Sharp political polarization. Public distrust of government institutions. A refusal by supporters of a losing candidate to believe election results.
This may describe the United States today, but it also expresses where Mexico was 30 years ago. And the steps that America’s immediate neighbor to the south took to restore public confidence in elections may offer a blueprint for how the U.S. can strengthen democratic institutions that political experts say have been under attack for decades.
International political analysts say the experiences of various countries show contrasting paths — for better or for worse — the American experiment in democracy can travel.
It’s been nearly two weeks since media outlets called the 2020 presidential race for Democratic nominee Joe Biden. But since then, Trump has refused to formally concede, and has instead filed lawsuits to dispute vote counts in several states. Despite losing the national popular vote by more than 5 million, the president continues to allege without evidence that the 2020 race was fraudulent and that the election was stolen from him.
Experts aren’t especially concerned about the possibility of Trump refusing to leave office. But there are several factors — especially partisan polarization and disinformation — that democracy scholars say should be cause for concern in U.S. politics.
Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s conservative-leaning Hoover Institution, says polarization has eroded the strength of democratic norms in America: “Partisans of each party see the other as a threat to the nation’s security and well-being… It’s very, very dangerous.”
Diamond also notes what he sees as an authoritarian streak in Trump’s governing style, up through the recent firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper. He says that with Trump out of office, “I think the health of American democracy in one sense is going to improve dramatically on Jan. 20, 2021, because we’ll be free of a president who has no moral or operational commitment to democracy.”
But at the same time, Diamond says, “I think the problems [will] continue in terms of polarization, disinformation — a worn fabric of democratic norms, values, and restraint in our democracy.”
Diamond notes that partisan divides in the U.S. have been growing for decades. He points to the South’s realignment to a Republican stronghold in the late ’60s and early ’70s as a catalyst for more partisan voting on Capitol Hill. Diamond says that in the decades since then, right-wing talk radio, partisan news outlets, and the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton in the ’90s have exacerbated polarization.
“It was really crossing some kind of Rubicon by [Sen. Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refusing to consider Merrick Garland’s nomination” to the Supreme Court, Diamond says of former Democratic President Barack Obama’s nominee.
Diamond urges elected officials to, “Stop treating politics as a rugby match and worry about the fate of the country.” And although he sees a difficult feedback loop of partisan media and social media echo chambers — where audiences gravitate toward content that reinforces their political views — feeding polarization, he says the U.S. could look to other countries with more robust and independent electoral systems.
Among those, he points out most of Europe — especially Germany — Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan. “Even India runs its elections better than we do in the sense that they’re a federal system, and have a lot more people than we do,” Diamond says. “But they have a central election commission that has the authority to run elections in a fair and neutral fashion.”
Agustina Giraudy, an associate professor at American University’s School of International Service, shares Diamond’s hope that an incoming Biden administration will help restore some of the nation’s democratic norms. But she takes special issue with the president’s refusal to concede the race, and the impact it may have on his supporters.
“Trump’s refusal to concede is doing huge damage to the democratic process,” she says. “Let’s say that half of the 70 million people who voted for Trump believe what he says. Thirty-five million people in the U.S. are distrusting democratic institutions… Once you start going down the hill of mistrust and doubt of democratic institutions, it’s very hard to come back.”
Giraudy notes that in recent decades, sowing doubt on the results of elections was a common tactic in Mexico. She says that following Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s first presidential run in 2006, “Everybody in Mexico the day after the election was expecting the incumbents or the challengers disputing the results.”
According to Giraudy, the outright denial of election results is “similar to what we saw in Mexico, or what we might see in Turkey, or Russia.” But she says Trump is unique in terms of being a populist leader who lost an election after his first term.
“Typically, autocrats from [former Peruvian President Alberto] Fujimori to the PRI [Mexico’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional — which governed the country continuously from 1929 to 2000] to [Bolivia’s] Evo Morales — they all continued in power,” Giraudy says. She notes similar scenarios in Turkey and Russia.
And while Giraudy acknowledges the possibility of those countries having weaker systems of checks and balances, she says the coronavirus pandemic played a decisive role in denying Trump’s reelection. “I’m sure that Trump would have won had it not been for COVID.”
But despite Trump’s rhetoric and actions — among which, Giraudy cites his threats to jail his political opposition, longstanding attacks on the electoral system, appointing family and friends to government posts — she says the U.S. still has several options open in terms of institutional reform that could help mend American democracy.
“You need to have both incumbents and opposition agreeing on the rules of the game.” Mexicans distrusted their elections and electoral processes for several decades, Giraudy says, but once they established an independent electoral board, the Instituto Nacional Electoral — founded in 1990 as the Instituto Federal Electoral — citizens began to gradually trust in the process again.
“It took the efforts of both opposition and incumbents to sort this out. They both had to acknowledge the need for an autonomous institution that brings experts together.”
Like Diamond, Giraudy says the U.S. still has much work to do in terms of restoring confidence in its democratic institutions. Social movements have the potential to generate change, she says, but face the hurdle of a dysfunctional two-party system. Still, Giraudy says Americans should feel confident in the independence of the media, the autonomy of the Supreme Court, and that resilient checks and balances remain in place.
A few days after the election, “Several outlets stopped streaming [Trump’s] speech when he was making baseless claims of fraud,” she says. “The media continues to be a counterbalance. Civil society is very vibrant… There are signs that give me hope.”
Toward a Functioning Democracy
In 2018, Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt offered a grim prognosis on the health of U.S. institutions in their book, ” How Democracies Die“: “There’s nothing in our Constitution or our culture to immunize us against democratic breakdown,” they wrote.
One year into the presidency of Donald Trump, the authors compared fraying democratic norms under his administration to a number of striking case studies — 1930s Spain and Germany, or Chile in the early 1970s — and found that weakening democratic institutions often preceded the rise of more autocratic regimes.
Ziblatt and Levitsky observed Trump calling the media, the ” enemy of the American people,” demanding personal loyalty from — and then firing — former FBI Director James Comey, casting doubt on the official popular vote count from 2016, and so on. These tactics, they wrote, evoked the strongman governance of Peru’s Fujimori, or Recep Erdo?an in Turkey.
Levitsky says the probability of Trump overturning the results of this election are minuscule. It’s generally far easier for would-be autocrats to steal an election prior to election day, and becomes especially hard the day of. But doing so afterwards is “really, really hard, and probably requires the military stepping in.”
Instead, Levitsky says he worries about the extent of polarization in the American electorate.
“As long as [Trump] goes on screaming that this election was stolen and that this was a coup, 40% of the country will believe that, and that is deeply problematic.”
Levitsky says democracies tend to break down when members of political parties view each other as existential threats. He adds that when partisans view a victory on the other side as unacceptable and are unwilling to work with each other to govern, dysfunction sets in.
Under those circumstances, Levitsky says that “we enter a world of partisan shutdowns, stolen Supreme Court seats, potentially contested elections. This is a serious dysfunction that we’ve been seeing the past decade, and I don’t see any departure from it.”
He calls the Republican Party a “radicalizing force in American politics,” and says he hoped that a sweeping loss in the 2020 elections would force them to expand beyond an overwhelmingly white, Christian coalition, perhaps easing polarization.
But Levitsky says that didn’t happen in large part because current electoral rules require Democrats to win 54% of the popular vote to maintain control of Congress, and 51-52% of the popular vote to win the Electoral College.
“What do you tell Americans who came of age in the past 20 years, when Republicans won the popular vote once, and have governed us for 12 years?” he says. “It’s hard to imagine millennials and Gen Z voters viewing our system with anything other than contempt.”
Although Levitsky compares contemporary American polarization to pre-fascist Spain and Germany, he notes that there aren’t equally strident threats to capitalism here as in those countries. He says that while the Spanish right ran to their military, and the German right embraced Nazism, “we have not gotten there.”
“But we’re at a point where relatively serious Republicans were contemplating sending a parallel set of electors to the Electoral College,” Levitsky cautions. “In the second decade of the 21st century, we contemplated stealing Supreme Court seats. That hadn’t been done since 1866. We’re entering a world where Merrick Garland is the rule, not the exception.”
While he recommends a series of institutional reforms, including eliminating the Senate’s filibuster, easing voting restrictions, and granting statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., Levitsky doesn’t see an immediate solution to America’s political dysfunction.
“My guess is… it’s going to be a long, slow drawn out fight,” he says. “We may muddle through, but it’s going to be an ugly couple of decades.”
Levitsky says that our society as designed by the framers was only intended to work in a relatively homogeneous white, Christian context, and that American political norms of mutual toleration were developed within those parameters.
“The principal, core challenge ahead of us is building a democracy that is functioning, and works in [our] multiracial society,” he says. “The Democrats have made that transition. Republicans have not. They have to make that plunge.”
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What the U.S. Can Learn From Other Countries on Strengthening Democracy originally appeared on usnews.com