“What a spectacle!” mocked Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, referring to the developments in the US since last week’s presidential elections. “One says this is the most fraudulent election in US history. Who says that? The president who is currently in office.”
One does not have to gloat over these developments the way the Ayatollah does. But to see an incumbent American president claim that the elections were “rigged” and make unsubstantiated charges of fraudulent voting and his refusal to commit to accepting the election results is an extraordinary chapter in the history of the United States. It surely hits a new low in the image of the United States abroad. The election observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have cautioned that “baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, harm public trust in democratic institutions”. It is unlikely that the OSCE election observers had used such words in a report regarding an election in a major Western democracy before.
Nevertheless, we are witnessing the final days of the Trump presidency. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are now President-elect Biden and Vice-President-elect Harris. But as of Saturday, Trump has given no indication that he is prepared to concede defeat. His campaign has filed numerous lawsuits in states where the contest remains close. Since the lawsuits are not backed by any evidence of wrongdoing, they have not made much headway. But the magnifying effect of social media has turned these legal challenges into a formidable disinformation campaign creating a bogus narrative among Trump supporters of Democrats “stealing the election” raising fears that it could lead to outbreaks of violence.
The elections, however, were not a complete repudiation of Trump. There was no Biden landslide, contrary to the expectation of Democrats and many poll predictions. More people voted in this election than ever before. Biden received about 75 million votes. But Trump had more support than in 2016. As per figures available on Saturday, about 70.6 million people voted for him compared to 63 million in 2016. Trump may have done slightly better even with African American voters. In contests for the Senate and the House of Representatives and for many state and local-level offices, Republican candidates did better than most analysts had predicted.
The Trump presidency will soon be over. But Trumpism seems destined to remain a political force for some time to come. With his continued appeal to nearly half the electorate, Trumpism will probably continue to have a significant presence in the Republican Party for now.
Trumpism’s resilience might revive a debate within the Democratic Party that took place before Joe Biden became its nominee. The candidates differed fundamentally on the question of Donald Trump. Is he the cause or a symptom of the dysfunction at the heart of American politics? Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren favoured major structural change. Biden was the only candidate who seemed to argue that replacing Trump will solve the problem.
It is in the nature of democratic political life that elections focus attention on results and not the process. Now that the Biden-Harris team is on course to win both the popular vote and the electoral college vote, interest in the institution of the electoral college will soon dissipate. But this election underscores deep problems with the way Americans elect their president. Thanks to the electoral college, the presidential elections have repeatedly come down to a handful of randomly occurring battleground states more or less evenly divided between Democratic and Republic voters. It reduces the citizenry in the rest of the country to the role of spectators.
The US does not have an independent constitutional body like the Election Commission of India responsible for holding elections. Its system of election management is hyper decentralised. The federal government plays very little role. State legislatures make most of the rules and state and local level officials administer elections. The US has more than 10,000 election administration jurisdictions. The rules can differ from state to state and sometimes even within the same state.
In many established democracies, voter registration and voting procedures are handled routinely as technical and procedural matters. But in the US, they become highly politicised. Republicans and Democrats fight battles over voter registration, voter identification requirements and voting procedures. By and large, Republicans favour rules that make it harder to register and vote, while Democrats favour ease of registration and voting procedures for eligible voters.
The pandemic forced states to adopt new rules to enable early and absentee or postal voting and to suspend some of the more onerous rules. This led to record levels of voting. But it has also become the source of the Trump campaign’s dubious claims about widespread voter fraud and a boom in election litigation.
It is hard to dispute that this way of electing its president and managing elections could benefit from fundamental reforms. Voting rights in the US are quite precarious; they effectively vary according to jurisdictions; and they are utterly reliant on judicial protection. One can imagine a constitutional amendment radically reforming the current way of electing presidents and the administration of elections. But in a political system that has had only 17 successful constitutional amendments in the past 230 years, it is not surprising that few see it as a realistic course of political action.
In the debate among Democrats on Trump, Lawrence Lessig of Harvard Law School favoured the side of structural change. In his book, They Don’t Represent Us: Reclaiming Our Democracy (2019), he wrote: “The crisis in America is not its president. Its president is the consequence of a crisis much more fundamental… The core problem with our democracy today is that it is essentially unrepresentative.” For far too long, the US has viewed democracy promotion as a foreign policy concern. It is time it looks inwards and rebuilds its democracy at home.
The writer is professor of political studies at Bard College, New York
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