How democratic is the USA

Media coverage in the United States is currently dominated by one person: Donald Trump. Opponents and supporters react equally excitedly to every new lie and outrageous slander, to every new tweet and unjustified accusation against people or institutions that are considered enemies. This is exactly the situation Trump likes best: being the center of public attention, like on the reality TV shows where he was once the main actor. This book, edited by Patrick Horst, Philipp Adorf and Frank Decker, eludes this excitement The USA - a failing democracy? In it, the authors intelligently analyze the state of American democracy in the Trump era with scientific distance.

The authors of the contributions - mainly renowned German, but also some American social scientists - accuse Trump of either “abnormal” (Söhnke Schreyer), “autocratic” (Claus Leggewie) or “rogue” (the three editors in the foreword) behavior, but see the latter also that "the crisis of democracy goes far beyond Donald Trump". Although their arguments are based on insider reports from the chaotic administration of Trump, the editors are convinced that "Trump is not the cause of the threats [to democracy] but its symptom." Therefore, current events are only addressed in passing. The chapters focus primarily on the more complex, structural imperfections of American democracy: the electoral body (Electoral College), the gerrymandering, the election suppression, the collapse of the political system of the checks and balances, but also on the tense relations between different ethnic groups, the social inequalities, the dilemma of migration and foreign policy.

The topics dealt with are varied, but mostly remain connected by a common thread: the observation that the USA is threatening to become a “defective democracy”. This term, originally introduced by Wolfgang Merkel, is applied by Patrick Horst to American conditions. Based on empirical studies on the quality of democracy, he states that the erosion of American democracy has been going on for years, i.e. long before the Trump era. In an international comparison, it shows that the USA only occupies one of the lower places in the hierarchy of democratic communities. To demonstrate this growing democratic deficit, he draws on the ongoing decline in the approval rate for democracy as a form of government among US citizens. Thirty years ago, 33% of those questioned already knew that they preferred a "strong leader" to the democratic regime. In addition, even before the elections in 2016, two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that the US government was acting in the interests of the few and not in favor of the large majority (Boris Vormann and Christian Lammert).

In light of these findings, it is perhaps surprising that so many of the German authors are more optimistic about the prospects for American democracy than their American counterparts. They describe the US political system as resilient (Andreas Falke), express their confidence in reforms and better election results, and welcome the health insurance system introduced by Barack Obama (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), and are optimistic about the ability of the individual states to stop authoritarianism (Andreas Falke and Jared Sonnicksen).

In any case, the apparent deficits in US democracy - some anchored in the constitutional system, others introduced by state-level Republican politicians - may explain the disappointment of US citizens with their form of government. This is how Frank Decker exposes the injustice of the Electoral College. Because it enables a candidate to win despite a lower number of votes, as happened in the election of Trump and George W. Bush. Likewise can through skillful gerrymandering (Allocation of electoral districts in favor of a party) election results are massively influenced. With this tactic, according to Philipp Adorf, the Republicans got 10-20 more seats in the House of Representatives than they would have won under the condition of fair district borders. Decker and Adorf understand how difficult it would be to reform these practices. The abolition of the Electoral College would require constitutional amendment: an almost insurmountable hurdle; the drawing of fair constituencies requires the participation of the governments in the individual states, which is unlikely in the republican-ruled states.

Patrick Horst brings to the fore the strict Voter ID laws introduced by some individual states, which deny countless citizens their right to vote - one reason why the USA ranks lowest in the international ranking for electoral integrity (24th place out of 24th) ). He attributes these results to the US Constitution itself, which viewed voting more as a privilege than a basic right, and accordingly left voting rights to the arbitrariness of the individual states. After the civil war and the ensuing liberation of the slaves, Afro-Americans should have unrestricted voting rights as full citizens. To prevent this, the white population in all southern states gradually passed so-called Jim Crow laws, which extremely reduced voter turnout among the African-American population. These practices continue today, albeit less pronounced. The so-called election suppression (vote suppression) has a long tradition in the USA. At that time it guaranteed supremacy to the Democrats in the south; today it is more likely to benefit the Republicans.

Söhnke Schreyer assesses the effectiveness of those embedded in the US constitution checks and balances. He is concerned that this part of the democratic order is also eroding because of the current polarization and the fierce party dispute in the USA. Republican congressmen have, according to Schreyer, entered into a "Faustian pact" with Donald Trump: They renounced their supervisory responsibility towards the executive because they belong to the same party and because of Trump's influence on the party base, which in turn can punish renegade Republicans at the ballot box. Nonetheless, when the book was published, he believed in a possible reactivation of the checks and balancesif the Democrats regain at least one chamber in Congress in 2018 - which has happened in the meantime. The interrogations about Trump's transgressions of norms and law have already begun.

At the end of the institutional contributions, Marcus Höreth illustrates the decline in democratic norms using the example of the appointment and confirmation of Neil Gorsuch as Supreme Court Justice in 2017. The prelude to this process was the norm-violating decision by the Republicans in the Senate to deny Obama nominee Merrick Garland the opportunity to appear before the relevant committee to show his suitability for office. When Trump won the presidency and appointed far-right candidate Neil Gorsuch to the vacancy, Republicans abolished the common norm that a candidate judge must get 60 Senate votes to be confirmed. According to Höreth, this norm-disregarding process must not be viewed as a temporary derailment, but as a long-term threat to the legitimacy of the Supreme Court and its legal finding, which the public will increasingly see as a weapon in the hands of the "Grand Old Party" (GOP). He also points out that the abolition of the 60-vote norm offers the parties fewer and fewer incentives to elect more moderate judge candidates, which would also contribute to further polarization and erosion of American democracy.

Other authors pay greater attention to the causes of growing inequality that endanger democracy. Christiane Lemke sees the USA on the threshold of unbridled capitalism. Although the country is currently still democratic, it could soon turn into a plutocracy. Betsy Leimbigler and Christian Lammert note that the extreme inequality in the USA is already undemocratic, since it makes it more difficult for every citizen to fully exercise the "social rights" that are due to every citizen. In addition, great economic inequality directly undermines democracy. Vormann and Lammert examine the growing influence of campaign contributions and lobbying on American politics. According to them, by 2012 40% of all campaign donations came from the hands of the richest 0.01% of the population. The authors convincingly record the evolution of campaign fundraising laws, practices, and relevant court rulings. They show how rich individuals and organizations like the »Super PACs« circumvented these laws or weakened them so much that the origins of campaign and lobby donations remain in the dark (»dark money«). The power of campaign donors and lobbyists undermines the democratic principle that all citizens should have an equal influence on political decisions.

Despite his excellence, there are also shortcomings in this book. There are a few minor flaws that make the arguments contained therein somewhat less powerful. To name just one: Höreth quotes the sentence by Alexander Hamilton (Federalist 78) that the Supreme Court will be the least dangerous constitutional authority because it lacks both "purse" and "sword". But he replaces the word "purse" with "power", missing the meaning of the saying: that the court has neither the finances (like Congress) nor the armed forces (like the executive).

In addition, the book would have won if a contribution had systematically examined the influence of the media on American democracy. In an excellent chapter on his experiences and observations as a correspondent for the ARD In the White House, Jan Philipp Burgard offers important insights into the central position of the right-wing extremist media (Fox News, Talk radio) in the Trump administration and in its "base". But it would also have been instructive to investigate the massive changes in the media world over the last 20 years or so. It is important to note, for example, that the newspapers in America - and with them the critical examination of community and state affairs - have gradually gotten into a death spiral. For example, in the 13 states of the western United States, 48 ​​daily and 157 weekly newspapers have been received over the past 14 years.

There are more and more »newspaper deserts« in which there is no reporting at all about local politics and certainly no critical journalism. That is why more and more Americans get their political information from the Internet or from cable and satellite television. It is also noticeable that almost 40% of all Americans get their local news from television channels, which in many cases are networked through the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair owns nearly 180 local radio stations, all of which are coordinated at the national level and whose political attitudes are shaped by loyalty to Trump. If the quality of a democracy depends on the attitudes and beliefs of the people, it is worrying to see that in the US these are so consistently shaped by Trump-friendly, uncritical media.

Aside from these minor concerns, this book is unreservedly recommended to anyone interested in politics. Instead of blaming Trump for all the grievances in the United States, the authors astutely analyze the origins and causes of the dysfunction of democracy in that country and offer some thoughtful reform proposals. In addition, many authors make clever comparisons between the political conditions in America and Europe. In conclusion, the authors deserve abundant praise for their intensive research. There is hardly an important source that they have not discovered and consulted. Your general work - and the book in particular - are in the best tradition of German social science. The latter is therefore an unconditional "must read".

Patrick Horst / Philipp Adorf / Frank Decker (eds.): The USA - a failing democracy? Campus, Frankfurt / M. 2018, 406 pp., € 34.95.