Stripping off the ‘Emperor's new clothes’ of American democracy
Published: Dec 15, 2021 04:11 PM
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The US' two-day "Summit for Democracy" ended hastily on Friday. A farce directed and starred by US President Joe Biden which roped in many countries and regions finally came to an end.

Yury Tavrovsky, professor of the Russian University of Peoples' Friendship and expert on Eastern studies, once said that "holding the summit for democracy resembles a mistress of a brothel teaching morale to schoolgirls." He hit the nail on the head.

Whether it is boasting about democracy at so-called summits or flaunting US democracy all the time on other occasions, democracy is nothing but a gimmick. Fundamentally, democracy is just "the emperor's new clothes" for the US.

For US politicians, democracy is a hat that could be given to every one of its allies, those who are in need of the US and those who are useful for the US. Thus, Washington feels like its "little brothers" are all over the world. 

The so-called democracy summit convened by the US, a country with a high "democratic deficit," seems impressive but is actually hollow inside.

The US boasts itself as a "democratic judge," and decided on its own who could participate in the summit and who could not, and which countries are "democratic" and which are not. Such an act is not democratic itself. Without de facto multilateralism, how could there be real democracy?

Not to mention those participants under hegemonic pressure, even those US allies harbor their own thoughts. The US has consistently squeezed and suppressed its competitors, and has never been merciful to its allies. In the 1980s, the US forced Japan to sign the Plaza Accord and successfully prevented Japan from catching up with it. Now, the US has established the AUKUS security alliance with the UK and Australia, robbing France of submarine order worth tens of billions of dollars. The US always turns its back on allies as long as the condition is against its will. How can the allies that participate in the summit not have mixed feelings?

French media did not shy away from their negative views on the "Summit for Democracy." The French newspaper Les Echos published an article to question whether the US is still a model for democracy, saying that as the US itself is deeply mired in a democratic crisis, organizing a "Summit for Democracy" lacks rationality.

US domestic public opinion did not show mercy to the "Summit for Democracy" as well. The Atlantic on Sunday released a report entitled "Diplomacy Alone Can't Save Democracy," questioning that "whether diplomacy can meaningfully achieve what Biden has set out to do" and saying that "our systems aren't working." Time magazine said the summit is "the height of hypocrisy" and a "geopolitical ploy."

The international community has shown an indifferent attitude to the "Summit for Democracy." The videos of the summit have received miserably few view counts on social media. Just the opposite, videos exposing the US' military intervention and killing innocent civilians under the banner of democracy are viral on the internet. Some netizens have commented that as the US and its allies have massacred countless people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, are they qualified to hold an international summit to teach other countries a lesson on democracy?

Former Guyanese prime minister Moses Nagamootoo criticized that the old democracy "has exploited us, dominated us, divided us, used us, and has left us in poverty," and the world needs "a new democracy" that put people first.

Anyone with a discerning eye can tell that the "Summit for Democracy" aims at China, attempting to lower China's moral status in the world.

Washington deliberately arranged those anti-China rioters who messed up Hong Kong and fled to other countries to participate in the summit and smear China. It also provided a stage for Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authority, challenging the one-China policy. On Human Rights Day, the US imposed new sanctions on China under the pretext of "human rights." Willfully waving the sticks of "human rights," frantically containing and suppressing China, can the US prove itself the "boss" of democracy in the world?

The US' performance during the "Summit for Democracy" was also shocking. It referred to epidemic prevention as "restrictions on freedom," non-American democracy as "authoritarian regimes," interfering in other countries' internal affairs as "fighting against transnational corruption," and called the manipulation of internet management and forming the so-called "Alliance for the Future of the Internet" as "internet governance in service of democratic values." All of these acts reflect bandit logic full of hegemonic color.

In short, the so-called "democracy summit" undermines democracy in the name of democracy. It sings the hymn of "democracy," but is abusing and blaspheming it.

For US politicians, democracy is a hat that could be given to every one of its allies, those who are in need of the US and those who are useful for the US. Thus, Washington feels like its "little brothers" are all over the world. 

On the one hand, it is the "American ideal" that everyone is born equal, and on the other hand, it is the cruel and ugly reality torn apart by racism and polarized politics. The US democracy is only an illusion amid its political decline.

Looking back at the year 2021, too many scenes of US chaos have left an impressive stroke in the course of history. The deep crisis facing US society and the multiple challenges faced by US democracy have been exposed to the global spotlight.

A US Chinook helicopter flies over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday. Helicopters are landing at the US embassy there as diplomatic vehicles leave the compound as the Taliban advance on the Afghan capital. Photo: VCG

A US Chinook helicopter flies over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday. Helicopters are landing at the US embassy there as diplomatic vehicles leave the compound as the Taliban advance on the Afghan capital. Photo: VCG

Another impressive moment along with the US' hasty "Kabul moment" at the end of August was the US' helplessness in the Capitol at the beginning of this year. A large number of former president Donald Trump's supporters poured into Washington, violently smashing the US Capitol, the symbol of the "beacon of democracy," and caused serious turbulence. The aftermath of the shock still exists today. What has frozen in the world's memory is the photo of protesters rushed into the office of House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sitting in her chair.

The Capitol riot has completely stripped of "the emperor's new clothes" for the US democracy. Even US politicians have admitted that the US is experiencing the worst social division and democratic crisis in history. On the one hand, it is the "American ideal" that everyone is born equal, and on the other hand, it is the cruel and ugly reality torn apart by racism, America First and fear.

In fact, there have already been insights into the problems of US democracy in history. French political scholar Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835 book Democracy in America warned that US democracy may become the tyranny of the majority.

Ray La Raja, Professor at the University of Massachusetts, notes in an article for The Atlantic that America's current system is democratic only in form, not in substance. The nominating process is vulnerable to manipulation by plutocrats, celebrities, media figures and activists. Many presidential primary voters mistakenly back candidates who do not reflect their views.

Democracy is not an ornament or a propaganda item. Instead, it is used to solve the problems for people. Whether a country is democratic or not lies in whether it truly makes the people the masters of the country. 

The shortcomings of the US fight against the COVID-19 epidemic have been laid bare to all. Political polarization is poisoning US social culture. Under partisan struggle and with local governments being at odds with the federal government, politicians are even still entangled in debates whether to keep social distancing and wear a mask, which has caused the people to fall victim to the anti-epidemic policy.  The number of COVID-19 deaths recorded so far in 2021 has surpassed the total for 2020. With a total of over 40 million confirmed cases and more than 800,000 deaths, the US as the world's No.1 epidemic failure has completely lost face. 

US political scientist Francis Fukuyama who warned us all political systems are liable to decay said facing the epidemic, "American democracy at this particular moment is very troubled." He also said trust is exactly what is missing in American society. His judgments are confirmed by data of hate crimes in the US. According to a report by the FBI in late August, there were 7,759 hate crimes in the US last year, a 6 percent increase on 2019 and the highest number since 2008. Data showed crimes targeting African American and Asian American increased significantly from 2019 to 2020. Racism has become the biggest reason for the hate crimes spike.  

Dating back, there are more chaos and crises concealed under US democracy. When the financial crisis spread to the world from the US, when the Occupy Wall Street movement laid bare the gap between the rich and poor as well as social injustice, when WikiLeaks exposed the surveillance practices of the US intelligence services, and when human rights violations at Guantanamo and others continued to test morality and conscience, US politicians should have reflected on whether something had gone wrong with the US democracy. 

Unfortunately, those politicians staying in the "city upon a hill" have long been stuck in an illusion that US democracy is superior. They are accustomed to looking down upon others but blind to the dysfunction of US democracy: The Capitol riots shocked the world, the death of George Floyd triggered waves of widespread protests, the pandemic spiraling out of control has led to tragedies, and it has become a cruel fact that the rich get richer while the poor become poorer. 

Just as Singaporean scholar Kishore Mahbubani said, the US has lost its way. America's incredible sense of triumphalism after the Cold War blinded it and ignore the rise of China, India and the rest of the world.

To play the democratic card, one needs to play words to deceive the people. The US literally says "one person, one vote," but the truth about US democracy is "a minority of elites rule." It's "a game of the rich people" based on money. 

Today's US-style democracy is gravely ill. Problems like money politics, identity politics, partisan politics, political polarization, social division, racial tension and wealth gap have become more acute.

The American-style democracy is a rich people's game based on capital. According to statistics, winners of 91 percent of US Congressional elections are the candidates with greater financial support.

The US-style democracy is "one person one vote" in name, but "rule of the minority elite" in reality. The checks and balances have resulted in a "vetocracy" and partisan interests have been put above national development. The shortcomings of the electoral system are obvious, and practices of gerrymandering are prevalent, which undermines fairness and justice. 

When democracy is sick, the way it functions should be reviewed. The US is ill. It needs to check its internal affairs and diplomacy. However, it instead convened a "Summit for Democracy," asking its allies to take medicine together. If it can, the US would demand all the world to take medicine together. But facing an increasingly multi-polarized world, the US cannot be as arrogant and bossy to others as it used to be. 

The so-called democracy is just an enhancer. In fact, what Biden is really concerned about is not "democratic backsliding," but the decline of the US in the fields of economy, politics and hegemony. This is a clear and indisputable fact. The so-called democracy summit convened by the US is to rally all its allies, in a bid to stop its own decline and counter the rise of China.

In contrast to Trump's banner of "America First," exploiting "the US loves democracy" as a narrative, Biden engages in establishing small cliques and circles under the cold war mind-set and claims that "the struggle between democracy and autocracy" is the mainstream of the relations between countries today.

This set of democratic discourse that has long been accompanied by Western capitalism and the expansion of US hegemony has long been full of loopholes in the face of history and reality.

From the perspective of national governance, Western countries are incapable of carrying out social reforms but have to increase the legitimacy of their rule by virtue of democratic discourse. In this context, they can only interpret the concept of "democracy" in a narrow sense - first, separate economic and political connotations from each other, and simply equate "democracy" to "political democracy," and then proceduralize "political democracy," making it equivalent to "electoral democracy."

Today, "free elections" as a symbol of democracy have long been reduced to "games for the rich." In an interview, US scholar Noam Chomsky cited Princeton University Professor Martin Gilens' book that the lower 70 percent have no influence on policy, so they're essentially disenfranchised. Gilens  and Northwestern University Prof Benjamin I Page concluded that the US is an oligarchy, not a democracy after reviewing answers to 1,779 survey questions asked between 1981 and 2002 on public policy issues. 

The history of the evolution of Western democratic discourse is actually a process of gradual narrowing and finally deviating from the essence of "democracy." However, in the practice of democratic promotion accompanied by hegemony, the US and the West have forcibly generalized and deified their hypocritical values as "universal values" - all other countries must accept such a Western model, and the "separation of powers," "representative democracy" and "competitive election" in Western political models have become the "golden rule" in the Western democratic discourse.

Democracy is the right of the people of all countries, not the patent of a few. As a matter of fact, the successful development of China's whole-process of people's democracy and its own political model has completely negated the "universal nature of the Western model" and Western countries' monopoly on democratic discourse.

In an interview with the Xinhua News Agency, Carlos Martinez, a British author and political commentator said China's whole-process people's democracy is far more meaningfully democratic than the Western liberal democracy. He added that "the basic interests of ordinary people in China are represented in government to a far greater degree than the case in the West."

The development of democracy in a country is accompanied by and interacts with the governance capacity of the country. It is impossible for a country with dysfunctional governance and a host of domestic problems to become a model of democracy for the world. Earlier this year, a Pew survey shows that 72 percent of Americans believe that the US is no longer a "model of democracy for other countries to emulate." Another Pew Research Center survey released on November 2 shows that few believe that American democracy, at least in its present state, is a good model for other countries.

The US' Western allies have also lost faith in US democracy. According to the survey carried out by the Latana polling company between February and April, 44 percent of respondents in the 53 countries surveyed are concerned that the US threatens democracy in their country.

Obviously, the "Summit for Democracy" organized by the US, a country with a dysfunctional democracy, is destined to be unappealing. It can only be a joke.

While the US enjoys its hegemony, others suffer from all the disasters. The US has been promoting "democratic reform," instigating "color revolutions," and indiscriminately applying unilateral sanctions. These all prove that US democracy is used to cover up its hegemony.

Machiavellianism, the political philosophy of Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, is well known in the West. Machiavelli's word "It is much safer to be feared than loved" is a golden saying in many people's eyes.

The essence of Machiavellianism is that it is normal to gain power by fair means or foul. And this is also confirmed by Washington's hegemonic practice over a long period of time.

If we look back at the global affairs since the Cold War, it is clear that the US democratic discourse is parasitic on hegemony and serves hegemony. The US has instrumentalized and weaponized democracy. Its deeds are actually against democracy despite under the name of democracy. Washington has also incited division and confrontation to distract from problems at home and maintain its dominance in the world. This has seriously undermined the international system with the United Nations as the core and the international order based on international law.  

Whether it is Trump who advocates "America First" directly, or President Joe Biden, who is "returning" to US democratic discourse and strengthening US alliance, the only thing on their minds is Washington's hegemony.

However, what people have seen from the harsh reality is that while the US enjoys its hegemony, others suffer from all the disasters.

Pursuing hegemony under the banner of democracy, the US cannot make the world benefit from democracy. Instead, it has created endless disasters and turmoil. For a long time, the US has been imposing its political system and values on others. The US has been promoting "democratic reform," indiscriminately applying unilateral sanctions, and instigating "color revolutions." These all have caused disastrous consequences. "Democracy" has become a "weapon of mass destruction" used by the US to interfere in other countries' affairs. With the advantage of its discourse, Washington has packaged its democracy as "universal values" and start waves of "democratization" around the world. But in fact, it has become a "slow-acting poison" to destroy developing countries.

People have seen that the US' promotion of democracy is about overthrowing one country's government.

Since the end of the Cold War, "color revolutions" have continued to occur in many parts of the world. And behind them hides the hand of the US. This includes the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia in 2003, the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine in 2004, the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia in 2010, the "Arab Spring" in the Middle East in 2011, and the "Second Color Revolution" in Ukraine in 2014. The result of all these events was that the governments were overthrown, the countries ended up in turmoil, development of the countries was hindered, and the people suffered.

People have seen that the US' spreading democracy is about spreading war.

Since 2001, about 241,000 people have been killed in the war zones of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  From March 2003 to April 2019, about 183,000 to 206,000 Iraqi civilians died of violence. The conflict in Yemen incited by the "Arab Spring" caused about 233,000 deaths. From March 2011 to March 2021, 350,209 people died in the Syrian conflict with known names, among whom about 1 out of every 13 victims was a woman or a child.

US democracy is about completely denying the right of non-Western countries to independently determine their own political and economic development models. It is also about labeling dissidents and competitors as "authoritarians" or external threats and thus to suppress them by any means, even by force. The humanitarian disasters caused by the US in the name of democracy are truly endless.

People have seen that the US' advocacy of democracy is about making money.

For the US, democracy is a tool to whitewash hegemony; a hegemony always export war, and war can make money. This is the real logic of US democracy. According to a report about major beneficiaries of the war in Afghanistan released by The Security Policy Reform Institute, an independent US think tank, the five largest US arms giants - Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Boeing and Northrop Grumman - earned more than $2 trillion from the US government's input in the war in Afghanistan.

The US has been at war for more than 92 percent of the time since its birth, and the peace time of it has lasted less than 20 years. The US still maintains about 750 overseas military bases in 80 countries by October 2021. In the 44 years from 1948 to 1991, the US launched 46 foreign military interventions, but in the 26 years from 1992 to 2017, the number reached 188. These alarming figures are all under a seemingly honorable banner - for democracy, but behind them is the rigid demand to keep profiting from wars. 

This shows that the US' promotion of democracy and its pursuit of hegemony, like the shadow and cover, may be able to deceive the world for a while, but will eventually be spurned by the people of the world. The so-called "Summit for Democracy" is bound to end in the same way. 

"Government of the people, by the people, for the people" used to be the expectation of the American sages for good governance, but the reality in the US is that it ignores the people's rights, cares nothing about the people's opinions, and doesn't help the people's livelihood, which makes American-style democracy pale in comparison. 

More than 150 years ago, president Abraham Lincoln expressed in his Gettysburg Address the hope that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." 

With the passage of time, the American democratic system has gradually alienated and degenerated, increasingly deviating from the core of democracy and its original purpose. What intertwine in the US society are various political, economic, and social problems, including money politics, partisan wrangle, political polarization, debt burden, budget crisis, hollowing out of manufacturing industry, social rifts, racial tension, as well as wealth gap between rich and poor. In this process, the function of the US democracy is declining, leaving Lincoln's words in disgrace. 

As pointed out in the report "Ten Questions for American Democracy" issued by Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China, in the name of "democracy," the only ones in the US that can reflect their will are Money-cracy, Gun-cracy, White-cracy, Media-cracy, Milita-cracy, and Drug-cracy. It is not the people who can make the decision, "six masters in one country, there is no democracy."

-- Ignoring the people's rights, American-style democracy is reduced to a show. 

The US TV series House of Cards is an eye-opening look at the "game of thrones" in  US politics, which is full of intrigue and unscrupulous tactics. One of the lead actors, however, said this Netflix show "isn't that far from the reality of politics in Washington." In fact, the tactics of the US politicians go far beyond what the drama has shown to the public. People's rights are selectively ignored and substantially manipulated or even exploited in the process of seizing power. 

Against the backdrop of "Donkey vs Elephant," the two US major parties have always limited popular political participation to a narrow range of people and regard the rest as "crowd players" in the election game. Changing presidents will not improve US democracy. In the months since Biden took office, 19 states have enacted 33 laws that make it more difficult for people to vote, some states have replaced nonpartisan election chiefs with partisan ones and Republican-controlled state legislatures redrew their electoral maps in favor of their own party in some red states with blue-lean tendency, such as North Carolina and Texas, effectively disenfranchising communities of color. 

Along with the right to vote, the right to life is also being ignored. In May 2020, a black man George Floyd was kneed on the neck by a white police officer and died after repeatedly saying "I can't breathe," triggering then the Black Lives Matter movement that swept across the US. This is just a glimpse of the serious human rights problems in the US. Systemic racism is deeply rooted in the US, with many minorities, including African and Asian Americans, living in discrimination and fear, and more than 40 million people struggling with poverty. Not to mention the horrific slaughter of Native Americans, the blood-filled exploitation and oppression of black slaves, the abuse of large number s of Native American children in residential schools, and so on throughout US history. 

Gun control policies that are welcomed by most people, though, are strongly opposed by the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups. Data from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive reveals that gun violence-related deaths in 2020 exceed 40,000. Every gunshot marks people's nightmare and the heartbreaking grief of the casualties' families. As the debate over gun control is still endless, "you need to wear armor to live here."

--Irrelevant to public opinion, American-style democracy operates selectively. 

In March 2020, when asked "how are non-symptomatic professional athletes getting tests while others are waiting in line and can't get them?" Trump answered: "Perhaps that's the story of life." 

This answer reflects how the US politics actually works, that is, power tends to serve the interests of the few wealthy people rather than the majority of voters. US politicians shout about the people on the stage but make deals behind the scenes. Once elected, they often serve their donors as their spokespersons, instead of speaking for the public. 

A study of voting patterns in the US Senate found that the preferences of senators reflect those of donors more than other groups. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and leading American economist, raised the problem of "government of the 1%, by the 1%, and for the 1%."

It's easy to understand why the public in the US is only awakened at the election day and forced dormant afterwards. They have to listen to smashing slogans during the campaign and be silent afterwards. 

The healthcare bills that attracted wide attentions of ordinary American people have been stymied by insurance and medical industry groups. Data showed that lobbying spending nearly reached $3.5 billion in 2020, with the health sector being the top lobbying spender in the year. Those from the health sector entered into government through revolving door and became high-level officials have protected the interest groups and large pharmaceutical companies that hold monopoly in the sector, helping them secure high profits by using patent and monopolistic medical contracts. Instead, they don't care the appeal of every four in five Americans that the healthcare fee is too high.

--No help to people's livelihood, American democracy deviates from essence of democracy

In 2016, a book about the downfall of the Rust Belt, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, was published and soon became a bestseller. This reflects the increasing dilemma of the middle class in the US. Data shows that the American middle class has shrunk in the past years, while the wealth of some American families is currently no higher than its level two decades ago.

As the middle class is in such a situation, how about the grassroots people? Their basic right to live is unsecured, many people become homeless, the education gap is widening while the number of people in poverty stays high. In 2020, over 50 million people in the US did not have enough food to eat, roughly 580,000 people were experiencing homelessness, and more than 220,000 slept on the streets. 

Whether a system is "of the people, by the people, for the people" is not determined by how it is described but how it is carried out. Apparently, in the so-called American-style democracy, the politics of partisanship, money, and veto cannot bring about high-quality governance people are longing for, but repeated shutdown of government, constant infighting between federal and state governments, ineptitude in rescuing people buried under collapsed apartment building and in disaster relief, slow  advance of infrastructure, and weak implementation of federal mandates. 

The number of Americans dissatisfied with the direction of the US has increased from 33 percent in 2017 to 50 percent in 2021, while 85 percent of Americans believe that the US' political system needs significant change or overhaul.

A Chinese poem goes, those who intend to defame the history trend won't last but end up with their reputation discredited. As the so-called summit for democracy ended hastily, the noise brought about is disappearing, but people don't stop the thinking and reflection on democracy. 

Who is standing on the moral high ground of democracy? It is not the US. And the US is definitely unqualified to pose as a "democracy preacher." 

To people around the world, including American people, the American-style democracy is by no means a model. In response to Biden's summit, some Americans walked into streets to protest. People gathered behind a mock coffin, holding scythes with "Big Money," "Voter Suppression," "Partisan Districts," and "Election Subversion" written on them and placards and held a funeral procession for US democracy. 

The Biden administration hoped it can restore the reputation of the US damaged by various domestic and diplomatic crises. However, it can hardly gain what it wants by playing the "democracy card" as American-style democracy cold-shoulders the voters while it colludes with hegemony and politics of money.

History won't end. The times will march on. 

In the face of the great changes unseen in a century and the dire pandemic, the international community needs, more than ever, to strengthen unity and cooperation based on the international relations norms characterized by the UN Charter, advance universal values including peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy, freedom be upheld to actively promote democratization of international relations and the construction of a community with a shared future for mankind. 

This is the just path for the world. 

The author is a current affairs commentator. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn