Is the US a threat to democracy?

Susan Neiman: "US democracy is in danger!"

Two weeks after the US presidential election, the Democratic challenger Joe Biden is victorious, but incumbent Donald Trump received more votes than in the election four years ago. The recent election results raise many questions. The most pressing: What about US democracy in deeply divided US society? Is she capable of dialogue?

Historian Heinrich August Winkler believes in American democracy

"I'm counting on American constitutional patriotism," says the German historian Heinrich August Winkler. He sees the USA in a deep social crisis, triggered by the fear of relegation of part of the population. Even if he had been re-elected, Trump would not have succeeded in razing the institutions of democracy, he believes. "The election also showed," said Winkler in an interview with Deutschlandfunk, that "American democracy is alive!"

According to the US political scientist Daniel Ziblatt, author of the book "How Democracies Die" (2018), the culture of debate in the USA is suffering from a "long-lasting decline in mutual recognition". Only changes in the law would help against this: "Standards are a kind of flexible railing," said Ziblatt in an interview with the Berliner Tagesspiegel, "and if the flexible railings no longer hold, we need tougher railings - that is, laws, perhaps constitutional changes, around political space to redefine. "

Political scientist Daniel Ziblatt worries about the culture of debate in the USA

Daniel Ziblatt teaches at Harvard. From 2021 he will be a "Fellow" of The New Institute in Hamburg, which deals with ecological, economic and political changes in our society. The Einstein Forum in Potsdam is devoted to similar questions. In an interview with DW, Director Susan Neiman looks at the election results in the United States of America.

Deutsche Welle: Prof. Neiman, did you think the US presidential election went well?

Susan Neimann: Not good enough. I didn't expect that 71 million Americans who watched this Trump show for four years would want to watch it again. That 71 million came as a shock. (On November 17, after further counts, the number was 73 million, editor's note.) The situation in Congress also remains extremely difficult. This man, whom Obama has now called a fascist, almost got another four years. The whole world would have suffered as a result. So it turned out well, but not well enough.

Biden and Trump supporters: dialogue? Nothing

Doesn't the result reflect one thing above all else - the deep turmoil in the country, which has also been plagued by a pandemic?

Yes of course. The election campaign was also extremely difficult because of the pandemic. A lot of Democrats, who usually take to the streets and knock on every front door, haven't gone out. The Republicans, on the other hand, have not followed any hygiene rules. The division between Democrats and Republicans has widened.

Now two halves of the population are irreconcilably facing each other. What is left behind?

Fundamental reforms, I'm afraid. There are several reforms involved. For example, as this election showed, our voting system is 200 years too old. The Electoral Collage should be abolished. Politicians and lawyers have been calling for this for a long time. But that would require a two-thirds majority in Congress, which is completely unrealistic.

Evil puts human reason to the test, Neiman's conclusion

What is urgently needed are social reforms that are self-evident to Europeans, but sound utopian to American ears. I'm not even talking about health insurance for everyone. In the USA - which many Europeans do not know - there is not even a sick leave. Even in the pandemic, people have to go to work, even if they are seriously ill. You don't get a day off. Otherwise, the poorest, whether parcel deliverers or restaurant employees, will not be able to pay their rent. Unfortunately, many Americans reject anything that sounds like reform or labor law as socialist. We urgently need such reforms. No industrialized country in the world is in as bad a position as the USA.

Half of Americans feel left behind - by globalization, by progress, by the country's political elite. Is that really she?

This is a myth: the people we saw at Trump's rallies (election events, editor's note) looked poor and uneducated, mostly overweight and with bad teeth - they are actually left behind. But the other Trump voters have a good income, even a university education. They voted Trump because they own shares. Things went well under Trump on the stock market.

The other half of the electorate see Trump as the incarnation of evil and his supporters as a kind of denier of reality. Is this perspective more correct?

Yes absolutely. I may be accused of being partisan. But we saw for four years that Trump is unable to recognize values ​​or norms. This was most evident when he insulted the US soldiers who fell in World War I. Actually, I would have thought that this would break his neck politically. To denigrate these fallen as 'idiots and losers' is blasphemy in America!

But that shows his worldview: He knows nothing but his material self-interest. He doesn't even understand that people can act for other reasons.

His fascist methods are even worse: launching conspiracy theories, demonizing the press as lying press, abusing the judiciary for private legal advice, demonizing any form of cooperation, using police officers against people demonstrating peacefully - all these are fascist methods. In addition, the man called the Nazis 'very decent people'. If that's not bad, then I don't know what is bad.

Is democracy dying in the US?

I am a philosopher, not a prophet, and can therefore only say: Democracy is in danger. However, the many grassroots movements give me hope, above all Black Lives Matter, the largest social movement in American history. According to that, 75 percent of Americans today say, 'Systemic racism is a big problem.' So something is moving. The question is simply what we can do about this undemocratic electoral system. And there is a lot that is open.

The trenches are still there. Where should the reconciliation come from?

Bottom pressure has moved a lot in American history - in the civil rights movement, in the women's movement, in the LGBTQ movement. The question is whether these movements can be bundled into a national movement that not only talks about identities but also about values. Many young people are realizing how neoliberalism is destroying their future. So I see hope in the medium term. But the situation is still precarious.

Supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA

Populism is rampant in many countries - with the same mechanisms as in the USA?

Not equal. The very word populism is extremely problematic because it is indefinable. Let's be honest, in Hungary or in Poland, that's pure right-wing radicalism. Nationalism or better: tribalism always appears to be the simplest solution. It's always easier to point your finger at others when there are problems. Just no emigration, no strangers and so on. Then there is globalization, which rightly gives us the feeling that democracy is not working properly. We don't know who is at the fore. The heads of state do not control the world; a lot of power lies in the hands of multinational corporations. All over the world, whether in Singapore or in South America, there is the same tendency - against globalism and for one's own traditions. This withdrawal is understandable too.

Is democracy still a future model?

Yes, but only on one condition. And I don't know whether that is realistic - namely that we are putting enough resources into education. I don't just mean schools and universities, but above all free public media. They are essential for a democracy. Otherwise we can forget about democracy.

The American philosopher Susan Neiman has headed the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, a foundation under public law and a place of international scientific exchange, since 2000.

Stefan Dege spoke to Susan Neiman.

  • 2020 US election: democracy from below

    Please let him talk. . .

    "We are and will remain a democracy": In the US elections, the democratic awareness of supporters of different political camps was more robust than expected, regardless of the deep social division. Despite statements by US President Trump, who prematurely declared himself the winner on November 4th, there was no excess of violence.

  • 2020 US election: democracy from below

    "Dump the Chump" - Get rid of the idiot

    Conversation ended: A Trump supporter gives Biden supporters the cold shoulder who are protesting in front of the TCF Center, a huge multi-purpose hall in Detroit. He's had enough of messages like "Dump the Chump" - "Get rid of the fool Trump!" That are scratched on pumpkins or drawn on paper. While the votes continue to be counted inside, the demonstration continues outside.

  • 2020 US election: democracy from below

    On behalf of the President

    Self-appointed election overseer: In Detroit, Trump supporters screaming and gesticulating wildly demand entry to one of the central counting stations. They want to check the ballot papers. The police prevent them from storming the place.

  • 2020 US election: democracy from below

    "Every vote counts!"

    Joe Biden's supporters are also suspicious. Following Trump's announcement that he would go to the Supreme Court so that no more votes would be counted after the polls closed. they took to the streets in Detroit. For them, Trump's announcement is a threat to democracy.

  • 2020 US election: democracy from below

    Lonely in Biden's realm

    The "naked cowboy" has another big appearance. The Trump supporter with the real name Robert Burck, now well-known beyond the borders of New York, mingles in Manhattan with a rally of Biden voters who again demand a complete vote count. Manhattan is Democratic country: 84 percent voted here for Biden. In the whole city it was 58 percent.

  • 2020 US election: democracy from below

    Police officers against demonstrators

    Uncertainty and doubts about the vote count drive thousands of New Yorkers onto the streets. In contrast to the residents of the city, the majority of whom voted for Biden, the police union is behind Trump. Police even ordered business people to barricade their shop windows for fear of rioting and cracked down on demonstrators.

  • 2020 US election: democracy from below

    Hug and hold out

    Shivering together: On the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington D.C. Members of the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) embrace while they wait for the election results to be announced.

  • 2020 US election: democracy from below

    Shoot and take revenge

    Left-wing, anti-fascist groups also take to the streets. "We don't want Biden, we want revenge," reads the banner that Antifa groups carried through the city of Portland on November 4th. Their demands: revenge for "murders committed by police officers", "imperialist wars" and "fascist massacres", for which they hold Donald Trump and his politics jointly responsible.

  • 2020 US election: democracy from below

    Once Trump, always Trump?

    Four years were not enough for them: Trump supporters are protesting in front of the government palace of the US state of Arizona in Phoenix for another term of office for US President Trump. The same election motto still applies to them as in 2016: "Make America great again".

  • 2020 US election: democracy from below

    "I think we are strong"

    "We will not be silent", "Trump is not good for our children", and "We will defeat Trump": On the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington D.C. there are posters with slogans to hold out and political battle cries. Biden's followers mark their presence and call for resistance.

  • 2020 US election: democracy from below

    Counting instead of bickering

    Heroes of the American presidential election: Without the discipline and infinite patience of the election workers, a reliable vote count would not be possible. According to newspaper reports, the numerous election workers worked together without major incidents regardless of their party membership and regardless of the threat from the US president.

    Author: Astrid Prange De Oliveira, Goran Cutanoski (picture editor)