The View of the Vote From Asia

Whoever wins, the United States’ democratic model is already shattered.

Crabtree-James-foreign-policy-columnist5
James Crabtree
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia.
An Indian art schoolteacher paints an image of former Vice President Joe Biden next to U.S. President Donald Trump outside an art school in Mumbai on Oct. 29.
An Indian art schoolteacher paints an image of former Vice President Joe Biden next to U.S. President Donald Trump outside an art school in Mumbai on Oct. 29.
An Indian art schoolteacher paints an image of former Vice President Joe Biden next to U.S. President Donald Trump outside an art school in Mumbai on Oct. 29. Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 U.S. presidential election will have seismic long-term implications, whichever way it goes. But it is the short-term threat of violence that is most catching Asia’s attention ahead of tomorrow’s vote.

“Here is Bloomingdales boarded up today,” a friend wrote a few days back to a sprawling WhatsApp group, mostly filled with political obsessives from India, of which I’m a member. The image showed the high-end retailer’s flagship location in Manhattan apparently preparing for rioting. “Oh, that's crazy,” one replied. “Wow! Bloomingstan,” another member of the group replied.

The threat of post-election disorder ought not be quite as shocking as it is, given the United States’ recent history with violent political protests and plots such as that launched by supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, and given that many of Trump’s supporters seem unlikely to accept a victory by former Vice President Joe Biden under any circumstances.

The 2020 U.S. presidential election will have seismic long-term implications, whichever way it goes. But it is the short-term threat of violence that is most catching Asia’s attention ahead of tomorrow’s vote.

“Here is Bloomingdales boarded up today,” a friend wrote a few days back to a sprawling WhatsApp group, mostly filled with political obsessives from India, of which I’m a member. The image showed the high-end retailer’s flagship location in Manhattan apparently preparing for rioting. “Oh, that’s crazy,” one replied. “Wow! Bloomingstan,” another member of the group replied.

The threat of post-election disorder ought not be quite as shocking as it is, given the United States’ recent history with violent political protests and plots such as that launched by supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, and given that many of Trump’s supporters seem unlikely to accept a victory by former Vice President Joe Biden under any circumstances.

But there are two other things about the election that Asian observers are more justified in being surprised by. First, there are the seemingly unbridgeable divisions in U.S. society, which appear likely to remain whoever wins. And second is the sheer ricketiness of U.S. election infrastructure, which increasingly looks like something from an emerging economy—Bloomingstan, or Americanistan perhaps—in its unfairness, unreliability, and vulnerability to interference. The fact that Monday’s news was so dominated by stories about court cases and post-election legal challenges will only have deepened this alarm.

Perhaps one should view all this as a perverse sign of American strength. Unlike China, the United States has traditionally been able to endure moments of political protest, even extreme street violence, without anyone suggesting the republic itself is actually in peril. And perhaps this time either Trump or Biden will win so convincingly that the threat of unrest simply dissolves on election night, beaten back by the sheer size of the victory.

Viewed from Asia, however, that threat of ever deeper division looms large, and behind it the reality that the United States is no longer anything close to a model democracy. Rather, U.S. democracy seems fragile and potentially ready to crack, whoever wins. “A weary world is watching,” as one Singapore news channel put it this week, but an alarmed world, too.

James Crabtree is a columnist at Foreign Policy, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, and the author of The Billionaire  Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age. Twitter: @jamescrabtree

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