Analysis | The reverse journey of the United States

Despite challenges, democracy made gains in the U.S. the 20th century, but those gains are being eroded in the early decades of the 21st

June 03, 2020 08:33 am | Updated 08:38 am IST

In solidarity:  People holding a die-in protest in Ohio.

In solidarity: People holding a die-in protest in Ohio.

The flashiest advertisement for free market globalisation has been the apparent freedom, competence and prosperity of the United States. “A shining city upon a hill,” as President Ronald Reagan said. “— a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom,” he said, after noting that “countries across the globe are turning to free markets and free speech and turning away from the ideologies of the past.” That was in 1989. ‘Be like us,’ was the basic argument that the US made to the rest of the world. The use of force by America, at home or abroad, was only for the protection of liberty, it claimed. There was merit in that argument, as it expanded freedoms for its own people through the 20th century. In 1963, when Alabama’s Democrat Governor George Wallace - who had vowed “segregation forever” —resisted desegregation orders of the Supreme Court, President John F Kennedy deployed the National Guards to enforce it. President Donald Trump’s threat to use the US military to “dominate” people who erupted in protest after the murder by the police an unarmed African American is history coming full circle.

The video footage of a police officer pinning down George Floyd by his neck until he died could not have come at a worse time for the U.S. whose reputation of was already undermined by the fatal failures of its free market in the wake of the pandemic. Still, there was a moral defence that the US was a free society that does not coerce its members. There was also a convenient contrast to make — with China, which under Xi Jingping has offered its model of development as an alternative to liberalism. The Trump administration, and a section of the commentators focused on whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang in Wuhan who noticed the novel coronavirus first. He was silenced by the local government, though posthumously declared a martyr by Beijing. Two U.S. senators wanted to rename the street in Washington DC where the Chinese embassy is located after him. Because of the Chinese fetters on freedom of expression, information regarding the pandemic was suppressed and it went out of control, the mainstream American argument went. Meanwhile, Washington confronted China on range of questions from technology trade to Hong Kong uprising. Then came the brutal images from Minnesota.

Holes in the story

It is not that holes in the American story were not visible earlier. Edward Snowden , born two years after Reagan became President, is today living in Russia in asylum, accused of espionage and theft in the U.S.. Many American liberals argue that he crossed a line by revealing national security secrets; and no mainstream American politician hails him as martyr for free speech. How much force is legitimate in law enforcement might depend on the context and place, but the US ranks number one in the world in terms of incarceration - there are 2.2 million people in its prisons, a five-fold increase in the last four decades. American has 655 per lakh of population as opposed 118 in China which ranks eighth as per 2018 numbers. African Americans are disproportionately represented in the US prison population, but that is no reason to overlook the whites. Police targeted reporters and photographers in several cities over the last week in the US.

There used to be an argument that globalisation would gradually turn China democratic. China imbibed American style consumerism, but as for democracy and freedoms, a reverse osmosis appears to have taken place. As Democrat Senator Bernie Sanders repeatedly points out, the police in the US resembles invading armies in local communities. But it will be disingenuous and dishonest to blame the police, or individual officers who behave violently. It is not a coincidence that the degradation of democracy in the US corresponds with its economic entanglement with China over the last 40 years.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told CNN in an interview that has gone viral for him asking Mr. Trump to keep his “mouth shut”: “Let’s be honest…This is not about policing, its about the society..the disproportionality of things going on in our country..from education, to health, to food, to everything that we as human beings, hold near and dear.” He noted that rioters were those who stopped voting. US ranks 26th among OECD countries in voter turnout, at 55.7 percent in 2016. In India 67 percent voted in 2019. The poorer whites had the option of voting a demagogue to victory; the black are battling it out in the streets.

The 2008 victory of Barack Obama , the first African American, was a democratic surge which was soon overcome by the reaction. The 20th century gains for democracy in the US are being eroded in the first decades of the 21st. Tyranny, not democracy, appears to have gone global. The question, hence, is whether American elites will consider the current turmoil a wake-up call and respond accordingly

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