America, Welcome to the Ranks of Struggling Democracies
What needs to happen next if U.S. democracy is to survive.
Violent conflict over contested elections has plagued authoritarian and undemocratic countries around the world, as well as democracies that are troubled and threatened. On Wednesday, the United States became the newest member of this unfortunate club.
Based on my experience working on election observation and democracy promotion in some 50 countries over the last 30-plus years, I am convinced that the chances of the United States remaining a genuine democracy may well depend on the way the country’s leaders and institutions now react. If Wednesday’s events aren’t treated as what they are—a seditious attempt to overthrow the results of a democratic election, encouraged not only by President Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and insane conspiracy theories but also by a significant number of Republican senators and members of the U.S. Congress—then I fear that this kind of disruption and political violence could escalate and one day have more success than the pro-Trump mob had with their attack on the election process.
These events have made it so obvious that it hardly bears repeating: What distinguishes a genuine democracy from a troubled or fake one is that all major candidates and parties accept the election rules and process, and that the losers accept and respect the results.
[To read FP’s ongoing coverage of the aftermath of the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, click here.]
Far from accepting the results of an extremely well-run election that was not close by any means, Trump and his enablers—U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, and many others—rejected the election results and moved to overthrow them without even a hint of a legitimate basis for complaint. The violence on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol was an entirely foreseeable result of their baseless, undemocratic, and unconstitutional challenge to the electoral process, and it constitutes a direct threat to U.S. democracy.
Like the autocratic Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Trump’s preferred course would be to stay in office by rejecting the results of an election, even if it requires violence. Many Republicans—including very prominent lawmakers—now reject democratic elections, not unlike the formerly communist Cambodian People’s Party, which rejected the results of a United Nations-supervised democratic election in Cambodia in 1993 and threatened to restart a civil war. In several elections in Afghanistan in recent years, the losing presidential candidate has rejected the election results. Violence in that country continues.
Far from de-escalating the situation, Trump repeated his specious lies—and although he ostensibly called for his supporters to withdraw, he refused to criticize them and praised them as patriots in a video that has been justifiably removed from social media. Trump’s behavior is reminiscent of authoritarians such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who sends out deliberately mixed messages that fan the flames of civil violence. Duterte has denied encouraging violence against journalists, for example, even as he has done so.
The descent into violence on the basis of election complaints may seem unprecedented to Americans, but it is unfortunately not so unusual elsewhere in the world. Complaints of election fraud—whether or not they have any basis—can be the start of a slippery slope and have been the trigger for violence in many countries. After elections in Kenya in 2007, for example, charges of election fraud precipitated deadly violence between rival ethnic and political groups. In Egypt in 2013, attacks from political forces that rejected a democratically elected president led to many deaths. Over a series of elections in Bangladesh, real and imagined charges of election fraud have often led to violent clashes.
Mobs storming parliaments are all but a definition of a fragile democracy. In 1993, a fledgling democracy in Russia faced a crisis when a standoff between then-President Boris Yeltsin and Russian lawmakers resulted in a violent attack on the parliament building. As we now know, Russia’s democratic experiment never recovered. In just the past year, there have been violent attacks on parliaments in Armenia, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, Mali, and now the United States. In the first four cases, the attacks portend a failing democracy or worse. Whether that is now also true for the United States remains to be seen.
To protect U.S. democracy and not go down this slope, political leaders and institutions must now take concrete steps to ensure that political violence is not normalized. In addition to a number of essential longer-term, institutional reforms at the national and state level, several immediate responses to Wednesday’s events and their genesis are crucial.
First, the criminal justice system must hold the perpetrators to account. In countries where there has been little accountability for political violence, we have seen how attacks related the political process easily escalate. In Afghanistan, a failure of accountability has led to assassinations of journalists, politicians, and election officials. In Kenya, postelection violence went largely unaddressed, and the full truth about elections was never fully revealed. In Bangladesh, election violence has become routine. To avoid this kind of deterioration in the United States, the rioters must be quickly identified and aggressively prosecuted.
Second, there has to be a serious investigation into how the mob was able to overrun the U.S. Capitol, why the response of the Capitol Police was so ineffective, and what prevented the immediate deployment of the National Guard. Such an investigation must also determine why there were not more arrests. If appropriate, those responsible for this abject failure of security should be fired. There must be accountability for the breakdowns that allowed the mob to take over the Capitol and threaten so many lives.
Third, there must be an immediate political response. Not only must the leaders and participants of the mob be prosecuted, but the politicians who incited them must be treated as pariahs. Legislators who have, in effect, supported the attempt to overturn a democratic election should be censured, sanctioned, or expelled. The political parties and the media should do everything possible to avoid giving them a platform or credibility in the future.
Trump should be immediately impeached or removed through application of the 25th Amendment; failing that, the political system must figure out a way to make him unacceptable, much as it did for Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Among Trump’s range of potential crimes, his attempts to subvert the election process in several states and to incite the violent attack on the Capitol need to be fully investigated and prosecuted. The experience with truth and reconciliation commissions in a number of other countries suggests that the failure to hold senior political leaders accountable threatens the viability of democratic institutions going forward.
As I have argued in the past: When the losers of elections allege fraud and attack the legitimacy of the election process, a country’s democracy is under threat. On dozens of occasions, I have crafted statements of concern about dangerous, extraconstitutional challenges to elections in other countries around the world and the resulting risk of violence. This time, such statements of concern are about the United States, and Americans should welcome them, especially when they come from the country’s friends and allies, and all those who still see the United States as a beacon for democracy. Whether the country can regain its role as such a beacon will depend on its efforts to begin rebuilding democratic norms.
Eric Bjornlund is the president of Democracy International, chair of the Election Reformers Network, and author of Beyond Free and Fair: Monitoring Elections and Building Democracy. Twitter: @ebjornlund