American democracy: the biggest loser in the election
full version of article published in the Yorkshire Post (England) November 5. 2020
As I write these lines, it appears that a clear majority of the American people have chosen Joe Biden as their next President. That does not mean that they will get him. His hopes of an unequivocal majority in the Electoral College have disappeared. Even if he ekes one out from the big swing states yet to declare, including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Donald Trump will now have the opportunity to carry out his intention of refusing to accept the result.
He has signalled this for a long time, by spurious claims that the Democrats have used postal ballots and early voting for large-scale fraud. Voter fraud is virtually unknown in modern American elections: only a handful of cases have been prosecuted in the last 20 years from an electorate of over 200 million. Trump and his supporters have prepared a barrage of lawsuits to object to unfavourable declarations of results in counties and states, and are ready to appeal them to his newly-packed Supreme Court. Some of his extreme supporters have also threatened force to prevent a “stolen election” (stolen from him, of course, not by him.)
These lawsuits will be the climax of two decades of “voter suppression” by the Republican party, and would follow no fewer than forty Republican lawsuits before the election which were all designed to make it harder to vote. The party has become more and more ingenious in denying entire groups of likely opponents, particularly ethnic minority people, the means to vote conveniently or safely or even at all. Some of the means used to achieve this might embarrass election officials in Belarus. In Florida one elderly black lady found that she had been disqualified in this election for an offence she had committed 43 years ago.
Trump’s lawsuits would plunge his country into a dark chasm of uncertainty, leave them without an effective government as the Covid pandemic continues to rage and give another battering to the American economy and the world’s. The election result would then be determined by provisions of baffling uncertainty which have not been used since the nineteenth century. The Twelfth Amendment to the constitution might come into play. The President would be chosen by the House of Representatives – but not the full body, controlled by the Democrats, instead by one representative from each state delegation. Small Republican states are over-represented in the House, and the Twelfth Amendment would allow 26 people to vote for Trump and set aside the 70 million or so who voted for Biden.
Worse still, Trump’s Supreme Court judges might do their duty by their patron and order the acceptance in the Electoral College of delegations committed to Trump rather than Biden in the disputed states. That would reduce Trump’s electorate from 26 to six.
Either of these nightmare scenarios is likely to plunge the United States into protracted civil strife – which Trump and his vigilante supporters would relish and foment. Resistance to Trump clinging to power could take many forms, lawful or not, and already some communities and whole states have “war-gamed” actual secession from the United States. One idea for non-violent resistance could prove especially popular: a tax rebellion. These have a long history since the American Revolution itself. Democrat voters unfairly robbed of their vote would pay no Federal tax at all (“no taxation without representation”) while others in the majority deprived through Trump’s manoeuvres would cap their contribution to $750 – what he paid in his last year before becoming President.
Even without the nightmare scenarios and their aftermath, Trump has already trashed American democracy by his spurious attacks on its processes, reliance on methods which deny basic rights to likely opponents, and flirtation with violent groups.
This is a loss not just to the United States but to all the democracies in the world, which are facing unprecedented challenges from tyrannical régimes and extremist non-state actors. Free and fair elections, in which the losers accept the will of the majority, are an immense political and ideological bulwark against these enemies. Trump has no right to devalue that asset and allow them to claim that democracy is a sham. A Trump second term would give new opportunities for subversion, lawbreaking and even murder overseas by his supporter, Vladimir Putin. Worse still, it would encourage China to attack democracy wherever it stands in its way, in Hong Kong or Taiwan or anywhere else. Both Russian and Chinese state media have openly mocked the election.
America when it really was great (before Trump) was memorably described as “a shining city on a hill”. Trump is turning it into a stinking sewer in a hole. Biden may not have been an ideal candidate (although he was always the Democrat whom Trump most wanted to eliminate as a challenger). If he does become President he may not be a very effective one, particularly since the Democrats seem to have failed to take control of the Senate. But Biden is at least aware of his responsibilities to democracy itself. The world would see a Presidency that respects the rights of opponents and governs with a sense of responsibility towards them as well to its supporters.
I was born in the United States and have family and friends there. I have lived and worked there and reported or analysed six of its elections. If Donald Trump obtains a second term of office after his conduct in this campaign I do not expect to see again in my lifetime the American democracy I believe in.