America’s Democracy Demotion

Pro-democracy groups and foreign governments should be calling out Donald Trump’s attack on the country’s core democratic institutions. They aren’t.

Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) stands with dozens of people calling for stopping the vote count in Pennsylvania due to unfounded charges of fraud on the steps of the State Capitol on Nov. 5 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) stands with dozens of people calling for stopping the vote count in Pennsylvania due to unfounded charges of fraud on the steps of the State Capitol on Nov. 5 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Donald Trump is trying to steal the U.S. presidential election. Having laid the foundation for this strategy during his reelection campaign, when he deliberately undermined popular confidence in the polls, he is now claiming to have won despite having lost both the popular vote and the Electoral College by substantial margins.

Refusing to concede is the tip of the iceberg. Much more worrying are deliberate efforts to prevent a smooth transition to Joe Biden’s administration while Trump acolytes invent spurious legal cases and mobilize supporters for a “total war” against the election results.

Trump is not the first leader to do this, and he won’t be the last. But he may be the leader who has received the least international pushback. For the most part, neither world leaders nor the pro-democracy organizations that support elections around the world have spoken out to condemn his actions.

In some cases, leaders appear to lack the courage of their convictions and are afraid to stand up to the so-called leader of the free world. In others, this apprehension may be mixed with partisan loyalties—as with the silence of bodies such as the International Republican Institute (IRI), an officially nonpartisan organization dedicated to advancing freedom and democracy worldwide, which used to be chaired by Sen. John McCain and is now chaired by Sen. Dan Sullivan.

While some officials at these pro-democracy groups offered congratulations to Biden—and IRI President Daniel Twining said his organization was looking forward to working with the new administration—the institutions they represent have not formally denounced Trump’s denialism and obstruction of an orderly transition.

This failure to call Trump out for what he is—a sore loser and an angry autocrat—is dangerous. The silence of his fellow Republicans lends credibility to his statements and emboldens his cronies. Against this backdrop, the lack of international criticism helps to sustain the idea that the president is simply “working through the system” in a similar way to the legal battles that followed the George W. Bush versus Al Gore election in 2000.

In reality, when Trump demands that legally cast ballots should not be counted he is not simply seeking to work through democratic institutions but rather to pressure them into making undemocratic decisions.

When a leader seeks to rig an election or refuses to leave office having clearly lost one, the international community has a number of tools that it uses to pry them out. The most obvious is to embarrass them by exposing and calling out electoral manipulation.

Following Nigeria’s flawed 2007 polls—which were so marred by fraud that some commentators refused to refer to them as elections at all—IRI announced that the elections had failed to meet international standards. Summarizing these failings, then-IRI President Lorne Craner told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health that “Rather than serve as an example of democratic sustainability on the continent, the Nigerian government oversaw a broken electoral process that allowed the election to be stolen from the Nigerian people.”

In many cases, though, fine words are not enough. When Laurent Gbagbo, then the president of Ivory Coast, rejected election defeat in 2010, he followed many of the same strategies currently being used by Trump. During the election, Gbagbo accused the opposition of rigging the polls, implying that his victory would be the only legitimate outcome. Once the Electoral Commission announced that opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara had won, Gbagbo pressured the Constitutional Council to reverse the Electoral Commission’s decision.

Gbagbo’s moves in 2010 brought international condemnation from the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and a range of other countries and multinational bodies. Not only did these governments demand that the election result be honored, but French troops and U.N. peacekeepers actually supported forces loyal to Ouattara to find and arrest Gbagbo, forcing him from power.

There are many cases in which international organizations have intervened before the results have been fully certified in order to dissuade a leader from undermining it.

Something very similar happened when President Yahya Jammeh tried to stay in power in Gambia after clearly losing the 2016 elections. In that case, it was troops from the Economic Community of West African States, backed again by a broad international alliance—after the U.N. had intervened to insist that Jammeh must step down—that forced him to go by threatening to invade the country.

The world’s pro-democracy organizations might argue that they have not spoken yet because they are waiting for the official electoral process to play out—Trump has a right to go to the courts, and the system is strong enough to protect democracy against fraudulent legal challenges. This may be true, but there are many cases in which international organizations have intervened before the results have been fully certified in order to dissuade a leader from undermining it.

Back in 2003, IRI issued a preliminary statement about elections in the Republic of Georgia that noted it was “too early to definitively judge these elections” but nonetheless made it clear that, “Sadly, the Georgian government and the Central Election Commission (CEC) did not diligently train the local election commissions and produced a seriously flawed list of registered voters. Their poor performance has generated a great deal of confusion and anxiety among voters.”

In all of these examples and many more besides, the U.S. and international organizations publicly called for democracy and the election result to be respected.

The contrast between those episodes and the international and domestic response to Trump’s anti-democratic antics could not be greater. Even though the vast majority of the president’s accusations of vote-rigging have been proved false, and even though Donald Trump Jr. is actively attempting to mobilize “able-bodied people” to form an “army” to ensure his father’s victory, there has been remarkably little criticism.

Most of the world’s leading pro-democratic bodies, from the European Union to the United Nations, have been silent. Although the Carter Center circulated a tweet from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in which he offered his congratulations to the Biden team, the center’s official statement simply asked “both presidential candidates and Democrat and Republican party leaders to call for calm and patience.” Meanwhile, IRI has spent the last few days tweeting about its work in Taiwan, Malaysia, Iraq, Peru, Ecuador, North Macedonia, and many other countries—simply ignoring the dire situation back home.

Similarly, although a small number of prominent Republican leaders have used their voice to recognize Biden’s victory and ward off the threat of manipulation, most notably former President George W. Bush and Sen. Mitt Romney, the vast majority have not.

This isn’t just about partisanship, though; it is also about the fact that neither U.S. nor international organizations wish to get drawn into the mudslinging between the Trump and Biden camps. As a result, the National Democratic Institute—the Democratic Party’s counterpart to IRI—has also been quiet. Although its president, Derek Mitchell, recently acknowledged that the U.S. election is important for global democracy, as “many countries look to the United States as a touchstone of democratic practice,” his organization has not explicitly called out Trump for undermining American democracy.

So while some of the employees of these organizations are privately critical of Trump’s actions and have contributed to cross-partisan efforts to protect American democracy—such as the National Task Force on Election Crises—their institutions are sitting on the fence.

In many cases, even those pushed to take a position have failed to do so. When put on the spot in recent television interviews, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab both failed to condemn Trump’s actions—a failure that the Labour Party’s shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, branded as “shameful” and “deeply shocking.”

The one exception has been the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which deployed observers ahead of the poll and concluded that the “baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions.” But the OSCE’s powerful public critique has been weakened by the failure of other organizations to echo its sentiments.

This silence has implications for the protection of democracy around the world. The next set of international statements questioning the quality of elections in Africa, Latin America, and Asia are likely to be met with growing suspicion and charges of hypocrisy—in part because many citizens and opposition leaders in these countries already believe that the international community picks and chooses when to stand up for democracy based on its own self-interest. Domestically, the failure of Republican leaders and pro-democracy organizations to speak out has ceded political space to the Trump camp to push its unfounded claims of electoral manipulation.

In turn, this will fuel right-wing conspiracy theories—including the belief that the Republican party was somehow cheated—that are likely to serve as the basis for further attacks on U.S. democracy in the years to come.

The erosion of democracy in a country like the United States requires two things: the abuse of power by aspiring dictators and the failure of supposed democrats to stand up and be counted. Republicans in the United States and Conservatives in Britain who value the rule of law should recall the words of the famous conservative, Edmund Burke: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”

Update, Nov. 13, 2020: This article was updated to clarify that the International Republican Institute’s president extended his congratulations to President-elect Joe Biden on Nov. 8.

Nic Cheeseman is a professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and the author of How to Rig an Election. Twitter: @Fromagehomme

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