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American democracy is in grave danger

I customarily write about foreign policy and international affairs, humbly believing that my training and experience enable me to offer some useful insights in that area. What follows, however, is less the output of a foreign policy wonk than the anguished observations of a concerned U.S. citizen.

We face, in plain sight, the greatest threat to democracy in America in my lifetime (meaning since World War II, although the “greatest threat” formulation probably is valid as far back as 1876). The incumbent presidential candidate, anticipating defeat, is, with the help of some supporters and enablers, trying to discredit the electoral process and to cling to power even if his opponent wins the election — i.e., even if Joe Biden receives a majority of popular votes in each of several states that together constitute a majority of the electoral vote. Donald Trump is attempting to accomplish this power grab through unsupported claims of widespread voter fraud, possible maneuvers by Republican-controlled state legislatures, and enough confusion to throw the election into a court system restocked with Trump’s appointees or a state-by-state vote in the House of Representatives.

I will try to earn my privilege of speaking out in this space with four observations that do have a foreign affairs dimension, although they are not necessarily the most important points about the current crisis.

First, world history shows that democracy is fragile. Even European nations with well-developed political cultures and records of democracy have at times allowed demagogues to derail them into horrifying authoritarianism. It could happen here too.

Second, most degeneration of democracy into authoritarianism, such as the recent examples of Viktor Orban in Hungary or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, has had a subtle and deceptive side, in the sense that many supporters of such leaders probably did not fully understand what was happening until much of the degeneration had taken place. That makes it all the more inexcusable for Americans to let anything like that happen in their country, as Trump — with his repeated refusals to commit to accepting the election result and his open disdain for the rule of law — has all but formally announced his malevolent intentions.

Third, much of the United States’s influence and soft power in the world have derived from its status as a beacon of liberal democracy. That beacon’s imperfections had already caused the United States to drop from the top tier of free countries, but the danger now is that the beacon will be extinguished.

Fourth, Trump’s denigration of how American democracy is functioning plays directly into the hands of foreign adversaries who have their own reasons to discredit that democracy. The old question of whether the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election was designed to accomplish such discrediting or to make Donald Trump president is outdated, because those two objectives are now one and the same. This year Russian trolls don’t need to write their own talking points about how poorly the American electoral system supposedly works; they merely echo what Trump himself is saying.

The danger to America’s democracy ought to take precedence over all other issues in this election — including the foreign policy issues on which I customarily focus — first of all because living in a free country in which the popular will is expressed in fair elections in which everyone’s vote counts is one of the most valuable blessings that Americans enjoy, however much they have usually taken it for granted. It also should take precedence because it provides the framework in which all other issues are considered and decided. The prime, overriding issue in this election is: which candidate supports democracy, and which one doesn’t?

Even those who would side with Trump on taxes, abortion, or any other familiar issues need to consider whether getting their way on such matters in the near term is worth losing democracy over the long term. When democracy is turned into authoritarianism it rarely is a temporary four-year fling. The destruction of democratic norms can later be turned against those who shared responsibility for the destruction.

The present danger goes well beyond bloviation by Donald Trump, which is how many of his apologists dismiss his alarming rhetoric. Real undermining of American democracy is already under way. Trump is building on the earlier and continuing efforts of Republicans to effectively disenfranchise portions of the electorate least likely to support their candidates, by piling on impediments to voting and doing so in the name of preventing voter fraud, even though such fraud has been so rare in U.S. elections as to be trivial. A commission that Trump established to examine supposedly widespread voter fraud quietly disbanded after it couldn’t find any. 

Barton Gellman, in a recent long article in the Atlantic describing in painful detail the constitutional crisis the Trump camp could cause in maneuvers to deny the presidency to the rightful winner, cites Republican state legislators in Pennsylvania who already have been discussing a direct designation of presidential electors by the legislature, disregarding the popular vote in their state. The legislators in question later tried to throw cold water on this reporting, but in current circumstances the discussed maneuver is hardly implausible.

Consider the recent record in another swing state, Wisconsin. After Democrats won statewide races for governor and attorney general in 2018, the Republican-controlled legislature convened itself in a lame-duck session to strip powers from those two offices. The legislature also rushed through confirmation of several dozen appointments by the outgoing Republican governor, some without even holding a hearing. For good measure the legislature restricted early voting in an effort to suppress Democratic turnout in future elections. 

All this was done by Republican legislators who, through aggressive gerrymandering of their own districts, have retained control even though Democrats have received clear majorities statewide of votes cast for candidates for each chamber of the legislature. A state circuit court determined that the convening of the lame-duck session violated the state constitution. But a 4-3 conservative majority on the state supreme court overruled that decision.

With this kind of scorched-earth partisanship on the part of legislators and their political allies on a court, it takes no stretch of the imagination to envision legislators overcoming a Biden win in Wisconsin with a damn-the-voters legislative designation of presidential electors.

The supposed reassurances by national Republican leaders are not reassuring at all. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says, “The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th,” that says nothing about machinations going into claims of who was the “winner” — especially if ballots that won’t be fully counted until after November 3rd are not given the same weight as any other ballots. A similar statement by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) leaves a similar gaping hole.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham — currently engaged in rushing through confirmation of Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee — is even less reassuring when he says, “Now, we may have litigation about who won the election, but the court will decide and if the Republicans lose, we will accept that result. But we need a full court.” Why should he be talking about litigation at all? Courts should not decide election outcomes — voters should. Based on what is known and what has taken place so far, the only reason this year’s election would wind up in court is one side’s fraudulent claims of voter fraud.

The 2000 presidential election ended up in court because of an extremely close outcome in a key state and legitimate issues involving hanging chad and other ballot ambiguities. Whatever one may think of how the Supreme Court ruled in that one, the court did not get the case because one side intentionally created a constitutional crisis and manufactured a way of trying to negate the will of the voters.

In the face of the present crisis, three things need to be done.

Citizens need to scream, long and loudly, about what would be a catastrophic loss of one of their most valuable political rights. The tendency, all too prevalent during the past four years, to normalize Trump’s outrages because there are so many of them must be resisted. What is happening now is not normal.

Republicans need to look in the mirror, ask whether they believe in democracy for America, and whether whatever partisan edge they would get by abetting what Trump is doing is worth losing that democracy.

A clear and overwhelming election outcome would also remove any plausibility from claims that voter fraud had affected the result. It also would demonstrate to present and future politicians that Americans will not tolerate anyone selfishly wrecking one of history’s hitherto most successful and noble political experiments.

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