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The opinion piece headed "US democracy trumps all as a dysfunctional disgrace" by Australian academic Mark Triffitt that appeared in the Herald earlier this week resembled Sherlock Holmes' curious incident of the dog in the night-time in that there was silence when there shouldn't have been.

Just as the dog didn't bark when it should have, Triffitt's piece didn't contain a single reference to Democrats and Republicans or left and right. The clear inference, therefore, is that the depressing state of US politics is the fault of both sides and dysfunction is systemic.

Take this for example: "Nearly every leading 2016 presidential candidate is uttering outright lies, mostly false statements or half truths at least half the time they open their mouths." There's a word missing between "2016" and "presidential" and that word is "Republican." As I pointed out in this space on December 4, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking organisation PolitiFact found the lies of Republican candidates to be of a vastly different order of frequency and magnitude than those of Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

While the Democrats are still recognisably the party of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, the Republican Party has been swept off its mooring. Research shows the percentage of non-centrist Republicans in Congress has gone from 10 per cent during the Gerald Ford presidency (1974-77) to almost 90 per cent, while the Democrats' ratio has remained the same. Almost half the Republicans in the House of Representatives were found to be more extreme than the most extreme Democrat.


American democracy is dysfunctional because Republicans have largely abandoned consensus politics. Democracy is essentially the means by which society manages political division. It depends on tolerance, moderation, an acceptance that roughly half the citizenry doesn't share your perspective and priorities. Hence democracy and ideology are fundamentally incompatible.

Increasingly, Republicans pay lip service to this philosophy. Rather than seeing Democrats as rivals yet partners in the governing process, they view them as threats who must be nullified, a mindset which inevitably leads to the conclusion that the end justifies the means.

A particularly blatant example of this is the Republican-led House of Representatives select committee investigating the 2012 attacks on US diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya in which two diplomats and two CIA contractors were killed. That's its ostensible purpose: its real aim, as some committee members have let slip, is to sabotage Hillary Clinton's bid for the presidency. (She was Secretary of State at the time.)

As Newsweek's Kurt Eichenwald has detailed, the scale of this investigation is unprecedented although the event under the microscope is anything but. Attacks on the US embassy in Beirut in 1983 and 1984, when Republican hero Ronald Reagan was president, claimed more than 80 lives. There have been 21 major assaults on US diplomatic facilities in the past 20 years; none of the others were the subject of a congressional investigation.

Yet the Benghazi committee has been examining an episode involving four deaths for longer than Congress looked into the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Iran-Contra scandal, 9/11 or the intelligence failures that facilitated the Iraq War.

The committee can demand any document, summon any witness, ask any question. In its latest report - there have been nine thus far - Clinton's name appears 36 times, the term "terrorist" 10. And even though it's abundantly clear the exercise is a taxpayer-funded witch-hunt, the media dutifully covers it as if it's the business of government as usual.

Triffitt's "plague on both your houses" approach mirrors that of the media, which continues to cover politics as if the centre hasn't moved, as if it's still a fixed point in the middle of the political spectrum with Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other. By failing to differentiate between traditional adversarial politics played by the rules and within the conventions of the game and the new bloody-mindedness, the media has enabled the right's extremism.

Other western democracies are post-Christian societies in which the great culture war of the late 20th century is already receding into history. In the US, however, it rages on. The religious right, which is, to a large extent, the Republican base, views the culture war in apocalyptic terms: lose and everything they hold dear will disappear. So they gravitate to candidates who embody their conviction that compromise amounts to defeat and defeat means the end of the world as they know it.