The Exceptional But Fragile American Democracy

August 8, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: United States Blog Brand: Paul Pillar Tags: Elections2016 Election

The Exceptional But Fragile American Democracy

Talk of rejecting the results of a ballot is very dangerous.


Efforts to export American-style liberal democracy to foreign lands have bumped up against the fact that the successful working of such democracy depends on habits and attitudes that are rarer than most Americans think and that take a long time to develop. That is a reality encountered in places such as Iraq. The relevant attitudes are not only hard to develop but also easy to lose. And that is a reality we must face at home in the United States.

Prime among the habits and attitudes that make representative democracy work is the willingness to respect even the most disappointing electoral result and to yield power peacefully and willingly to one's political opponents if that is what the tally of votes calls for. Such willingness is a recognition that the nation as a whole and the democratic process itself are more important than for any one party, ideology, or set of policy preferences to prevail.


Look around the world and one finds numerous examples of ostensible democracies where such willingness is lacking. It is all too common for losers not to accept the tally of votes. They don't just yield power smoothly and move into the role of a loyal opposition. The end result may be a negotiated power-sharing arrangement that works somewhat (Kenya, Afghanistan) or doesn't work at all (Zimbabwe). Or the refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the other side makes the political system so dysfunctional that the military steps in (Bangladesh). Or the refusal is so intense that civil war breaks out and foreign military intervention is required (Cote d'Ivoire).

The acceptance of the outcome of elections by losers in the United States, both Democratic and Republican, has been a refreshing contrast to those foreign experiences. Look, for example, to John McCain's graceful concession speech in 2008 for a model of how to accept a losing outcome. Or look to the example in 2000 of Al Gore, who—having won the nationwide popular vote but having lost the presidency amid the hanging chad of Florida—probably had more reason than any candidate since Samuel Tilden in 1876 to believe that he was denied the office that should have been his.

Now, among the nearly daily output of outrageous comments that we have come to expect from the mouth of Donald Trump, is one that some commentators such as Dana Milbank of the Washington Post have rightly singled out as even more disturbing than most. This is Trump's suggestion that if he loses in November it will be because the election was “rigged”. Such a comment raises the specter of an election aftermath that will begin to look less like the United States and more like Kenya or Bangladesh.

If such an aftermath ensues, it will be a matter of sore losing rather than of any rigging. It is not as if the separate courts that have been ruling in several states against voter suppression laws as discriminatory are part of a vast left-wing conspiracy. The sort of voter impersonation fraud that such laws ostensibly are intended to prevent has been so rare as to be trivial. The actual deficiencies and unfairness in U.S. elections are of a much different sort: the effective denial of legitimate voters' right to vote because of inadequate polling places in some neighborhoods, or burdensome and partisan-motivated registration and identification requirements, or (as in Florida) stupidly designed ballots that leave voters' intentions unclear.

As with several other pathological aspects of the Donald Trump phenomenon, this possibility of denying the legitimacy of an election victory by the other side is rooted in patterns of thought and rhetoric that go well beyond Trump himself. The roots are seen in other ways in the party of which Trump is now the presidential nominee. The roots become visible when one remembers that the fundamental issue is not something specific like alleged voter fraud but rather a larger set of priorities in which, just as in the aforementioned Third World countries, so much importance is placed on one leader, party, policy, or ideology prevailing over another that the prevailing is treated as more important than the interests and values of the nation as a whole.

We saw this when Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell declared near the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency that his number one priority was to deny Obama a second term. Bringing down the administration of the opposing party, in other words, was given higher priority than anything involving the American people as a whole and the health and strength of their republic—whether this involves the state of the U.S. economy, the protection of U.S. interests abroad, or anything else. Obama in particular has seemed to have been the target of such perverted priorities (some would say racial prejudice is involved—it is impossible to conclude with certainty whether it is), leading to such diversions as the “birther” nonsense in which Trump has directly indulged as well as opposition-for-opposition's-sake which has had serious consequences for public policy, both foreign and domestic. But the pathological attitudes will not go away when Barack Obama leaves office. The uglier manifestations are seen today in the shouts at Trump rallies of “kill her” and “Trump that bitch”.

We can come full circle back to the connection between domestic politics and foreign policy by referring to what Walter Russell Mead describes as the Jeffersonian tradition of foreign policy thinking. Jeffersonians believe, in Mead's words, that “the specific cultural, social, and political heritage of the United States is a precious treasure to be conserved, defended, and passed on to future generations”. They recognize that this heritage is not only precious but “rare”. In foreign policy, the Jeffersonian perspective stresses that whatever the United States does overseas ought not to endanger that heritage. This has led to a Jeffersonian emphasis on restraint in undertaking any foreign operations or commitments, an emphasis that is as pertinent today as it ever was. But the underlying Jeffersonian realization concerns how fragile and easily endangered is the rare, precious, liberal democracy that Americans enjoy. It can be endangered by what misguided Americans do at home as well as abroad.

Image: Voting. Photo by Theresa Thompson, CC BY 2.0.