Argument

Does Guyana Foretell an American Future?

A disputed election. Racialized parties. A constitutional crisis. Washington already has a model for what could go wrong.

Voters cast their ballots at a polling station.
Voters cast their ballots at a polling station in Ridgeland, Mississippi, on November 27, 2018. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A country has reached a constitutional crisis. The validity of its national election is in dispute. The party in power is almost entirely supported by native-born people with centuries-long heritage in the country. Official results point to their defeat at the polls by an opposition party predominated by people of immigrant origin.

However, the chief executive refuses to concede. Instead, he accuses the opposition of stuffing ballot boxes and fraudulent voting in several electoral districts. He orders the election commission to re-count the votes and, when the initial result is confirmed, the government’s top elections officer invalidates hundreds of thousands of ballots. The incumbent declares his reelection.

You could be forgiven for projecting onto this scenario your worst fears about President Donald Trump and the U.S. elections in November. Numerous pundits have played out this scenario already in the press. But this is not the United States—at least not yet. It is the small South American nation of Guyana.

After five years in government, President David Granger and his coalition that largely represents African-origin people is reluctant to return power to the predominantly Indian-origin opposition party, despite clearly losing the March 2020 election. During this standoff, Guyana’s parliament has not met. The government is effectively paralyzed.

Guyana’s government is effectively paralyzed.Guyana is one of the world’s very few so-called majority-minority states—a country in which the dominant ethnic group becomes outnumbered by one or more minority ethnic constituencies. A British colony beginning in 1814, it once featured an African-origin majority descended from its plantation slaves. When slavery was abolished in parts of the British Empire in 1835, the British imported indentured servants from India and elsewhere as a new source of forced labor. About 75 years later, these “East Indians” outnumbered the Afro-Guyanese and, by the time independence was achieved in 1966, the country’s political parties were drawn on ethnic lines. Today, Granger’s People’s National Congress remains predominantly backed by people of African descent, while the opposition People’s Progressive Party remains predominantly backed by people of Indian descent.

Over the years, the racialization of the country’s parties has led each election to feel existential because the party in government is expected to funnel government resources to its ethnic constituency rather than develop programs and initiatives that transcend racial lines. This fight over resources will only intensify now that oil has been found off Guyana’s Atlantic coastline and state coffers are set to swell.

I have spent much of the last four years studying the politics of demographic change in multiple majority-minority societies that could represent alternative American futures. While some subgroups have found a way to coexist, many endure severe and irresolvable division. Among the multi-ethnic democracies I’ve studied, the racialization of political parties emerges as among the most ominous developments for social harmony and political stability.

In the United States today, political parties and their most ardent supporters feel a sense of urgency similar to those in Guyana. The country’s polarization has paralleled its ethnic diversification. As more people of Latin and Asian origins have integrated and voted in American elections, the Republican Party’s base has grown more xenophobic and nativist—driving people of ethnic minority backgrounds out of its membership rolls. Meanwhile, Democrats have responded with similar identity-based solidarity. While Democrats remain diverse in their composition, politicians regularly appeal to specific ethnic, racial, and religious subgroups to frame policy matters and mobilize more tribal, partisan allegiance.

In the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump leveraged these partisan differences and the latent discomfort of many white moderates with the diversification of the United States to win, hinging the Republican Party’s future on identity politics. His White House has governed with racist innuendo and justified new policies that further his reelection ambitions rather than the country’s well-being.

The risk of such identity politics is that, as in Guyana, the parties become proxies for race. Already, non-white ethnicity is a strong predictor of Democratic support. And white people, unless they have an advanced university degree and live in a city, are likely Republicans.The risk of identity politics is that parties become proxies for race.

As Guyana demonstrates, when partisanship is so racialized, it augurs trouble for democracy. It allows personal identities to distort and narrow a conception of “the people.” It undercuts people’s capacity to empathize with their fellow countrymen. It devotes citizens to their tribe rather than to their country’s institutions, making them less willing to lose and more willing to break rules to win.

In Guyana, Chief Elections Officer Keith Lowenfield has published a report claiming that hundreds of people who were dead or had emigrated were recorded as having voted and that some ballot boxes were stuffed with votes for the main opposition party. However, last month the Organization of American States, the Caribbean Committee, and the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee each issued formal statements dismissing the report as nakedly biased and urging Granger to concede and peacefully transfer power. This month, the U.S. imposed sanctions.

Leading a country of 780,000 people heavily subject to outsized neighbors and global trends, Granger is unlikely to withstand the international pressure. However, the same cannot be said of Trump and the United States.

How can the United States avoid following in the footsteps of Guyana’s 2020 election?

Should Trump lose in November and point to election rigging without clear evidence, Americans must come together to protect their institutions, not themselves. They must alter their lenses to see their countrymen as their most important tribe. Republicans in particular, because of their influence on Trump, must place the fate of their democracy over the fate of their political candidate.

This reorientation may take decades to develop. In the short term, Republican (and Democratic) candidates down the ballot should each be asked to pledge that they have inspected their state’s electoral institutions and will respect the results, win or lose. For their part, the bipartisan appointees and nonpartisan bureaucrats who manage these institutions should certify their transparency and integrity, take action to protect against anticipated disputes, and prepare procedures to resolve them swiftly. These institutions should also remove the need for partisan election monitors by instilling faith in their process.

If all this is done, Republicans in safe seats will feel be pressured to certify the systems that will likely reelect them, and cast doubt on other Republicans who may be tempted to echo Trump’s baseless accusations of fraud, intervention, and suppression. It will isolate the president when the results are ultimately returned and undercut any retrospective allegations.

It is also important for Democrats to facilitate greater American unity in the face of division. Republicans will be less motivated to dispute the election results if they know they will be treated fairly by a Democratic leadership who reassures that they will govern for all. Democrats who vilify their opponents and their followers complicate future politics for short-term and slim electoral gain.

Attempting to shift attention away from the White House’s struggle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump has used Black Lives Matter protests to fan racial tensions in the United States yet again. But whether one feels inspired to fight for racial justice or defend a perceived assault on American heritage, partisan polarization along the lines of ethnicity is ultimately a scourge for democracy. Just as we are each individually more than our race, American political decisions must be the product of a holistic concern for all of the United States, as a nation, as an institution, as a unifying idea.

American political decisions must be the product of a holistic concern for all of the United States.When Al Gore conceded the disputed 2000 presidential election, he harked back to an earlier day in American history. Invoking Sen. Stephen Douglas, who had just lost the 1860 election to Abraham Lincoln, he said, “Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.” Gore urged his voters to “put aside” the “partisan rancor.” Despite his vehement disagreement with the Supreme Court verdict, Gore said that he would accept its finality “for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy.”

The politics of the last four years have turned Americans against each other. An election deciding the next four years should be understood as one that continues the democratic traditions of the last 250 years, and those politics should bring its citizens together.

Justin Gest is a political scientist at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Twitter: @_JustinGest

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