Friday, 6 December 2019

banana republics

I imagine that most people will have some idea of what constitutes a banana republic. Countries such as Zimbabwe, which was ruled by a geriatric dictator for decades, or Venezuela, which despite huge oil reserves has seen a mass exodus of its population following the misrule of an incompetent demagogue backed by the country’s military, or Guatemala, where violent street gangs dominate the social landscape. There may not be a hard and fast definition, but an element of misrule would form part of that definition.

This leads me to what may, at first glance, seem like a mere trivia question: what is the world’s largest banana republic? I nominate the United States of America! This may appear to be an utterly outrageous assertion, but take a closer look. The following table presents a hypothetical situation, but it is an attempt to explain what is happening with increasing frequency in states where the Republican Party controls the legislature:
In this hypothetical ‘state’, which returns ten members to the House of Representatives, there are 1,000 eligible voters, 600 of whom habitually vote for the Democratic Party and 400 for the Republican Party (first row). However, the way district boundaries have been drawn—and redrawn—78 Democratic voters have been located in each of four districts (second row). This leaves just 288 voters to be divided between six districts (48 per district), while there are 312 voters, 52 in each of the six districts, who will vote Republican (fourth row). The result is that the Republican Party has six representatives in Congress, while the Democratic Party has just four. And a map of the congressional districts looks like a colony of sea urchins on steroids. There’s a word for this: it’s called gerrymandering.

If this sounds outrageous, it is. But there’s more. Poor people are more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate, so polling stations are frequently located in places that are not easy to reach by people who don’t have a car. Also, in order to make it more difficult for poor people to vote, Republican-controlled states often require potential voters to produce ID such as a driving licence or passport, both of which poor people are disproportionately less likely to possess, before being allowed to cast their ballots.

And what about the most extreme form of ‘voter suppression’? Several Republican-controlled legislatures have recently approved the practice of combing through the electoral rolls and removing names that sound similar on the dubious grounds that they are probably the same person. This practice deliberately targets Black and Hispanic names, the bearers of which are more likely to vote for the Democratic Party. And there appears to be no oversight of this process.

Of course, it is perfectly reasonable to redraw district boundaries to reflect demographic changes, but to leave this task to politicians invites abuse. In the UK, such redrawing is the task of the Electoral Commission, a non-political body, although that doesn’t stop accusations of gerrymandering. However, such charges are without merit, because the changes involve moving constituency boundaries wholesale a few hundred metres in one direction or another, not being deliberately selective as is the case in the hypothetical scenario I’ve outlined above.

And I haven’t mentioned the most egregious aspect of American banana republicanism. Although it had never happened until 2016, the electoral college system was always an accident waiting to happen, because not all votes cast by the public have equal value—the number of electoral college votes wielded by a state is determined by the number of representatives it has in Congress, not by its population, and each state returns two senators, regardless of population. Thanks to this lop-sided system, a mountebank like Donald Trump becomes president despite obtaining three million fewer votes nationwide than his opponent.

I have no hesitation in labelling Donald Trump the worst president to hold that office during my lifetime. But don’t just take my word for it. In February 2018, the New York Times commissioned a poll of 170 US constitutional historians in which they were asked to assign a mark from 0 (failure) through 50 (average) to 100 (great) for all 44 American presidents. The average mark for Abraham Lincoln was 95 and for George Washington 93, while Donald Trump scored just 12, which placed him bottom of the list. Even Republican scholars placed him in the bottom five.

It’s easy to see why. Instead of owning up when he makes a mistake, which he does with alarming frequency (cf. the Central Park Five, or his insistence that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States—a requirement for anyone who wants the job), he invariably blames an imaginary ‘deep state’ conspiracy to unseat him, or laughs it off as ‘fake news’. From loudly denigrating war heroes such as John McCain to pardoning war criminals, from pardoning friends who have been duly convicted of criminal offences to actually offering pardons to the friends of potential campaign donors, from appointing members of his family to important jobs in the White House, despite their lacking both experience and qualifications, to appointing campaign donors with no prior diplomatic experience as ambassadors around the world while criticizing foreign service professionals who actually know what they’re doing, his oft-stated mantra of ‘America first’ should be restated as ‘me first’.

And if you think that he’s doing a great job, just ask him:
In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.
Speech to the 2018 United Nations General Assembly.
His administration has certainly succeeded in obliterating environmental and consumer protections, not to mention withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, but all these were driven by Trump’s deep hatred of his predecessor, who, incidentally, was placed eighth in the all-time list in the NYT survey I cited above with an average score of 71. And to describe any of these as accomplishments is downright laughable, which is the response he received from his audience at the UN when he made this ridiculous boast.

And I would also like to enquire: when is he actually doing his job? Sounding off incessantly on Twitter, where he plays the role of the classic playground bully, or watching Fox News for hours, or playing golf almost every weekend, doesn’t count. And neither does conducting campaign rallies for the 2020 election, which he has been doing since the early months of his presidency, something that no other president during my lifetime ever did. Some of these rallies have been truly disgusting. As an example, I would cite the time when he encouraged the crowd to chant ‘lock her up!’ about the poor woman who testified that Brett Kavanagh, Trump’s clearly unsuitable nominee for the Supreme Court, had sexually assaulted her when both were in high school.

Mention of the Supreme Court reminds me that the Republican Party refused to even consider Barack Obama’s nominee for the court, simply because it could. Now, in the current impeachment inquiry, Republicans are claiming that the president ‘did nothing wrong’, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Not only did he seek to gain a political advantage by pressuring Ukraine into investigating a political rival, he also compromised American security by withholding military aid, which would have been deployed against Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country. Some Republican lawmakers have even complained that none of the witnesses in the impeachment inquiry are elected officials, as if this somehow invalidates their testimony.

Vladimir Putin clearly knew what he was doing when he authorized interference in the 2016 election, which Trump has persistently and without evidence blamed on Ukraine. However, I’ve written previously that Vlad the Bad is a shrewd political operator, which Trump is not. Far from ‘making America great again’, he has been gradually turning the United States into an international pariah, which, after all, is the ultimate definition of a banana republic.


  1. As regards electoral boundaries: they used to be like this in Northern Ireland. They had very strange shapes, designed to make sure that as many as possible had Protestant majorities, except for one, which was entirely Catholic (and in local government terms, was only classed as a "rural district", however many voters it contained!)

    1. Thank you for that useful information. I do vaguely recall hearing of something like this in Northern Ireland in the past. Has it changed?


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