One of the most interesting books that I read during the lockdown was ‘How to Rig an Election’ by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas. The authors – one British and the other American – illustrated several ways with respect to a full spectrum of regimes covering ‘electoral democracy’ through ‘competitive authoritarian’ to the ‘closed authoritarian’. While the possible role of the digital frontier and the spread of fake news in an attempt to rig the 2016 US election was discussed, along with examples of political bribery, violence, ballot-box stuffing, etc. in different parts of the globe, the focus of the authors was mostly on flaws in the developing world and the post-Soviet countries.
It is apparent that the 2020 US presidential election might provide more material should they decide to revise their book. For example, if Donald Trump is asked, they’d learn more about possible “illegal” votes and how ballots can be found “at four in the morning” in Pennsylvania. On the other hand, the Biden campaign may illustrate how a sitting president can try to stop counting of the ballots! Weren’t all these characteristics of competitive authoritarian countries where a ruler is often reluctant to lose power?
It is certainly a tense battle for the White House in 2020. However, it was ‘too close to call’ twenty years ago, which is undoubtedly one of the most significant periods in US history, when a prolonged bitter legal battle sealed the electoral fate of the state of Florida, and, in effect, that of the US presidential election. There was no allegation of “stealing” the election in 2000 though. Two decades on, the world has changed a lot – this is truly a post-truth world where an incumbent American president tells his nation: “If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.” He even tried to convert any suggestion that he had lost to “a fraud on the American public”.
Possibly Trump was not very comfortable with the idea of his electoral defeat. Earlier, on multiple occasions, he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in case of an election defeat. However, how to accept a defeat is of utmost importance in every aspect of life, and in politics too. Certainly, not many sitting American presidents failed in their re-election bid – Trump is going to be only the 11th in the 231 years of US presidential history.
How disgraceful were Trump’s false victory claims and lawsuits to preventing the counting of votes? Let’s see how others faced defeat in the past. Jimmy Carter conceded defeat to Ronald Reagan in 1980 with grace and class by pledging his “fullest support” to Reagan and saying: “The people of the United States have made their choice and I of course accept their decision. But I have to admit not with the same enthusiasm I accepted it four years ago.” Fair enough, Mr. Carter.
Republican president George HW Bush also conceded defeat to Bill Clinton in 1992 by telling supporters that “the people have spoken” and that he respects “the majesty of the democratic system”. Again, it was not long back when Republican presidential candidate John McCain, not a sitting president though, accepted his defeat to Barack Obama in the presidential race in 2008 with the reaction: “The American people have spoken, and they’ve spoken clearly.” These are in sharp contrast to the pronouncements of Trump.
The present election has exhibited multiple loopholes and vulnerabilities of American democracy, for sure. Trump’s comments would invariably shed doubts among millions of common Americans on their institutions and democratic system. Also, it might undermine America’s standing in pointing out electoral irregularities in different Asian, African, post-Soviet and East European countries.
Certainly, even not every Republican is buying Trump’s ideas. For example, the Texas congressman Will Hurd tweeted: “A sitting president undermining our political process & questioning the legality of the voices of countless Americans without evidence is not only dangerous & wrong, it undermines the very foundation this nation was built upon.” Yes, Mr. Trump, please listen also to the Republican strategist Karl Rove: “Stealing hundreds of thousands of votes would require a conspiracy on the scale of a James Bond movie. That isn’t going to happen.”
A Donald Trump locking the door of White House from inside, refusing to go out or let Biden enter, trying to stop counting ballots, and knocking on the doors of courts in multiple states on all sorts of allegations may be an aberration, and the democratic system of a nation should not be judged by that. However, here is a sitting American president apparently showing signs of authoritarianism – as commented by a part of the American media itself – by refusing to concede defeat. He is demeaning the democratic foundation and democratic institutions of the country instead. The reality is that nearly half of the Americans have endorsed Trumpism in his re-election bid despite his poor handling of the coronavirus crisis and his having injected discord in a society which is already polarised along partisan and racial lines.
When a 5-4 ruling of the US Supreme Court against a vote recount sealed the fate of Florida (and effectively of the US) in 2000, unsurprisingly the recentlydeceased Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the ‘Notorious RBG’ – was amongst the four justices who dissented. Justice Ginsburg chose to simply sign off with “I dissent” without writing the word “respectfully”. In order to uphold the glory of its institutions, America badly needs the dissenting spirit and style of Justice Ginsburg in its present-day society.
The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.