Two Cheers for American Democracy

The recent scenes of mob rule in Washington DC have sent shockwaves around the globe, and have been met by statements of disbelief and disapproval from world leaders. The condemnation of the insurrectionists by leading Republicans, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence, and the subsequent congressional confirmation of Joe Biden’s election as president, have provided a welcome, and necessary, reaffirmation of constitutional propriety.

At the same time, the occupation of the capitol building notwithstanding, more than half of the Republicans in the House of Representatives and eight Republican senators still voted to block Biden’s election. Subversion of the democratic process is also nothing new in the American political tradition.

From the 1870s through to the 1960s African Americans in the southern states were systematically denied the right to vote. Not by racist white mobs, but by state laws linking voter registration to poll taxes, literacy tests and ‘good understanding’ clauses.  As late as the 1950s and 1960s African Americans in Mississippi were asked questions like ‘How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap’ to demonstrate they were fit to register to vote.

Such injustices were finally ended by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which introduced strict federal government oversight of the qualifications states could impose for voter registration. The results were dramatic. In Mississippi black voter turnout rose from just 5 per cent in 1964 to 59 per cent by 1969.

In Shelby County v Holder (2013) the conservative dominated United States Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 majority that the Voting Rights Act was a historical anachronism, and that the safeguards it put in place no longer needed to be enforced. Within 24 hours of the decision Alabama, Mississippi and Texas introduced strict voter ID requirements that have since been adopted by more than thirty other states.

Such measures are justified as necessary to prevent voter fraud. In practice they have resulted in widespread voter suppression in ethnic minority communities. 25 per cent of African Americans do not possess government issued photo ID cards compared to only 8 per cent of white Americans. Voter restriction was further reinforced by other measures, including the redrawing of electoral districts to minimize the impact of non-white voters, and closing polling centres in African American communities. Regular purging of the electoral roles led to the de-registration of voters on minor technicalities or because they hadn’t voted in recent elections.

In the 2016 presidential election national voter turnout fell to 56 per cent compared to 64 per cent in 2008 and 60 per cent in 2012. In 2017 African American and Latino voters were three to four times as likely to report facing racial discrimination as white Americans during the electoral process.

But hope remains. In 2020 the polarising nature of the Trump administration energised not just his own supporters but those who opposed him. National voter turnout rose to 67 per cent, comparable to that in the 2019 UK general election. The COVID pandemic also encouraged voters to take advantage of opportunities provided by states for early voting and postal voting. Measures that, needless to say, President Trump firmly opposed. The result – two Democratic Senators in Georgia. What will happen next?

Kevern Verney is Professor of History and Associate Dean Research for the Faculty of Arts and Science at Edge Hill University.

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Biden, Trump and the Lessons of the Past

In recent weeks media commentators have dubbed the 2020 U.S. election ‘historic’. It’s understandable.

The campaign was fought in the midst of a global pandemic. By election day over 9.5 million Americans had contracted COVID-19 and more than 235,000 had died.

The contrasting responses of the candidates towards the epidemic, and their competing visions of the future, reflected deep, troubling, divisions in American society. The enmity between the two sides led to a voter turnout of more than 150 million. Win or lose, both candidates look set to receive more votes than any other presidential candidate in American history, surpassing the record of 69.4 million set by Barack Obama in 2008.

The high turnout and closely contested nature of the race means the outcome has remains in doubt. Given pending legal challenges it could be weeks, if not months, before the result is known.

It is an election unlike any other, and yet there are historical precedents for all the current circumstances.

Bitter rivalries are rooted in the American political tradition. In a 1796 letter to George Washington, the radical political thinker Tom Paine denounced the nation’s hallowed founder as ‘treacherous in private friendship and a hypocrite in public life’. The ‘world will be puzzled to decide, whether you are an apostate, or an imposter. Whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any’.  

Contested elections are also nothing new. In 1824 Andrew Jackson won 11 states with 41.4 per cent of the popular vote to 7 states and 30.9 per cent for John Quincy Adams. Unfortunately for Jackson he failed to secure a majority in the electoral college. Under the 12th Amendment to the Constitution the outcome of the election was decided by the U.S. House of Representatives, with each state casting one vote. Viewed by some as a dangerous demagogue, Jackson lost 13 – 7.

Albeit impressive, the projected 67 per cent turnout of eligible voters in 2020 is eclipsed by the 81.2 per cent turnout of 1860. In that contest the United States was even more divided than it is today. The election of Abraham Lincoln plunged the nation into civil war.

There is even a precedent for a pandemic election. The 1920 campaign coincided with the final months of a global flu epidemic. Between 1918 and 1920 more than 100 million Americans were infected, including outgoing president Woodrow Wilson. Some 675,000 Americans died from the contagion.

It’s a sobering thought that whoever wins the 2020 election, if it takes place, the large crowds attending their inauguration on 20 January has all the potential to turn the day into a super-spreader COVID event. Notwithstanding Trump’s claims to the contrary, there is no guarantee that prior illness with the virus provides lasting immunity against re-infection. Given this he and Biden might do well to reflect on the fate of William Henry Harrison. Sworn in as President in March 1841, on a cold, wet, day in Washington DC, the 68-year old unwisely gave a two-hour inauguration address. Within days he developed a bad cold that turned into pneumonia and died a month after taking office.

Kevern Verney is Associate Dean Research and Professor in American History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Edge Hill University.

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And the winner is…

We may not know yet who will win the Presidential Election but, as Edge Hill programme leader for Politics Paula Keaveney, argues, some people have “won” already.

I am constantly amazed by the speed with which US commentators switch from the results of an election to the question of who will run next.  Sometimes there are just a few months.  Sometimes we don’t even get to the inauguration before the talking starts.

And this year there are likely to be more politicians than ever pondering what this month’s results mean for them and their ambitions.

If Trump wins, he can only serve one more term. There is a legal limit.  And if Biden wins, his suggestion of a single term Presidency becomes very relevant.

This means that, more than ever, the focus will switch almost immediately to what comes next.

Ambitious Republicans will be working out whether distancing from Trump or appearing to hug Trump close will help their prospects.

But it is within Democratic hearts that hope, and ambition is likely to beat most strongly.

The general wisdom is that it is better to be a challenger than follow an incumbent.  But electoral trends in the US have shown a strong incumbency factor when the party is in its first term.  In other words, it is easier for that party to win another four years.  Reasons for this vary but it is argued that voters tend to pin blame on previous administrations for the first few years.  A Biden Presidency then could run into economic difficulties but avoid economic blame.  This in turn means that being selected as the Democratic candidate to follow a President Biden is a very attractive prospect.

So, although we don’t have a winner yet, we do have winners.  These are individuals well positioned to make a run to become the next nominee.

Top of this list must be Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris.  Harris has achieved that key political combination of ability and luck.  The Senator from California’s run for the nomination ended early.  But timing is all.  And her selection by Biden has propelled her to national prominence in a way her primary rivals can only envy.  If Biden wins, and sticks to his one term idea, she will be front runner for the nomination.  If he loses, her profile and campaigning must give her the edge (as long as no blame for the loss attaches itself to her) Kamala Harris then is my winner of the night.

My runner up, another Democrat, is former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.  Mayor Pete did well initially in the primaries but then stopped campaigning and endorsed Biden.  His media appearances as a Biden surrogate in recent weeks, including taking the fight to the usually hostile Fox News, have positioned him well for another run.

Politics never sleeps in the US.  It is always worth watching out for who is on manoeuvres.

Paula Keaveney is a senior lecturer in Politics.  US Politics is one of the subjects covered on Edge Hill University’s Politics degrees.

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