Is American Democracy Truly in Great Existential Danger?


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Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be a large number of absentee votes. As usual, the 45th president of the United States of America has cast doubt on the validity of the November 3 election. 

To the question of the experienced journalist of Fox News, Chris Wallace, he did not want to commit himself not to claim victory and called on his faithful base to calm down in case the result is not clearly established. Joe Biden, for his part, and like any good Democrat in this world, promised to respect the final verdict. 

With an American president threatening not to recognize the result of the presidential election, what does this mean from an international perspective? American democracy is in great existential danger!

American democracy is faltering

As an autocratic president, Donald Trump is extending his powers and encouraging a climate of division before the election. Who can counter him?

A president who is seeking a second term after being impeached and who declares in advance that the election will be rigged? A few weeks before D-Day, the United States is experiencing a totally new, almost grotesque situation. Each day brings new surprises, in a campaign already disrupted by the pandemic. One revelation follows another. 

The latest ones? The White House is said to have ordered an American intelligence official to stop sending up reports on threats of Russian interference, and to concentrate on Iran and China. And Donald Trump admitted to investigative journalist Bob Woodward that he had deliberately downplayed the danger of the pandemic.

Donald Trump is not content to castigate postal voting, which should become widespread because of the coronavirus, by speaking of “massive fraud” and attacking the financing of the postal service: He recently went so far as to incite people to vote twice. This is totally illegal. Why sow confusion like this? Is the president trying to discredit the results in advance, in order to contest a possible defeat? 

This is one of the scenarios. With this variant: He could first come out a winner and claim victory, but then be overtaken by Joe Biden as the results of the absentee ballots come in. Chaos guaranteed. One could move towards a scenario with delays, possible recounts, and court battles.

How far will Trump go to secure the presidency?

While America is already on the edge, the president is even relying on conspiracy networks, ready to do anything to keep him in power. In the recent protests that followed the death of African-American George Floyd at the knee of a white policeman and the Blake affair, Trump did not seek to ease racial tensions. Rather, he contributed to deepening divisions in American society, accusing Democrats of being responsible for the riots, advocating anarchy, and wanting to plunge America into chaos.

In all this disorder, which exacerbates the anger of all sides, one question comes up loud and clear: To what extent does Donald Trump undermine institutions and represent a danger to American democracy? It also raises the question of the effectiveness of the counter-powers, Congress, and the courts in particular, which are supposed to prevent presidential abuses.

Jeff Colgan, a professor of political science at Brown University in Rhode Island, does not mince his words. For him, the president represents a “serious threat” to American democracy. Donald Trump “regularly breaks laws – such as the Hatch Act [which prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity] – grants presidential pardons to criminals who have acted to his benefit, encourages electoral misconduct and encourages violence,” he says. 

He believes that Donald Trump could very well, in the event of defeat, refuse to leave the presidency. But, as law professor Lawrence Douglas recently noted in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps, the US Constitution “does not guarantee a peaceful transition of power, it merely presupposes it.” The system is particularly ill-equipped to deal with contested elections, with narrow voting margins in the pivotal/swing states.i

Lackeys in the Department of Justice

For historian and constitutional law scholar Michael Klarman, the list, which adds to the Republican Party’s attempts to restrict the right to vote, is long. A professor at Harvard Law School, he has just written a relevant essay: Foreword: The Degradation of American Democracy—and the Court.” ii 

Donald Trump “calls the press an enemy of the people; assaults federal judges who invalidate his administration’s policies or incarcerate his former political associates; politicizes law enforcement, intelligence services and the rest of the federal government; uses the presidency for personal gain; sneaks violence; makes racist statements and adopts racist policies; systematically lies; erodes government transparency; expresses admiration for foreign autocrats; and delegitimizes elections and political opposition,” he lists in no particular order.

He does not hide his pessimism: “The institutions and actors that defended democratic norms in Trump’s first year were significantly compromised or completely eliminated thereafter, even as the president’s transgressions became more brazen,” he writes. 

“Who would have thought in 2017 that Trump could purge the leadership of the FBI, massively hamper the investigation into Russia [Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election], put lackeys in the Justice Department and intelligence agencies …, pressure a foreign leader to harm his political opponent and move closer to foreign autocrats, when the Republican Party was essentially a silent accomplice?“ he goes on to say.

A larger problem at play

The fact remains that Donald Trump is not the cause of the weakening of American institutions,iii he warns. He is both the symptom and the gas pedal. Nanya Springer, a lawyer with the organization Protect Democracy, founded in early 2017 by former members of the Obama administration and others, also points to this. 

She also worries about the politicization of institutions that are supposed to remain independent, such as the Department of Justice, or the disinformation conveyed by the Twitter feed of the president and government agencies: 

“It is important to recognize, however, that President Trump is a symptom of the problems in our democracy,” she says. “The havoc he wreaked on democratic institutions would not have been possible if those institutions had been stronger and better protected in the first place. That’s why it is essential that Congress pursue a comprehensive package of democratic reforms – so that another aspiring autocrat cannot take advantage of the shortcomings and weaknesses of our system of governance,” she further argues.

Klarman says there is a bigger problem: The majority of Americans do not seem to recognize the seriousness of the threat. He uses the metaphor of the frog and boiling water. If you throw a frog in boiling water, it escapes. But if you put it in cold water and gradually boil it, it goes numb or gets used to the temperature. To finish boiled.

Will America survive the November 3 elections? iv

Trump’s clearly announced intention to regard as suspicious any result that does not confirm his re-election and potentially so doing will, undoubtedly, endanger American democracy.

For most of the summer, former Vice President Joe Biden maintained a significant lead in the polls over current President Donald Trump in the race for the US presidency. In recent weeks, however, the gap has narrowed somewhat.

Part of the explanation is to be found in the improvement of the health situation related to the coronavirus crisis in the United States (in particular the mortality rate). Another part can be explained by the rebound in the economy, which came to a halt in the spring.

Nevertheless, according to the polls, Biden still has a comfortable lead and is the favorite in the November 3 election… at least that would be true if these elections were fair and equitable. But that will not be the case. In reality, it will be like flipping a coin. 

The United States has never had a White House race like the one it is experiencing today.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed lives, marginally or significantly. It will also disrupt the way American citizens will go to the polls and how those votes will be counted. With less than a few days to go before the election, polling stations are struggling to meet the logistical challenges that will undoubtedly go hand in hand with long lineups caused by the necessary social distancing.

It has always been a Herculean challenge for 50 states to organize what is really 50 separate elections — part of the US Electoral College — to elect the next president. Even in a less politically polarized environment, recent elections have been marred by accusations of voter disbarment, administrative errors, and foreign interference. It is to be expected that the 2020 election will be subject to similar accusations, both during the preparatory phase and after the November 3 vote.

But what is different this time around is that these demands will be amplified by the current president, who is sure to add fuel to the fire in an attempt to tip the scales in his favor. 

Trump’s claim that the election is rigged is not an excuse, but a campaign strategy.

Never before in the recent history of the United States has the country seen a president actively attempt to delegitimize election results for the benefit of his own political future. Probably the most blatant and direct assault recently launched by Trump is the one aimed at absentee voting, which is expected to reach unprecedented levels because of the coronavirus, which continues to circulate in American society.

Trump has stated that he does not wish to fund the US Postal Service for fear that absentee ballots will be diverted as part of widespread voter fraud, despite the lack of evidence.

A study released in August by the Democratic Fund and UCLA Nationscape found that more than one in three registered voters intend to vote by mail-in ballot, and that Biden supporters will be twice as likely as Trump supporters to use the postal channel. There is no doubt that Trump has seen the results of this poll, which helps explain his recent appeal to his supporters in North Carolina — asking them to vote twice (which is completely illegal) — in an attempt to prove that absentee voting was unreliable.

A tipping point?

Honesty is not limited to ensuring that each vote is free of influence and properly accounted for. Equally important is the perception of honesty in the broadest sense. And with Trump’s clearly announced intention to consider as suspicious any result that does not confirm his re-election, we can think that we have reached the tipping point.

If the two opponents are neck and neck, the loser is sure to feel cheated. This would certainly endanger American democracy. The last few months have shown that Americans on both sides are ready to take to the streets to demand what they consider just. When it comes to something as essential as voting for democracy, we can expect large-scale political violence.

It is unclear whether these attempts to trick Trump will ultimately increase his chances of renewing his White House lease. In the wake of recent polls, Trump increasingly feels that he has little to lose. But the United States has much to lose, and more than anything else, its faith in democracy.

Upcoming election more than worrying v

Like Jupiter wielding lightning, Donald Trump has accustomed us to turbulence, madness, and excess. He has gotten us used to seeing him portray the media as “enemies of the people,” ignoring the independence of the judiciary, acting as a perfect autocrat. 

This is where the main danger (and the strength of the American president) lies: The counter-powers that are supposed to work as lightning rods to contain presidential excesses are almost paralyzed, and the citizen is numb. Donald Trump acts a bit like a poison injected drop by drop into the veins of American democracy.

A few days before an election that is taking place in a deleterious and surrealist climate, let’s repeat: With his contempt for constitutional norms, Donald Trump weakens institutions and represents a danger for American democracy. Of course, he is not the cause of these dysfunctions, he is only the symptom. 

The fact remains that the president increasingly acts as a destabilizing agent. By denouncing “rigged” elections in advance, he is already preparing to contest a possible defeat on November 3, and is scuttling all the mechanisms in place.

A crisis of leadership for a nation in crisis

The point here is not to judge Donald Trump on his political or economic programs, but to dissect his behavior as president of a nation in crisis. Those who support him with their eyes closed should keep in mind that Donald Trump is probably the most anti-American president ever. 

For how can he claim to be patriotic when he uses serious racial tensions to further exacerbate the divisions in American society and encourage an insurgent climate? How can he claim to protect Americans when he claims to have knowingly minimized the danger of the coronavirus, which has already caused more than 229,000 deaths? Is this what it means to “make America great”?

Recently, Donald Trump provoked again the disbelief and the anger of the local authorities of Nevada by organizing the first electoral meeting indoors. Will we have to count the dead in the coming weeks? And delirious rumors from the conspiracy magma go so far as to accuse the Democrats of being the cause of the West Coast fires. Meanwhile, citizens armed to the teeth are ready to take justice to the streets themselves. America is in a dangerous climate of chaos.

Will American democracy survive current upheavals?

The second volume of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “De la démocratie en Amérique“ (Democracy in America), published in 1840, is a reflection on the particular forms of American democracy. This reflection extends to general considerations about democracy, including the risk of tyranny of the majority. The work deals with the influence that democracy exerts on civil society, that is to say on morals, ideas, and intellectual life.

Tocqueville speculates on the future of democracy in the United States, and on potential dangers “to democracy” as well as dangers “of democracy.” He wrote of democracy’s tendency to degenerate into what he described as “soft despotism.“ He also observed that the only role religion could play was due to its separation from government, allowing a secular country suitable for both parties.

There is no such thing as a perfect democracy. But a number of elements must be present for a democracy to be worthy of the name. 

Democracy is the government of the citizens as opposed to the government of the rich, the military, the aristocracy, or the religious. It implies an independent judiciary and, as far as possible, that those who pass laws are not the same as those who administer them. It is the principle of the separation of powers. 

A democracy also needs freedom of expression. Thus, the right of citizens to criticize those who govern them must be sacred. Hence the importance of journalistic freedom. Elections must be transparent and give every citizen an equal opportunity to be elected on his or her merits. 

There are many other rules that govern democracies, but they all relate to one essential principle: The citizens of a country all agree to abide by the established rules and thus, eventually, concede victory to their opponents.

Almost all democratic principles were attacked by Trump. Trump’s tax policies overwhelmingly favored the extremely wealthy. The secretaries he appointed are all very or extremely wealthy. He has tried to discredit the media, especially those who criticize him. 

Trump outdid himself by stating that the electoral process was fraudulent because of the postal vote, and that therefore he would not accept the result of the vote if he lost. This statement is contradicted by the facts and by all postal voting specialists. Here Trump broke with the basic principle that losers must accept their defeat.

A worrisome lead-up to a worrisome outlook

The evolution of the last decades of American democracy is worrisome. For example, the lack of election spending limits makes it increasingly difficult to elect Americans without financial means. Computerized vote counting removes much transparency from the electoral process and makes it easier to manipulate votes. Gerrymandering, the extreme division of electoral districts, skews the results.

What would the US military do if the president clung to power? This is what some serious American commentators wonder, such as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. 

Fortunately, many US leaders see the risks and refuse to let their country move in that direction. Is a new civil war possible in the United States?vi Army leaders have so far indicated that they want to remain neutral. However, if political chaos sets in, they will have no choice but to intervene. All these possibilities that were once discussed with a smirk on the face have become very real today.

It seems more and more likely that after the elections, the United States will be plunged into one of the biggest crises in its history. Only a victory by Trump or Biden by a very large margin could avoid it. This is not the scenario that is emerging. On the contrary, this election could appear illegitimate in the eyes of either camp.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial views.