By 2025, “American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence. By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship.” This is not the rant of a frustrated cynic nor the prognosis of an anarchist. Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon visualises such a dire scenario. It may be too horrible to imagine. But many democracies today face such a nightmarish state of affairs.
The 21st century is fast becoming a world where, says Homer-Dixon, “the absurd regularly becomes real and the horrible commonplace.” These warning signals are from someone who has studied and published on the causes of war, social breakdown, revolution, ethnic violence, and genocide for more than four decades. What has brought the US to such a pass “is a multiplication effect between its underlying flaws and recent shifts in the society’s “material” characteristics.” This is the price the US is paying for ignoring systemic malaise.
The country’s economic, racial, and social gaps have helped cause toxic polarization between the political right and left. No less important is the role played by dirty money. The phenomenon is not confined to the US only. Today a global economy of dirty money is undermining democracy across the world. The US is ruled not by Democrats or Republicans, but by free market plutocrats.
As Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol and others have been telling us, the dirty money from billionaires like the Koch brothers has turned “extreme laissez-faire ideology into orthodox Republican dogma.” There are visible signs that the US and many other countries may be moving towards perfect plutocracy. For decades, plutocrats have spent a fortune trying to convince ordinary Americans that black is white. The billionaire Koch brothers have pumped vast sums into anonymous groups and political campaigns that encourage Americans to doubt everything.
The Koch brothers have spent more than $1.5 billion over four decades to push the Republican party to the libertarian Right. The two have had a noxious influence on the American political system. They spent some $900 million on political activities during the 2016 elections. The money was not only the brothers’, but came from like-minded millionaires and billionaires.
The world of rogue billionaires is a world without regulation, and they cast doubt on science in climate change and healthcare, among other topics. They also distribute cash through a vast web of tax-exempt entities. They have gathered around them about 400 other extraordinarily wealthy Conservatives, a kind of a billionaire caucus.
The Koch network includes the libertarian Cato Institute, which the brothers co-founded, and non-profits such as Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners. They have spread their views via funding for university programmes such as the libertarian Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a source of ideological attacks on social security and anti-poverty programmes, including Medicaid, school lunches and breakfasts, and food stamps.
Koch donations to academic institutions typically come with ideological blinders attached. The University of Utah accepted a $10 million donation from the Charles Koch Foundation to establish a free-market economics programme to counter the ostensibly Marxian bent of the university’s economics department. The Koch network funds organizations such as the State Policy Network and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which promote conservative legislation such as tax cuts, deregulation and “stand your ground” firearms laws at the state level.
The Cato Institute first moved to foment doubt about climate change science with a 1991 seminar titled “Global Environmental Crises: Science or Politics?” The seminar featured scientists who questioned the prevailing view that humankind’s carbon emissions caused the Earth to warm. The Koch network includes think tanks, which produce papers and advocacy groups that advocate for policies. And it includes giving money to candidates.
On all three fronts, they push climate change denial. Citing a global report by Transparency International, Foreign Policy journal, in its 28 January 2021 edition wrote that corruption in the US is at its worst level in a decade. The United States fell to a low of 67 out of a maximum possible score of 100, down from a high of 76 in 2015. A broader “decay” in US political institutions is a major contributor to the country’s declining rating.
The growing menace of gun violence is posing another grave challenge to American democracy. More than 30 Americans are murdered with guns daily. The US has more civilian-owned firearms than any other country in the world. There are about 120 guns for every 100 people. Yemen, in second place, has about 53 guns per 100 people. Violence is necessary to maintain what Martin Luther King, Jr., called “a democracy for white Americans but simultaneously a dictatorship over Black Americans.”
In California, citizens have the right to initiate legislation or repeal legislation through the veto referendum. In 2020, the gig economy companies Uber and Lyft placed a referendum on the ballot in California through a front group posing as citizens which got the principles outlined in a 2018 State Supreme Court ruling and enshrined in a 2019 state law reversed. They foiled the state law and court’s ruling that would have made contractors into employees.
These companies spent $224 million to inundate airwaves and social media sites to sway the votes. The very next day, their stock valuation was up $13 billion. A study by Princeton University Prof Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Prof Benjamin I Page says that while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence, it is the wealthy few who move policy.
Peace activist John Scales Avery echoes a similar view saying that the United States doesn’t have “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”, but a “government of the people, by corrupt politicians and for the enrichment of corporate oligarchs.” The spectre of civil war is haunting the US. President Joe Biden realised the gravity of the situation when he wondered in early January this year, “What kind of nation are we going to be? Are we going to be a nation that accepts political violence as a norm?” As many as 46 per cent of Americans think the country is headed for another civil war. Many historians, political scientists and media experts too believe the danger is real.
The warning signs, particularly the radicalisation of a major political party in terms of its embrace of violence as a legitimate means, portend troubled times ahead. To dismiss such a threat as the looney left’s phony concerns would be imprudent. The biggest threat to the oldest democracy is not that Donald Trump will steal the next presidential election, but that he may win it hands down.
(The writer is director, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi)