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The US presidential election: democracy, threats and transition



In a report published just prior to the US presidential election, the International Crisis Group was pessimistic. ‘The 2020 US presidential election presents risks not seen in recent history. It is conceivable that violence could erupt during voting or protracted ballot counts. Officials should take extra precautions; media and foreign leaders should avoid projecting a winner until the outcome is certain.’

Donald Trump speaks in the briefing room at the White House (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Crisis Group also feared the threat posed to US institutions. ‘Beyond the implications for any Americans caught up in unrest, the election will be a harbinger of whether its institutions can guide the US safely through a period of socio-political change.’

With Joe Biden securing the electoral college votes necessary to win the White House, the concern is whether the transition of power will be one marked by paroxysms of rage and disruption. Donald Trump is promising not to go quietly. Failing in the numerical stakes, he is now fighting the election in the courts. He is also crafting a narrative, unfounded in facts, that will endure with his supporters: that the election was stolen and that mail-in ballots were corrupted.

To state that the United States is divided has become a quotidian remark. What is less understood is the nature of US democracy itself. Far from being a democracy, the US is a republic, conceived as a bulwark against direct democracy and monarchical institutions. It was also the creation of white, privileged slave owners keen to preserve propertied values in the face of possible insurrection. To have embraced direct democracy, warned the sceptical Founding Fathers, was to embrace a political model that would eventually lead to tyranny.

Foremost among them was the second US president John Adams, who remarked in a letter to John Taylor in December 1814 that, ‘Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhaust and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.’

Preferable, then, was a separation of powers model focused on checks and balances, one that would contain factions and prevent any seizure of power by any particular one. As James Madison wrote in the tenth essay of the Federalist Papers (1787), ‘Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.’

The existence of the electoral college is a case in point. An institutional, anti-democratic firebreak meaning that the popular vote has failed to carry the day on five previous occasions: 2016, 2000, 1888, 1876 and 1824.


'What matters now is whether Trump’s narrative of the stolen election is absorbed by the institutional resilience of the republic.'


Incipient attempts have been made to readjust the balance of the republic. A proposal to abolish the Electoral College was put forth by Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y) in April last year. In introducing a constitutional amendment, Senator Schatz suggested that ‘the person who gets the most votes should win. It’s that simple.’ Co-sponsor Senator Durbin considered the Electoral College ‘a relic from a shameful period in our nation’s history, and allows some votes to carry greater weight than others.’

With the election looming, Trump’s critics feared that a second term would do irreparable harm to the country’s institutions. A common error tended to feature: seeing the US as a democracy rather than a weather beaten republic. President Richard Nixon’s former White House counsel John Dean suggested in September that ‘four more years of [Trump]’ would mean the end of US democracy. Francis Wilkinson, writing for Bloomberg, accepted the premise that the Trump administration was already autocratic. ‘Under the direction of Attorney General William Barr and Acting Homeland Security Chad Wolf, the state has assumed the form of unidentified men in unmarked vehicles, a hallmark of anti-democratic regimes.’

What matters now is whether Trump’s narrative of the stolen election is absorbed by the institutional resilience of the republic. Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law feared that, ‘The checks and balances, the legal constraints, the unwritten norms — they’re all under enormous pressure.’ The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s election monitoring team noted the ‘grave concerns’ from US election officials that legitimacy was being questioned ‘due to the incumbent President’s repeated allegations of a fraudulent election process.’

But there are signs that voices from the Republican Party and Trump’s own support base have distanced themselves. The New York Post, an often savage critic of Biden, suggested that Trump ‘take pride in what he’s done for the nation and the world for four years.’ He could easily run on his legacy in 2024 again ‘if he quits the conspiracy-addled talk of a "stolen" election.’ Fox News, despite some crankiness in its own ranks, also declared the presidency for Biden. Where the rank-and-file supporters of the 45th president of the United States goes, however, may be another matter.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: Donald Trump speaks in the briefing room at the White House (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, US, America, presidential election, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, democracy, republic



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Existing comments

Anyone genuinely concerned about democracy would be concentrating on Big Tech. Anti-Trump journalist Glenn Greenwald (confidant of whistle-blowers Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning) was forced to resign from the paper he started (Intercept) because they refused his story critical of Joe and Hunter Biden. America’s oldest newspaper, the New York Post, had earlier been censored by social media for printing the story. The blatant manipulation of social media as well as major media is obvious, and is a form of fraud presenting a moral threat to democracy. Someone prominent said he has it on good authority that “offensive” material will soon disappear from Google searches. For the past four years, the chief Enemy of the State has not been 1984’s Emanuel Goldstein, but Donald Trump. Silicon Valley billionaires now control American information. Oh, and let’s not forget that Barack Obama used state power to have conservative tax-exempt organizations receive unfair treatment by the Internal Revenue Service; the Democrat Party commissioned and paid for the phoney Steel Dossier to allege Russia/Trump collusion and try to remove an elected President; and this year Philadelphia judge of elections, Michael Myers, was indicted for taking bribes to inflate voting totals for Democrat candidates.

Ross Howard | 10 November 2020  

What pride in what he has done. All the quid pro quo, lies. Cheating repulsive behaviour. He has done nothing good except for his rich cronies and himself.

Irena | 10 November 2020  

The attraction of Trump was (is?) that he appeared a strong man with easy answers to hard questions. Now, he continues to play with fire by questioning the legitimacy of the voting process (this time around). There can be no denying that the United States is still the pre-eminent economic power of the world. Now, with Biden and Harris running the show the watching world can hope for a more measured, humane response from this most fortunate (in terms of natural bounty) of countries.

Pam | 10 November 2020  

Binoy, he certainly does not exhibit graciousness in defeat. On the face of it he's been well and truly trounced and should go quietly and congratulate Biden. Yet it looks as though he will be dragged kicking and screaming to the White House exit. I hope for his sake there's some truth in his electoral fraud allegations.

Francis Armstrong | 10 November 2020  

While Nixon and Reagan had their moments as President of the United States, nothing in my 60 odd years of following politics here in Australia and elsewhere has prepared me for the shambolic four years of Trump's Presidency . From the word go he made it clear that if he didn't win the Presidency against Clinton, then he was being cheated. Binoy, I am in complete agreement with you. I fear that Donald Trump will have to be dragged out of the White House. He will not leave willingly. Unfortunately if the Republications retain control of the Senate, they will do their upmost by hook or by crook, to ensure that the corrupt and undemocratic processes of voter disenfranchisement will continue . We can get ready for more horrific events in four years time . The Trump forces are not exhausted. They will continue to cause mayhem and possibly civil war to get their way.

Gavin O'Brien | 10 November 2020  

Excellent, Ross Howard. Time to recite Kipling's "If" to oneself.

HH | 12 November 2020  

This series of comments illustrates that the world, not just the so-called United States, is drifting apart, into a bifurcated realm of different realities. While largely (and politely) ignored by most other writers, the first comment exemplifies the ability of some to just draw out of the ether one's own set of facts, setting aside the elephant of evil behaviour, political and social, that is Trumpism.

Patrick John Mahony | 24 November 2020  

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