08:52, November 12 66 0 theguardian.com

2018-11-12 08:52:05
How moving to the US made me appreciate the House of Lords

Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve learned since I moved to Washington DC earlier this year is that democracy in the US is fundamentally broken. Not in that total, all-encompassing way that renders elections a sham and voting an entirely farcical waste of time. Rather, there’s an eclectic set of factors that combine to stack the deck so heavily that the barriers to progressive change can seem almost insurmountable.

One major issue is voter suppression, which is (currently) barely a thing in the UK. Methods vary from state to state, but there’s a clear trend: disenfranchisement of predominately working-class, African American, Latino and other minority voters in places where Republicans control the state legislature. In Georgia, roughly 700,000 were purged from electoral rolls in 2017 without being informed and this year 53,000 people, 70% of whom were African American, were prevented from registering to vote for reasons as trivial as a misplaced hyphen. This process was overseen by then secretary of state Brian Kemp, who just happens to have also been Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial candidate for the GOP – and who seems to have beaten Democrat Stacey Abrams, the first black woman in history to be a major party’s nominee for governor, by a very narrow margin.

Since 2010, 24 states have put in place new restrictions on voting. 13 have introduced more restrictive voter ID laws, 11 have passed legislation making it harder to register to vote, and seven have acted to limit early voting – a move which is justified as a cost-cutting exercise but which disproportionately affects low-income and minority voters, who are less likely to be able to take time off work. (Especially when, as is often the case here, queueing to cast a ballot can take hours.) The closure of thousands of polling places across the country has been defended on similar grounds, but African American and Latino communities have been especially inconvenienced. Most states also restrict the voting rights of convicted felons even after they’ve left prison, with a handful imposing lifetime bans. African Americans are hugely overrepresented among the affected population.

Then there’s the gerrymandering, which, while not entirely a non-issue in the UK, long since passed the point of absurdity in many parts of the US. Congressional district TX-35, for example, is just a mile wide at points but snakes 100 miles through rural areas to connect parts of San Antonio and Austin – packing as many urban Democrat voters as possible into a single seat. In North Carolina, Republicans won 50.3% of votes for Congress but took 10 of 13 seats. But it’s not always Republicans responsible, Maryland and New Mexico show that Democrats aren’t above resorting to similar tactics when they get the opportunity.

What’s more, the US political system was deliberately designed to limit what might be achieved through majoritarian will. The electoral system for the Senate, which grants each state equal representation regardless of population size, was not intended to disadvantage Democrats (who, in the late 1700s, could possibly have predicted 21st-century voter distribution trends?), but protecting against the so-called “tyranny of the majority” was a conscious goal. That’s also the entire point of the supreme court.

Coming from the UK – where even if the courts declare a piece of legislation contravenes the Human Rights Act, parliament is quite free to ignore it – it’s easy to see the upside of the US approach. But numerous tightly contested supreme court rulings have shown that interpreting the constitution allows significant leeway. It’s political. That’s why it matters so much that the Senate (which was under Republican control, even though the Democrat senators represented 20 million more voters) was able to block Obama from nominating a replacement for Antonin Scalia in 2016. And why Trump getting to pick two, and possibly three or even four, new supreme court justices is seen as a catastrophe by most Democrats. Even if they manage to take the House, Senate and presidency, their hands could be tied for decades to come.

And then there’s the money. In 2010, the average winning congressional candidate spent $1.4m on their campaign. For senators the figure was $9.8m. Typically, this has meant Republican and Democrat candidates alike relying heavily on corporate donors and ultra-wealthy individual donors. You don’t need to be a politics wonk to work out the kind of impact this might have on policy preferences.

In the past couple of years, an insurgent left movement within the Democratic party has fought to escape this financial bind. Following the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign – which was funded almost entirely by small personal donations – candidates backed by leftwing groups such as the Justice Democrats, Working Families Party and Democratic Socialists of America have pledged to refuse corporate money and pursue a redistributive economic agenda. So far, the majority have lost their races, but several dozen managed to get selected as Democratic candidates and a handful have just been elected to Congress. In all cases, Herculean fundraising efforts were necessary just to enable them to compete. Compare that with UK, where election spending limits are in the tens of thousands and membership fees alone are almost enough to keep the Labour party afloat.

As negative as this all sounds, engaging with US politics hasn’t left me feeling hopeless. I’m inspired by activists whoare fighting tirelessly, on multiple different fronts, just to level the playing field. Campaigns to enfranchise felons, redraw gerrymandered districts and overturn restrictive voting laws don’t attract as much attention as surprise election wins – but they dramatically change what’s possible in the future.

Most of all, I have a newfound appreciation for parliamentary democracy. UK political discourse might be a quagmire of bad faith, petty squabbling and (sometimes justified) Brexit hysteria, but the route to political change is far more straightforward. Win a majority of seats in the House of Commons and not much stands in your way. I’ve even softened on the Lords because, as gross as it is symbolically, an absurd, archaic upper house with zero democratic legitimacy, it is less troublesome than a pseudo-democratic version like the US Senate, which might act as a roadblock on any progressive agenda. It’s funny what time away from home can do to you.

Abi Wilkinson is a freelance journalist based in Washington DC

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