Why democratic legitimacy is at risk in the US

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US election: why democratic legitimacy remains at stake

Nadia Hilliard, UCL

Even as millions of votes in key battlegrounds were being counted, Donald Trump incorrectly declared victory in the US presidential race. The US will sit in limbo until the results from swing states are in. The Trump campaign has committed to pushing this political battle into the courts should he lose, and the Biden campaign has promised to meet the challenge.

Throughout the 2020 campaign, polls suggested that whatever the outcome, significant parts of the US would see their new leader as illegitimate. Regardless of whether Trump or Joe Biden is ultimately inaugurated as their 46th president, millions of Americans will see the outcome as ‘the end of democracy’.

The apocalyptic tenor of the election reflects deeper, foundational challenges to the legitimacy of American democracy of which Trump is a symptom more than a cause.

This crisis finds its roots in twin challenges. The first stems from accumulated procedural violations in all branches and levels of government. The second is grounded in the type of authority that Trump commands.

Read more: Donald Trump takes leaf out of autocrat playbook by falsely declaring victory before all votes counted

Flouting norms

The procedural challenges to democratic legitimacy include norms being flouted by both parties in Congress, the norms of public behaviour destroyed by the Trump presidency, and most recently, the electoral upheaval exacerbated by COVID-19.

The Republican Party’s recent insistence on a rapid confirmation process for conservative supreme court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, especially after its refusal to do the same for Democratic nominee Merrick Garland in 2016, has made Barrett’s confirmation deeply divisive. Democrats do not have a clean track record in this arena, either. Most recently, senate majority leader Chuck Schumer reportedly threatened that nothing was off the table if the Democrats take the senate.

Read more: Where the politicisation of the US Supreme Court could lead

Trump himself has also made lasting changes to the institutions of government. His catalogue of sins is lengthy and well-rehearsed, and his disregard for the rule of law has been patent. As worrisome as the violations themselves is the precedent that his behaviour sets the standards of presidential probity.

A further threat to legitimacy comes not from the federal government or Trump himself, but from longstanding and intensifying attempts to derail citizens’ ability to participate in the democratic process. Observers have detailed the modes, extent, and history of voter suppression in the 2020 election cycle. These include convoluted registration laws that disadvantage specific (mostly Democrat-leaning) groups, intimidation or discouragement at the polls, and the disqualification of cast ballots.

Read more: Trump’s encouragement of GOP poll watchers echoes an old tactic of voter intimidation

Voters in Atlanta, Georgia, in precincts with largely African American populations encountered waiting times of up to 12 hours during early voting. This has not been helped by a lack of effort by the Republican-led state legislature to increase the number of polling stations across the state. This kind of partisan electoral engineering has a history with deep racial overtones.

Both gerrymandering and the make-up of the electoral college currently give an advantage to Republican candidates, but have not always done so historically.

Sources of authority

Procedural integrity is certainly one prerequisite for democratic trust and legitimacy, but it is not the only one. While polarisation is hardly a novel feature of the American political landscape, the reluctance to accept one’s opponent as legitimate is new. This second challenge to a shared sense of legitimacy strikes at the very core of the country’s democratic framework. American citizens are divided not only culturally, but also with regard to the very sources of authority that underpin their political worldviews.

As the historian David Bell argues, modern democracy cannot do without charismatic leaders. Trump’s charisma and his social authority, derived from his celebrity status as a television personality and businessman, appeal to millions of Americans and make him a legitimate authority figure in their eyes.

Unlike previous charismatic presidents, such as Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama, Trump’s appeal in the eyes of his supporters does not lie in his competence or political vision – he appears to have little of either. For his base, the source of his authority – and thus, of his legitimacy as a leader – lies far from the attributes that Reagan and Obama displayed and that grounded their leadership: vision, persuasive skill, and respect for the political process.

But social and political authority are not synonymous. The Trump era has brought to the fore the distinct democratic challenge posed by self-aggrandising charisma without an accompanying foundation in procedural legitimacy.

A loyal opposition

What does this mean for the future basis of democratic legitimacy in America? The principle of loyal opposition is the idea that the losers of a political battle not only remain loyal to the fundamental political framework, but also make important contributions to political life, such as providing accountability and articulating an alternative political program. It is fundamental for a healthy, diverse democracy – and it requires agreement on the basis of political legitimacy.

When the rules underlying the basic institutions upon which a democracy rests are flouted and rewritten, the basis for loyal opposition is undermined for both sides. And though the partisan jibes that eroded a sense of loyal opposition preceded Trump by decades, his presidency has forced a radical question for all: will I accept the outcome if my opponent wins?

These twin challenges will require multiple remedies. Restoring institutional integrity through processes of accountability and reform can and should be a point of agreement between conservatives and liberals, and reforms such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact might go some way to reversing institutional imbalances. Both parties should recognise that continued polarisation is in neither their interests, nor those of the country as a whole. Ultimately, a radically polarised nation is a broken nation.The Conversation

Nadia Hilliard, Lecturer in US Politics, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Have you been following the US election with dismay or delight? Do you fear democracy is in danger in the US?

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Written by The Conversation


Total Comments: 11
  1. 0

    Multimillionaires and billionaires should never be in government. They have no inkling of normal people’s needs and overseeing a country is a means for wealthy politicians to direct more wealth into their own bank accounts.

  2. 0

    A bit like Australia Triss,we are not there yet but not far away.Here we have Murdoch pulling the strings.

    • 0

      And Morrison trying to mimic Trump.

    • 0

      Murdoch pulls the strings in America too. He owns The Wall Street Journal and Fox News one of America’s leading TV news outlets.

      Turnbull is a multi millionaire. He took no salary while he was PM.

      Taxing wealthy individuals more than we do already would make little difference. We need to get income tax off the global companies like Google and Facebook.

  3. 0

    Trump has charisma? That’s not what I’d call it!

  4. 0

    I’m gob smacked that half off America are ok with all of Trump’s corruption and blatant disregard for rules and law along with his daily supply of lies.
    About the only charisma Trump has displayed to my hubby and I are the simply idiotic things he says and does on a daily basis.
    I could go on about how much I detest the moronic, mentally and emotionally challenged little orange man but it wouldn’t leave any space for anyone else’s comments ….

  5. 0

    I am really disgusted with the way Trump has broken the third commandment – “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain”. (Forgive the use of the older language in this quote, but I was brought up on that).How can a minister or priest, as we saw on TV, say that they had had a message from God about Trump. If they had, lightning would have struck Trump dead. I was surprised to talk to a church member who thought Trump was marvellous because he was so religious. How can you believe anything he says – the whole thing is a sham. I even suspect that the Covid-19 thing was a sham too. If he had so miraculously been cured, why hadn’t the vaccine been distributed to the thousands of people suffering from the disease? I thought the Americans were smart people but judging by the attendance at the rallies and the voting for Trump, they don’t appear to be. Probably some of the people were even too sick to vote.

  6. 0

    Whats happening(happened) in the American system is a small sample of what happened in Germany in the 30s.A failing economy, a populist ranting leader promising to “make it great again” and groups of armed thugs willing to do anything to disrupt democratic process and intimidate voters. just need to dress them all in brown shirts and let them loose. Already a lot wave the swastika around. Now where else is something similar happening hmm?



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