitments to global order are arguably consistent with ours. But an Albanese government might well find itself facing a very different Administration in two years’ time, one whose values are distinctly in conflict with Australia’s national interests.

Were the Republicans to control American politics after 2024 this would produce the worst strain on our alliance since the Whitlam government, so well described in James Curran’s Unholy Fury. The greatest conventional threat to our security would be a war between the United States and China, and it is in our interests to do everything possible to avoid that as Hugh White persuasively argues in his recent Quarterly Essay. A Republican Administration might well itch for a war with China, dragging us behind them.

Nor is the United States a dependable ally when it comes to non-military threats to security. If the Albanese government is serious about making climate change a crucial element of its approach to domestic and foreign policy how would it respond to a United States that refused to accept the Paris Climate Agreement? We already know that climate change is a central concern for Pacific island nations. Faced with the choice between China and Trump’s America should we be surprised were they to favour Beijing?

Many Australian politicians seem to find it difficult to regard the United States as another foreign country, whose interests and values will not necessarily align with ours. New Zealand, which is partner to both in the ANZUS Treaty, seems far more circumspect in how it approaches its relations with the United States. The world today is more complicated than the Cold War rhetoric of a global confrontation between democracy and autocracy, which already seems hollow after President Biden’s embrace of Saudi Arabia. It will become even more hollow in a world where the United States is bitterly divided and governed by Trump-style Republicans. One hopes Minister Wong and DFAT are quietly preparing for this eventuality.


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