EDITORIALEditorials
i

Democracy in the balance

What’s at stake following a tense US election is more than a choice between two different political projects: it is the unity and stability of American society

US President Donald Trump speaks during election night in the White House.
US President Donald Trump speaks during election night in the White House.MANDEL NGAN / AFP

Democracy in the United States, the leading world power, is standing at one of the most critical junctures since World War II. Donald Trump and Joe Biden are disputing, vote for vote, a presidential election with the potential to leave a lasting mark on the future of the country and of international relations, in a tense vote count that’s keeping a highly divided society, and indeed the entire world, sitting on the edge of their seats.

It looks like the count could turn into the biggest test in decades for the strength of America’s institutional checks and balances, which have been admired since the days of Alexis de Tocqueville, and which are being increasingly questioned these days. Hanging in the balance are interests of almost incommensurable scope. What’s at stake is either a new mandate for the Trump project, for his incendiary national-populism, for the destruction of multilateralism as a basis of international relations, for climate change denial and for social polarization as a political tactic; or a return under Biden to moderate policies of progress, inclusion and constructive international relations.

But above and beyond all this, what’s at stake is the unity of American society and the stability of its democracy, which is now grappling with the tremendous challenge of an electoral process whose integrity has been questioned without evidence or scruples by the leader sitting in the White House.

Trump has been consciously building up this moment of maximum tension throughout the last few months, by repeatedly discrediting the integrity of the electoral process

The president had the brazenness to consider himself the winner (“Frankly, we did win this election”) when there were still millions of ballots left to be counted, and to accuse adversaries of “trying to steal” the election without providing any evidence, all of which underscores Trump’s complete lack of a sense of state. This kind of behavior does not live up to even the most minimum standards of democracy.

Yet neither those character traits, which he has amply exhibited over the last four years, nor his dismal management of the coronavirus pandemic have managed to erode the enormous traction of Trump’s radical project among US citizens. No matter who wins, the starting point for this new political period is once again a fractured country where radical positions have the support of half of the electorate. This is a message that extends beyond US borders, and national-populists from other Western nations will take good note of it, as will the authoritarian regimes enjoying the spectacle of liberal democracies inflicting damage on themselves.

Trump has been consciously building up this moment of maximum tension throughout the last few months, by repeatedly discrediting the integrity of the electoral process. The fuel he is now adding to this carefully prepared fire has the potential for enormous danger, considering the accumulated tension in American society. A divided nation – largely so due to the great polarizing action of the president himself – has in recent months watched mass demonstrations take place to protest unsustainable police violence against the Black population, and against the discrimination evidenced by that violence. US society is marked by profound inequalities, by the fact that the bridges of political dialogue have been burnt down, and by a terrible surge of the coronavirus pandemic, largely due to reckless management by the current US administration. The uncertainty of recent hours will clearly not help heal these divisions; in fact, the gap will likely widen, which is a cause for deep concern in a country where many citizens are armed.

In all likelihood, judges will now play a decisive role. Trump has already announced that he will resort to the Supreme Court, which is an ultraconservative bastion thanks to the appointments that the president was able to make during his term in office. This is not the first time that the US experiences a disputed vote count: there was the 2000 election that pitted George W. Bush against Al Gore. That situation was resolved by the Supreme Court, which suspended the recount. The solution was not without controversy, but it was scrupulously observed. Today the situation is different: one of the contenders is already sitting in the White House, and the fracture in society seems enormous.

A new four-year term could be expected to hold more of the same: more protectionism, more climate change denial, more xenophobia, more unilateralism

The deliberate attempt to divide his fellow citizens for partisan purposes will be one of the featured elements in the way that history judges Trump. At an international level, the verdict will focus on the systematic demolition or erosion of alliances, treaties and global institutions, from the withdrawal from the climate change agreement to the undermining of NATO, from the break in the historic relationship with Europe to the rupture of trade deals and the nuclear agreement with Iran, from his questioning of the United Nations to his invective against the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization. A new four-year term could be expected to hold more of the same: more protectionism, more climate change denial, more xenophobia, more unilateralism. And possibly in reinforced doses after being emboldened by a re-election.

Even if they were to win the election, Biden and the Democratic Party would, for their part, need to reflect on how the candidate’s moderate project and coalition of city-dwelling and minority voters failed to produce a resounding victory against even such an extreme contender as Trump. Meanwhile, the Republican Party will at some point have to do some soul-searching about the way that Hurricane Trump has left it looking disfigured and unrecognizable.

Naturally, the international community is also feeling anxious about all the uncertainty. Liberal democracies want Biden to win, while authoritarian regimes, Brexit supporters, Netanyahu’s Israel and the national-populists of the world want Trump to be the winner. The final outcome, but also the way in which US democracy handles it, will leave a profound mark. This is a momentous time and a lot is at stake: seven decades of flourishing democratic-liberal values are now under threat from something more than dark clouds. The US and the West need an ending that lives up to their history and their future.

English version by Susana Urra.

More information