There have been several striking features of the recent American presidential election. One such feature is certainly President Trump’s response to losing the presidency and his insistence on having won the election, based on a litany of frivolous and vexatious claims of voter fraud.
President Trump has over the past five years been a case-study in the politics of petulance and tantrums, which he clearly sees no reason to move away from. This refusal to accept the reality of an indubitable and substantial electoral defeat is dangerous. It is particularly so as Mr Trump had been inciting his supporters not to accept the democratic verdict.
The idea that such behaviour should even be possible, let alone accepted by a large number of Americans, especially within the higher echelons of the Republican party, would have been unbelievable only a few years ago. The fact that such behaviour has happened in the USA is particularly instructive and not just because the USA remains whether we like it or not the indispensable nation in international politics.
However we feel about America and its politics, both domestic and foreign, the peaceful and often gracious transfer of political power has been the one extremely attractive aspect of American politics. Outgoing presidents have routinely authorised and facilitated an efficient transition of political power, as well as invited their successors to the White House to ensure a smooth transition for the President-Elect’s domestic arrangements. President Trump himself in his inaugural speech described as ‘magnificent’ the Obamas in terms of how they assisted in this transition.
Refusing to accept defeat in the democratic process is not just ungracious but also dangerous. These attempts at delegitimizing the electoral process and the incoming Biden administration is especially dangerous because it delegitimizes not just President-elect Biden but much more importantly the democratic process as a whole. It tries to convey the message that the democratic process cannot be trusted unless it gives us the answer we want. This runs counter to the duty of care towards the constitution and towards democracy, which Mr Trump swore to uphold when he took the oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America”.
This delegitimization process is, however, not only attributable to Mr Trump alone. Regrettably, we have come to expect such behaviour from him. More worryingly, many Republican leaders across the USA (governors, senators and others) have failed to call out the President. They have chosen to humour or accommodate Mr Trump because they did not want to incur his Twitter-wrath or because they hope to leverage his campaigning clout in future elections. They have prioritised their own immediate interests, as they understand them, over the integrity of the democratic process.
This failure of politics is compounded by the failure of democratic citizenship with large numbers of Americans choosing to believe the spurious claims of electoral fraud and believing that Mr Trump did indeed win the election. Even though no concrete evidence to this effect has been presented so far, a substantial number of Americans are believing these claims. They are choosing to believe them even with respect to states such as Georgia and Arizona, which are governed by the same Republican party to which Mr Trump belongs.
The current situation in the USA illustrates the extent to which democracy is imperilled, not only in states with a brief experience of democracy, but also in one of the oldest democratic republics in the world. In the past decade, there has emerged all over the world a politics where winning is everything and controlling the spoils of office is the only thing that matters. In this context, the need for a citizenry that is critical, measured and well-informed has never been more urgent.
Democracy has unfortunately become (maybe in some of our countries it always was) a transactional mode of government. The basis of true democracy is founded on citizens who vote not only, nor even primarily, to protect their own interests but the interests of the community. If our politicians are to eschew the politics of petulance, bullying and vanity, the citizens must provide a lead. Democracy can only be truly safeguarded when it is understood by everyone as an exercise in protecting and promoting fundamental values and the common good.
Omar Grech is the director of the Centre for the Study and Practice of Conflict Resolution at the University of Malta.
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