Argument

No Democracy Is an Island

If Washington thinks that affirming flawed votes and the leaders who benefited from them abroad isn’t harming the health of democracy at home, it is mistaken.

A man closes a voting station in Kinshasa ahead of counting the ballots after presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Dec. 30, 2018.
A man closes a voting station in Kinshasa ahead of counting the ballots after presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Dec. 30, 2018. JOHN WESSELS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In December 2018, Félix Tshisekedi was elevated to the highest office of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa’s fourth-largest country, following a deeply flawed election in which a second opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, won by all credible accounts. But hardly anyone would know that by observing Tshisekedi’s visit to Washington last month.

When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the new Congolese president, he heaped praise on the government and lauded Tshisekedi’s “change agenda,” expressing optimism that his administration would fight corruption, improve security, and effectively respond to the latest Ebola outbreak. Yet whatever Tshisekedi’s vision for Congo’s future, it is complicated by the fact that it was not endorsed by the country’s voters.

Tshisekedi’s victory was delivered not by the ballot box but instead was allegedly brokered through a backroom deal coordinated by outgoing President Joseph Kabila. It is likely that Kabila directed his support toward Tshisekedi because he, in fact, was the opposition candidate least likely to pursue long overdue and much-needed reforms—ones that would disempower the Kabila family and his inner circle.

The drive to legitimize Congo’s election results and sanitize its tarnished victor is just the latest indicator of Washington’s comfort overlooking the erosion of democratic norms abroad—and increasingly at home, too.

Washington, however, seems in a rush to ignore all of this. And the drive to legitimize Congo’s election results and sanitize its tarnished victor is just the latest indicator of Washington’s comfort overlooking the erosion of democratic norms abroad—and increasingly at home, too.

On May 7, the same day that the Trump administration announced that Pompeo was canceling his visit to Berlin, where he was due to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it officially announced that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a self-proclaimed champion of “illiberal democracy,” had been invited to visit the White House the next week. The message that these recent moves telegraph is disastrous.

Under Orban’s tenure, Hungary’s democracy has receded dramatically—he is responsible for rigging elections, fomenting anti-Semitic sentiment, and engaging in rampant corruption. A few years ago, in a fit of xenophobic nationalism that echoed U.S. President Donald Trump’s own “build the wall” ambitions, Orban built a fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border and then sent the bill to the European Union.

To be sure, literally embracing illiberal strongmen and rubber-stamping stolen elections spans multiple U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican. However, the Trump administration’s endorsement of deliberately broken democratic processes and the leaders who have benefitted from them has shifted America’s position toward democracy promotion from tepid to outright hostility.

In this context, it is little wonder that so many autocrats have expressed an affinity for the new leadership style evident in Washington. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who busies himself by charging political opponents with treason and then having them tortured, says he loves Trump. The major decline in U.S. funding for pro-democracy and governance programs has often combined with diplomatic cover for ruthless autocrats, such as Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a “fantastic guy” in Trump’s estimation. What this indicates is that leaders who are actively disinterested in being held accountable by their citizens do not see the Trump administration as just tolerating their destructive impulses but as affirming them.


The Trump administration’s anti-democratic posturing abroad has mirrored the gradual lowering of standards for elections and basic democratic norms in the United States. The Economist Intelligence Unit went so far as to demote the United States to a “flawed democracy” in 2017, after the country moved downward across a range of indicators, including inequality, political authoritarianism, and lack of trust in government.

Whether in the United States or in Congo, this acceptance of the unacceptable is both dangerous and entirely counterproductive.

Importantly, this shift has, and will continue to have, global ramifications. A study by the Varieties of Democracy project, as just one example, has determined that the quality of democracy declined in more countries than the number in which it has increased over the past five years.

Indeed, Washington’s recent embrace of Congo’s Tshisekedi echoed—rather eerily—the U.S. political establishment’s endorsement of Brian Kemp as the governor of Georgia, despite glaring irregularities and the systematic discrimination and disenfranchisement that secured his victory over Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams. Kemp, who simultaneously served as Georgia’s secretary of state while running for office, clearly worked to make voting more difficult for his non-supporters, especially for people of color who overwhelming voted for his opponent.

Kemp oversaw the purging of Georgia’s voter roll, allowed the freezing of petitions of newly registered would-be voters, and permitted the closing of precincts in areas with a significant minority vote. Similarly, in Congo, an arson attack that destroyed thousands of voting machines just days before the election was widely believed to be directed by then-President Kabila, in a bid to further delay the elections. And much like the delay of voting in Congo’s opposition strongholds, as well as the refusal to open many polling places and count votes due to “security concerns,” the voter suppression tactics in Georgia severely compromised the final results. Furthermore, these anti-democratic tactics are not just happening in Georgia but elsewhere on the U.S. electoral map. In swing states where the Democrats are eager to make inroads, such as North Carolina, voter suppression is already a direct and growing threat to U.S. democracy.

Of course, an honest assessment of a presidential election in Congo—a massive and sprawling country—and a gubernatorial race in the state of Georgia should acknowledge the major differences between the two places. Congo, after all, is not considered a functioning democracy, whereas the United States—despite its negative trajectory—remains one of the world’s most enduring and resilient. What is important here, however, is that the aftermath of each election was characterized by the casual endorsement and institutionalization of profoundly flawed processes that violate long-standing democratic norms. Whether in the United States or in Congo, this acceptance of the unacceptable is both dangerous and entirely counterproductive.


Thoughtful leaders in Washington know—or at least should know by now—that democratization brings tangible benefits to citizens across the globe, including for Americans, regardless of political affiliation. There is, in fact, increasingly strong evidence that democracy is positively associated with a stronger economy when compared with nondemocratic counterparts. But such benefits are achieved only when key components of electoral democracy—namely, free and fair elections—are in place.

The ballots that American voters ultimately cast in November 2020 will impact not only the health of democracy in the United States but the ability of people around the world to peacefully pursue democratic reform and governance.

But somehow, decision-makers and elected leaders in the United States—from across the political spectrum—have opted to ignore that by turning a blind eye to electoral malfeasance abroad, thereby making similar transgressions easier to sweep under the rug and normalize at home. Democracy does not die overnight. Instead, it fades out over time, as the vital democratic norms and guardrails that have sustained it are slowly worn away.

In less than 18 months, Americans will once again line up at the polls to vote for the nation’s highest office holder. It is imperative that all candidates appreciate how our global democratic destinies are inherently intertwined and advance policy platforms that urgently address the current leadership void when it comes to protecting democracy, both within the borders of the United States and well beyond them.

Indeed, the ballots that American voters ultimately cast in November 2020 will impact not only the health of democracy in the United States but the ability of people around the world to peacefully pursue democratic reform and governance—which citizens increasingly demand—to improve their communities and livelihoods and hold their elected leaders accountable.

Despite its all too apparent flaws, the United States is still a powerful influencer. Protecting U.S. democracy helps to safeguard and embolden the democratic aspirations of citizens across the world. The sooner that we, in collaboration with our elected leaders, effectively counter the global democratic decline, including in the United States, the better we will all be for it.

Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of Vanguard Africa, which supports pro-democracy leadership and free and fair elections in Africa. Follow him on Twitter at: @Smith_JeffreyT.

Hilary Matfess is a Ph.D. student at Yale University and the author of Women and the War on Boko Haram. Follow her on Twitter at: @HilaryMatfess.

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