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eyes on the U.S.

The Deep Malaise Of Your American Democracy

The midterm elections were a stinging defeat for Barack Obama. But it was also a wholesale indictment of U.S. politics, which is both disturbing and confounding when viewed from abroad.

Need a break?
Need a break?
Alain Frachon


Barack Obama let the cancer of jihadi terrorism spread across the Middle East. He also left the door open for the Ebola virus to walk right in. If America is “under threat” by these two scourges — among many others — the Democratic president is entirely responsible. Such was the central theme of the Republican campaign for this past week’s midterm elections: Obama is responsible for everything that is wrong, bad weather included.

In a particularly successful political message, a Republican candidate imagined a group of Middle Eastern jihadists infected with Ebola entering the United States by illegally crossing the Mexican border. And nevermind the fact that ISIS’ version of jihadism is very largely a by-product of Republican George W. Bush’s adventures in Iraq. Nevermind that there has been, to this day, only one case of the cursed virus in the U.S.

Only the result counts. As a matter of fact, it’s an excellent one — for the Republicans, that is. They scored a massive victory by increasing their majority in the House of Representatives and gaining control of the Senate. They dominate Congress, and from Capitol Hill they now have a weakened White House in their crosshairs.

The reasons for the Republicans’ success are well-known. The economy is picking up but not enough Americans are benefiting from it. A mixture of distance and coldness, the Obama way gives the image of a slightly scornful president, who refuses to truly fight for his ideas, to confront the members of Congress, to seduce them or face them openly. And his way of doing things is no better perceived on the foreign policy front, where his caution is seen as a lack of resolve in a world prey to a certain continuous chaos.

Something broken

The Republicans banked on the president’s unpopularity. That of course meant that their campaign was entirely negative, from start to finish. They have become the party that "just says No" and offers no vision, no legislative agenda beyond cutting taxes and dismantling any and all environmental regulations.

To be fair, the Democrats weren’t much better on that point. The American people yawned and yawned with boredom. More than half of the electorate didn’t vote. The Republican victory barely hides the fact that public opinion points to Congress as the most criticized institution, well above the presidency. This all confirms the feeling that something is broken in the American political system.

First, the money. Omnipresent, unlimited and corrosive. This awful campaign was without a doubt the most expensive in the history of midterm elections, costing some $4 billion, according to The New York Times. This paid for, among other things, an orgy of political television adverts — almost all of them negative.

Darrell West of the Brookings Institute, who recently wrote a book on the topic, says that “billionaires shape politics in the U.S. a lot more than we imagine.”

Obama after Tuesday's midterm elections — Photo: Yin Bogu/Xinhua/ZUMA

Over the last few years, the Supreme Court broke down all limits to private funding of political campaigns. This opened the door in an unprecedented way for billionaires to control politics, and in both camps. It was done in the name of freedom of speech. Whether it’s used to finance a campaign or to lobby, money ties those it helps to elect and blurs their definition of the public interest.

The divide deepens

Money goes hand in hand with, and facilitates, the growing polarization of politics, the system’s second pathology. America isn’t losing its mind, it’s losing its balance. America is the stage of an increasingly aggressive intolerance between the two big parties – and when you go down that road, democracy, the beautiful art of compromise, is bound to suffer.

This evolution is largely the Republicans’ doing, as they sought to block any legislation coming from a Democratic presidency. Maybe it’s not entirely by chance if this nihilistic obstructionism was particularly directed at Barack Obama.

It’s true, the president appeared deprived of the necessary talent to seduce part of the opposition’s representatives — the basic work of any national leader. Obama failed to bring closer two Americas, the Republican and the Democratic ones. In her New York Times column, Maureen Dowd wrote that these two countries seem to grow more estranged from one another, that “the red-blue divide has only gotten worse in the last six years.”

The Republican blockade killed most of Obama’s legislative initiatives on immigration, global warming, gun control, tax reform, budget, and so on. Not one of these pressing issues has moved forward. The 113th Congress ends with a poor record. In terms of the number of bills approved, you need to go back to the early 19th century to find one that has been so unproductive.

Experts and pundits are eager to conclude that America has become quite ungovernable. This is at odds with the fact that the political deadlock of the past few years has coincided with the U.S. improving in several key areas, namely education and crime, while energy independence and technological domination have reached unprecedented levels. Washington might be blocked, but America’s creativity is steaming ahead.

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