Stress Test For American Democracy

Published in The Hindu on 20th January, 2021

The oldest democracy has been subjected to its most severe stress test; it came to the brink, stared at the abyss and just managed to clear it. The U.S. may have survived the test but considerable damage has been done; defining pictures of 20000 National Guard troops deployed in and around the Capital and an outgoing President who has been impeached a second time in his term, a week before he relinquishes office, have hurt US self-image as also its global standing. It is a grim reminder that democracy, however deeply rooted, can’t be taken for granted and needs constant nurturing and protection to prevent its descent into populism and mobocracy.

A Polarising Election

The stress test began two months earlier when incumbent President Donald Trump refused to accept the election outcome, alleging that his victory had been stolen through fraudulent means. The 2020 election was the most polarising the U.S. has seen and what happened on 6 January was its reflection. The certification of the results by Congress will get Mr. Trump out of the White House but Trumpism will be a much tougher challenge to deal with. In an election that saw the highest turnout (nearly 67 percent) since 1900, if Joe Biden won over 81 million votes, Mr. Trump managed an impressive tally of 74 million. The county wise election map of the US reveals that Mr. Biden won in 509 counties that account for over 70 percent of US GDP, while Mr. Trump won in 2547 counties that provide the rest.

Even though media channels including Fox News had called the results by 5 November, Mr. Trump refused to make the traditional concession speech, insisting that the election had been rigged. Legal challenges were mounted by his supporters in many states. By end-November, the recounts had been completed and legal challenges disposed of. The election result remained unchanged. Attorney General William Barr, a known Trump supporter, announced on 1 December that the Justice Department had not uncovered any significant fraud that could have affected the results of the presidential election. On 14 December, the Electoral College met in each of the State capitals to formalise the Biden victory by casting 306 votes for Biden/Harris versus 232 for Trump/Pence.

The results were conveyed to the Congress for certification, but Mr. Trump had still not given up. He continued to urge Vice-President Pence, who was to chair the Congress session on 6 January, to use his authority to question the returns submitted from the swing states. Mr. Pence demurred, pointing out that he had no “unilateral authority” to overturn the electoral votes submitted.

Mr. Trump had been urging his supporters to stage a protest in Washington against the certification, sending out tweets, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild”. On that day, addressing his protesters, he sent them to Capitol, urging, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore”. Hours later, the mob had stormed Capitol, disrupting the proceedings. The dedicated Capitol police force proved inadequate and the National Guard was called in. Five people died. After a day that will be remembered as one of the darkest days in U.S. history, Congress certified Mr. Biden’s victory clearing the way for him to be sworn in the 46th President of USA on 20 January.

Yet, the shock at the events and Mr. Trump’s role in inciting his supporters led to growing demands for him to step down. Mr. Pence was reluctant to invoke the 25th Amendment (it was designed to deal with a president suffering incapacitation) leading to the House passing an impeachment motion on 13 January. The charges framed included “threatening the integrity of the democratic system, interfering with peaceful transition of power and imperilling a coequal branch of government”. While many Republicans did hold Trump responsible, they were reluctant on impeaching and finally, only 10 of them supported the motion that was carried by 232 votes against 197.

The fate of the impeachment motion is uncertain in the Senate. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell though privately supportive of impeachment, has not indicated how he would vote. Given the requirement of two-thirds majority for conviction and the Senate at fifty-fifty, it is difficult to gauge if there will be 17 Republican Senators needed. In 2019, Mr. Trump was impeached by the House over his dealings with Ukraine but cleared by the Senate. For the Democrats, the impeachment is as much about Mr. Trump as it is about indicting Trumpism. For the Republican Party however, it is a polarising moment. The question its leaders need to introspect over is why they allowed Mr. Trump to take over the GOP. A recent poll suggests that 64% of the Republican voters remain convinced that the election was stolen. GOP’s challenge is how to reject Trumpism while retaining the Trump supporters.

The brutal reality is that in 2016, Republicans held the House, the Senate and won the White House but in the last four years, they first lost the House and now have lost both the White House and their Senate majority. This is despite the record turnout and in the process, the country has been badly divided. Purging GOP of Trumpism will not be easy especially if Trump does plan to run again in 2024. That is why there is talk of invoking the 14th Amendment provisions by which a simple majority in the Congress can bar Mr. Trump from running for any federal office.

Populism and Social Media

Somewhat belatedly, Twitter and Facebook removed Trump’s accounts and along with a number of other right-leaning platforms linked to QAnon. Apple and Google stopped carrying the right-wing chat group Parler App while Amazon declined to host its data on its servers, effectively killing it. This has led to legitimate questions about free speech, the monopoly of social media platforms, the viability of their economic model and who should determine policy in the digital public domain. The European Union is accelerating consideration of new rules to guide content moderation policies of social media networks.

In How to Lose A Country (2019), Turkish writer Ece Temelkuren writes about how a democracy descends into populism, majoritarianism and finally authoritarianism. Opposition is delegitimised, the leader claims to represent the real people, who claim title to victimhood thereby aggressively claiming their dignity; and the elites become either irrelevant or, worse, instruments of oppression. Terms of political discourse shift, secular liberals become “sickular libtards”, facts are questioned and an alt-reality takes shape firing up the believers. This risk is not new but social media is a tool that aids such manipulation.

The U.S. is not the first democratic society to face this threat and even as Mr. Biden tackles the challenges of COVID-19 and economic recovery, his real challenge will be rebuilding the traditions of democratic discourse aimed at enlarging the centrist consensus. With Ms. Harris casting the tie-breaker in the Senate, Democrats control the Congress, though taking recourse to this thin majority will only exacerbate divisions and mutual recriminations. That is the legacy of Trumpism that must be undone if U.S. democracy has to successfully graduate from its stress test.