Was Churchill Wrong?

In a debate in the House of Commons in 1947, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, coined an admirable proposition: “(…) Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. In other words, the political regime we have, based on regular elections, has many problems; yet, of all known political regimes, is the one which causes us less inconveniences. According to this proposition, in the short term there may be many decisions to regret, but in the long term the balance of democracy seems to have always been positive. However, whoever takes notice of the way the United States Senate has performed its role in the trial of the president of that country, Donald Trump, would begin to question the Churchillian proposition.

To start with, there is conclusive evidence that Trump asked the president of Ukraine to investigate the son of a Democratic candidate, with a seat on the board of directors of a Ukrainian company, to discredit his father, who by then led the polls. There is also conclusive evidence that several diplomats under President Trump asked the Ukrainian government to initiate the aforementioned investigation. The same day that the Senate trial began, the Government Accountability Office published the finding that Trump illegally froze military aid to Ukraine, which had been approved by Congress. This finding confirms what many witnesses said: Trump sought an undue advantage in this year’s elections by abusing his power and violating the law.

The forcefulness of the evidence against Trump should have motivated the Senate to decree his removal from office. Such is the sanction provided for in the US Constitution when the president incurs crimes of treason, bribery or any other offense characterized by “the abuse or violation of public trust”. According to the authorized first commentator of this constitutional provision, Alexander Hamilton, the Senate was the best qualified institution to put the president on trial. Hamilton foresaw that an accusation against him would agitate the passions of the community and divide the country into those in favor and against, probably according to previous divisions between political factions of different sorts. Thus, there would always be a serious danger that the matter would be resolved not based on the evidence of the defendant’s innocence or guilt but in accordance with the greater or lesser strength of each party.

The Senate, on the other hand, would not rush to make any decision but would give each argument the proper weight. Therefore, it would be able to ensure the necessary impartiality and equidistance between the president, the accused, and the representatives of the House, their accusers.

What happened in the US Senate is far from Hamilton’s forecast. The leader of the Republican majority, Mitch McConnell, met with Trump’s lawyers to ensure that the trial would proceed as expeditiously as possible and with the least risk to the president. That is, he has acted as judge and party at the same time. Senator Lindsey Graham, also a Republican, declared in November last year: “I am not going to pretend to be an impartial jury here … I will do everything I can so that [the political trial of the president] will die quickly”. The other Republican senators have behaved similarly. To keep up appearances, they first denied that the events had occurred; then, they downplayed all their importance.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump.

After all, the Republicans did the same thing the Democrats did in the case of the Bill Clinton’s political trial two decades ago: they voted along the party line, that is, in light of political calculations and in opposition to the sense of justice. And, although this time the Democrats have been right about Trump’s faults, they have closed ranks to avoid any questioning of former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and current pre-candidate Joe Biden, which has diminished their credibility with independents and Republicans.

If one continues to examine the votes of the US Senate on other issues, such as the election of federal Supreme Court justices, one will find a similar pattern. When the Democrats have had a majority in the Senate, they have voted overwhelmingly for jurists who have identical positions to those of the Democratic Party; when the Republican senators have been the majority, they have voted in exactly the opposite way. This factious spirit breaks apart the principle of separation of powers. In accordance with this principle, the three powers of the state –the legislative, the executive and the judicial– must function as a system of checks and balances.

Without interfering in the area of action of other ones, the three powers must continuously monitor each other. Thus they avoid the concentration of power, which is the main cause of despotism and corruption.

The so-called ‘founding fathers’ designed the political institutions of the United States with an eye on the harmful effect of the factions on the life of the republic. They believed that fairly large uninominal electoral districts, that is, constituencies in which only one representative is elected, would be the best brake on those factions. However, the alteration of the maps of those electoral districts to favor one party at the expense of the other has completely annulled that purpose. The result, in the end, is quite bleak: if the president is from the same party as most senators, what they will do is elect magistrates from their same party. Although there is no concentration of power in the hands of a single individual as in the case of traditional despotic regimes, there is concentration of power in the hands of the same party as has happened in totalitarian regimes of different species. Thus, the idea that democracy would be at the same time the government of the people and the best antidote against despotism has been completely subverted.

In a recent report on the state of democracy around the world, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance found that since 1975 there has been significant progress in areas such as the representative character of the government, citizen participation, the guarantee of individual rights and limits to the government. The area in which there has been no similar progress is that of impartial administration. This phenomenon is easy to explain. The electoral competition promotes the factious spirit. Each party seeks to gain advantages over the others, sometimes even improperly. If most public jobs and contracts are available to the winning faction, there is no doubt that everyone will take part of the loot for themselves. Without adequate guarantees for the independence of the judiciary, it also ends up dragged by the factious dynamics. Each faction will promote judicial accusations against the actions of its rivals and the judicial immunity of its own.

The result of this is the judicialization of politics, but in the most pernicious way possible. The acquittal of Donald Trump by the United States Senate must therefore be seen in the most general picture of a serious distortion of the political institutions that we still insist on calling democratic.

There are two areas in which the factious spirit has produced damaging results, to the detriment of general well-being. The first is that of mitigation and adaptation to global warming. A few months before the 2015 Paris Summit, the Director of the International Monetary Fund and the President of the World Bank pointed out that one of the most effective measures to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide is to significantly increase taxes on dirty energy sources, like coal and oil. This increase has not occurred because of the disinformation campaign carried out by “the merchants of doubt”, i.e. a campaign financed by companies that benefit from the exploitation and commercialization of those dirty energies. Also because of the lack of willingness of national congresses and parliaments to formulate policies based on evidence and on the principle of prevention.

Tax policy, which could contribute to reducing social and economic inequalities, is another area that continues to be captured by large economic groups. These obtain an undue influence in the legislative process by means of the financing of the campaigns and the lobbying of the congresspeople. The Confessions of Congressman X are clearly a parody of the activity of many American congresspeople. The serious thing is that it is a caricature full of truth. The majority of congresspeople, not only in the United States but in many other parts of the world, pay much more attention to their financial backers than to the cries of citizenship. For this reason, it should not surprise us that citizen discontent has reached the streets. The surprising thing is that it hasn’t arrived before.

The vitality of democracy lies in its ability to transform itself. This transformation is urgent because there is a serious crisis in the political representation system throughout the world. Simply put, today the electoral competition has ceased to be the epitome of democracy.

Anyone who wants to deepen into this subject may find useful the article I recently published in an academic journal, available on the website of the National University of Colombia. The discussion between us about the alternatives to the crisis of political representation is about to begin. Perhaps that discussion leads us to revaluate what we understand by democracy and to either lend support or put into question the Churchillian proposition.

Profesor del Instituto de Estudios Políticos y Relaciones Internacionales de la Universidad Nacional.

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