Photograph: Cover Page The Economist Oct. 31, 2020
By Krishantha Prasad Cooray
The upcoming presidential election in the United States of America has brought the world to the edge of our seats. It has exposed the dark underbelly of the American political system and left us all wondering whether America, the world’s oldest modern democracy, will indeed prove to be a democracy at all?
Four years ago, America fell under the spell of a strongman. Donald Trump took the stage with masterful control of the media. He hijacked a democratic system and bypassed the customary scrutiny of presidential candidates by hiding his tax returns, silencing people through non-disclosure agreements and defining the narrative of his political opponent.
By the measure of an election in any normal democracy, he failed. He garnered 2,868,686 fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, losing the vote by a margin of 2.23%. To put that margin in a context that Sri Lankans would understand, Ranil Wickremasinghe lost the Sri Lankan presidential election in 2005 by a slimmer margin of only 1.86%. However, under the American system, it is the combination of states you win that counts, not the number of votes, and Donald Trump became president on that technicality.
For decades, the battle for the right to vote has been a feature of American politics. Politicians and partisan judges frequently succeed in preventing ethnic minorities, youth and other liberal demographics from voting, even divining ways to exclude the ballots of those who did vote. On more than one occasion, the politicized American Supreme Court has backed these efforts, further divorcing the American political system from what we in Sri Lanka understand as democracy.
Sri Lankans can take pride in our system. For all the political turmoil that our country has suffered in 72 years as an independent democracy, none barring the LTTE has even tried to deny the franchise to a Sri Lankan constituency or sought to prevent Sri Lankans from voting. It would be unthinkable for Sri Lankan courts to even entertain a case that sought to discriminate against Sri Lankan electors.
What remains unthinkable in little Sri Lanka is the only path before America’s Donald Trump to secure his re-election. A president who came to power on a technicality seeks to cling to power by unleashing a torrent of technicalities. His acolytes have sabotaged the postal service to scuttle the postal vote and filed over 300 court cases across America to prevent valid votes from being counted. They have shuttered polling places in urban areas to dissuade the poor from voting. They have adopted a flurry of similar strategies not to increase their own vote count, but to reduce the number of votes counted for their opponent, all of which would be unthinkable in Sri Lanka or any civilized democracy.
To those of us who treasure democracy and the institutions that defend it, there is solace to be found in the fact that Donald Trump is the first incumbent American President running for re-election who has not been endorsed by a single former President. Avowed institutionalists in his Republican party, from former Speaker Paul Ryan to the late Senator John McCain, have disavowed Trump. McCain went so far as to request that Trump not be allowed to attend his funeral.
Hundreds of retired senior military, intelligence and law enforcement officials in America have spoken out not just to oppose Donald Trump but to warn that his re-election would pose a grave threat to the national security and integrity of the United States of America.
Over the last four years, America has learnt first-hand the lessons of other countries that succumbed to cults of personality. When strongmen bluster their way into high office on a façade of glitzy propaganda and magical promises, the reality is that they loot their nation’s coffers, flounder and spend their time making excuses and blaming others as to why they could not deliver. They insist that they can only succeed if they are given more power and kept in office. Meanwhile, they chip away at democratic and institutional safeguards, because once the people have seen through them, democracy becomes a threat to their stranglehold on power.
Trump has failed to deliver on his promises, and his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been an international embarrassment, so there is reason to hope that his defeat will make way for healing America and making its institutions stronger than they were before Trump began his assault. There is much healing to be done.
Ever since World War II, America has marketed itself as the poster child for democracy, even though the fairness of its electoral system has lagged behind those of other democracies like Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland and the Scandinavian states.
Despite America’s wide inequalities, the romance is in that country’s evolution. Long before being elected President, Abraham Lincoln explained that America’s Declaration of Independence, which stated that all men are equal, was not a statement of present fact but an aspiration to strive for.
The concept of equality, Lincoln said, is one that must be “constantly looked to, constantly laboured for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colours, everywhere.”
Indeed, the American tradition has been to own up to its country’s dark history and aspire to do better. At it came to terms with the barbaric legacies such as slavery or the treatment of native Americans, the country has continuously evolved into a less racist and xenophobic, and more inclusive and equal nation, all under the glaring eye of one of the most searing and merciless news media environments in the world.
America’s claim to moral authority has come from reconciling its roots in inequality, slavery and other heinous crimes, owning up to them, accepting its present shortcomings, and actively striving towards the values upon which she was founded, while espousing those same values abroad. Democracies that have adopted or shared those values have often overtaken America in their implementation, and nevertheless found in the USA a strong and staunch ally who will stand up to autocratic bullying.
This is why Trump’s rejection, deriding and snubbing of democratically elected leaders, and his embracing and enabling of dictators and autocrats, and his encouragement of human rights abuses in his own country and overseas have struck such a serious blow to fragile democracies everywhere. Autocracies like Russia and China count on people losing faith in the idea of democracy and a free press. They can have no greater champion than an American president who insists American elections are rigged or boasts that he helped a foreign prince get away with murdering and dissecting a journalist.
So when Mike Pompeo came to Sri Lanka, winked that democracies should stick together, and warned that the Chinese Communist Party is “preying” on Sri Lanka, his words would ring less hollow had his own party not been so feverishly dismantling and delegitimizing democracy in his own country. Indeed, he would sound more sincere if President Trump had not just months ago been impeached for “preying” on the democratically elected leaders of Ukraine.
Sri Lanka cannot be credibly lectured on human rights and democracy by a country whose government has for the last four years institutionalized the oppression of minorities, forcibly separated refugees from their children, and laboured to engineer the arrest of journalists and jailing of political opponents. When Trump speaks of autocrats like Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un, he betrays a frustrated envy of these strongmen and how simply they silence, poison, irradiate or otherwise dispatch their political opponents.
These weaknesses in Trump and his lack of character are a key reason he is on track to garner far fewer votes than his opponent, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. Unlike Trump, whose manicured public image propelled him to fame on a campaign of fear, hate and race-baiting, Joe Biden is someone who has long been trusted in Americans and the world as a beacon of democracy, a father of war veterans.
In his choice of the highly qualified senator and former prosecutor Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential nominee, Biden shunned the allure of surrounding himself with “yes men” and followed in the footsteps of Barack Obama and signalled that he is not insecure about promoting and empowering proven leaders of high calibre, even those who debated him fiercely for the presidential nomination.
Biden has championed support for independent institutions in emerging democracies, especially in making judiciaries independent and distancing law enforcement activities from political pressures. All the while, he has made no secret of the fact that he believes his own country has a long way to go in making its own established institutions more inclusive, fair and just.
There is little doubt that Biden will garner more votes, but his opponent has made no secret of his plan to win through an assault on the franchise more becoming of leaders of failed states than the President of the world’s largest democracy. He has made no secret of his motives when stuffing the Supreme Court with judges he believes will deliver him a second term.
Dictators, strongmen and autocrats worldwide are watching. Today, such people cling to power not through overt fascism but by putting on the thinnest guise of democracy. It is manna from heaven for them to see an American President boast of rigging the US Supreme Court to stay in power. If Trump succeeds, they will be inspired and emboldened to employ similar strategies to stifle the democratic will of their own people. If they see one American candidate win millions more votes, only to have their victory overturned by a partisan court, they will see a blueprint for how they too can cling to power.
When George W. Bush was declared president in 2000 by the Supreme Court stopping the counting of votes in Florida, three key lawyers on his legal team were John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. All three now sit on the US Supreme Court, which may soon choose whether the next President of their country will be their “party man” or the man who won the most votes. If Trump wins six votes out of nine on the Supreme Court, it may not matter if he loses the popular vote by even six million.
Republicans in America content with dragging the courts into such an undemocratic constitutional coup d'état would do well to examine the events that led to the inception of their own political party. The Republican party in America came together after 1854 by uniting a growing number of American politicians whose fierce opposition to slavery left them without a party that reflected their convictions.
As the party and its philosophy garnered traction and it became clearer that a clear majority of Americans were opposed to slavery, it was newly elected pro-slavery president James Buchanan and partisan Chief Justice Roger Taney who in 1857 colluded to engineer a 7-2 judgment of the Supreme Court that declared that those of African descent were sub-human and thus must be treated as property all across the United States. Buchanan and Taney earned their place in history books by sharing a smirk and a wink at Buchanan's presidential inauguration in March 1857, when many present realised that the fix was in.
The barbarism of this move and its aftermath played no small role in the election of the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln three years later in 1860. The question of freedom and who deserved to be free so polarised America that it soon sucked the country into a bitter civil war. That war was won by those who stood for the principle that freedom and equality were the inalienable rights of all human beings. As this conflict played out in the 1860s, the world was not remotely as interconnected as it is today. The telephone had not yet been invented, and news crossed the planet no faster than a ship could sail the sea.
In today’s internet age, world leaders and citizens alike will watch events unfold in America in real time. Dictators, strongmen and autocrats have had an easy go of the last four years. They have basked in the shade of a wink and nod from an American president who admires and emulates them. Meanwhile journalists, rights advocates and those who fight for justice and the rule of law under the yoke of such rulers have found themselves abandoned and isolated.
Should a Biden electoral victory be suppressed by overruling the will of the American people, every dictator, strongman or autocrat who seeks to govern their people without their consent will speed through a bright green light, follow America’s example and craft policies and institutions that cement their power. Inspired by America, they will build politically apartheid states, democracies only in name, most of whose subjugated citizens will lie awake at night in fear if Biden consents to a forced defeat.
However, if a vast majority of Americans vote for Biden, if the centuries old institutions of law and order defend the will of the people and cement the role of democracy in the United States, those very same dictators, strongmen and autocrats who were banking on Donald Trump to legitimize them will have to face a new reckoning. It will be they who struggle to get a good night’s sleep.