Paul Pillar

Russia Had Plenty to Work With: The Crisis in American Democracy

Realizing that this particular Slobbovia is actually the United States, one can get a sense of how non-Americans are viewing American democracy.  This in turn can have implications for democracy in the observers’ own lands.  Right now there is uncertainty about what effect the direct actions of the incoming Trump administration will have on democracy abroad.  Anne Applebaum expresses a pessimistic view that Trump, far from promoting any expansion of democracy, may undermine hitherto well-established democracies in Europe by making common cause with racist and anti-immigration elements in hard-right nationalist movements.  Democracy scholar Thomas Carothers believes, somewhat more optimistically, that “as Trump and his team move to actual policymaking,” their support for democracy and human rights abroad “will prove less consistently negative than their initial signals might indicate.”

Carothers correctly identifies, however, the biggest negative of all: “Various problematic features of U.S. political life in recent years—the institutional gridlock, the ever-rising role of money in politics, and the frequent skirmishing over basic electoral rules and procedures—have already tarnished the United States’ image abroad. But the recent U.S. presidential election process damaged this image much more widely and deeply. Although this damage had many sources, numerous actions that Trump took during the campaign and since the election—from his vows to prosecute his main opponent to his baseless postelection assertions of massive electoral fraud—figure significantly in the dispiriting diminishment of America’s global political brand.”

For anyone interested in expanding democracy abroad, this is a reason for deep pessimism.  America is more likely to be successful in encouraging such expansion by setting an example than by direct manipulation or intervention.  Because stable democracy requires those critical elements of political culture—including genuine and willing commitment to democratic procedures themselves—it must arise in large part inwardly, even if inspired by a salient example such as the United States, rather than being imposed from the outside.

For all Americans, the biggest reason to be bothered by the trends in American democracy is that it is their own country.  That is a reason to be pessimistic even if not giving a hoot about the expansion of democracy abroad.

That is also one of the biggest problems to think about in connection with the Russian interference in the U.S. election.  Primary among the likely Russian motives, as suggested in the official government report on the Russian initiative, was “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process”.  Sure, what the Russians did is worthy of condemnation, but Americans ought to be most disturbed by the fact that there already were enough reasons to shake such faith that the Russians knew they had a vulnerable target.  The recent election, with or without Russian interference, provided still more reasons.