In March 2016, a month after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, President Barack Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to succeed him. Judge Garland, who was chief judge of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, was highly respected as a jurist within the legal community and by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Washington.
Despite that sterling reputation, the leader of the U.S. Senate, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, immediately promised that he would block the nomination by refusing to bring it up for a vote. He argued that it was inappropriate for a president in his last year in office to nominate someone for the Supreme Court, and that the American people should have a say in that choice through whomever they elected as president in the upcoming election. That was strange logic, at best. Each of the eight sitting justices at the time had been confirmed in 68 days on average (from the date of nomination). Obama would be in office for 342 more days so clearly, there was plenty of time to vote on Judge Garland’s candidacy. But, with support from his fellow Republicans in the Senate, McConnell succeeded in derailing the nomination.
Interestingly, McConnell now says he would vote to confirm a Supreme Court nominee if President Trump were to pick one just before the 2020 election. According to him, that would make sense because in that case, the Senate and the White House would be controlled by the same party. He has been widely accused of hypocrisy—and rightly so—by Democrats and their allies.
Such naked partisanship is now prevalent in American politics. The Democrats have themselves been guilty of it on many occasions. The political well in Washington has become so poisoned that in recent times, even obviously sensible policies proposed by a president are often rejected out of hand by the party in opposition. It is one reason government shutdowns are becoming more frequent. The most recent one, which lasted 35 days, was the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
Political gridlock in Washington, and indeed around the world, is giving democracy a bad name. According to a recent article in The Economist, the Pew Research Center found that 51% of people surveyed in 27 democracies thought democracy is not working well, and that this pessimism continues to grow. That is an unfortunate but unsurprising statistic.
When former British Prime Minister Theresa May assumed office in 2016, she promised to introduce policies that would help address the many concerns of Britons who were “just about managing.” Those were people who, although had jobs and owned homes, struggled to pay their mortgages and children’s tuition fees. Whatever plans Mrs. May had for them quickly went out the window. Her three years in office were entirely consumed by the Brexit negotiations, leaving her little time for domestic policy matters. Such fixation on ideological battles, as has occurred in the U.K. over the past three years, can, in the eyes of average voters, seem as a lack of concern on the part of the ruling elites for their welfare.
This loss of confidence in democracy is worrisome because it emboldens leaders with autocratic tendencies. They can point to the current dysfunctional politics in many established democracies and use that as reason to tighten their grips on power. That trend has started to rise in some parts of the world, unfortunately.
Democracy as a governance model certainly has its flaws. But, it can be argued that what may appear as naked partisanship to someone can at times turn out to be a positive force. It is the case that the effects of any government policy almost always cannot be known until long after its implementation. And, because all humans are fallible, people taking decisions on behalf of entire nations should have the humility to let their ideas be questioned to ensure that whatever actions are taken don’t end up having disastrous unintended consequences for millions of people.
Hugo Chavez had good intentions because he wanted to alleviate poverty in his country, but some of his policies were flawed and as a result, Venezuela is now facing a humanitarian crisis. Likewise, in Zimbabwe, when he seized the properties of white farmers and handed them over to blacks, Robert Mugabe was aiming to address historical injustices associated with land ownership. The policy may have had its merits, but again, in hindsight, its implementation was not well carried out. Many of the black farmers reportedly lacked the necessary skills to effectively cultivate their newly acquired lands, leading to severe food shortages in the country.
The experiences of Venezuela and Zimbabwe clearly demonstrate that while authoritarian regimes may appear more efficient relative to their democratic counterparts in terms of “getting things done,” the cost of that efficiency can sometimes heavily outweigh its benefits. Judging by the current level of civic agitation globally, the right to self-determination is an aspiration for millions of people. America, which has historically served as a role model for people yearning for freedom, has unfortunately lost some of its luster in the last couple of years. Its political leaders, like Senator McConnell, should know that their actions have reverberations around the world.