The world was shocked to see when a pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol Building on 6 January 2021 in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over the incumbent President. A protest is a democratic right and violent protests the price democracies pay occasionally.
So, the violent vandalism of the Trump supporters is not something unusual for America. The country also witnessed several days of ugly protests last Summer under the banner of the Black Lives Matter.
Protesters entering the Capitol is a security concern, but should not be seen as a democratic deficit. In late August last year, German far-right groups protesting against pandemic restrictions had also attempted to storm the German Parliament.
The real worry for the American democracy was that the incumbent President was using his supporters to stop the peaceful transfer of power. The quality of a country’s democracy is not measured by how a leader has been elected but by how the leader respects the electoral norms and relinquishes power after her or his electoral defeat.
America’s founding President George Washington set precedence 225 years ago by declaring to leave office after two terms as President. He could have easily declared himself the President for Life and started a dynasty of his own.
But, by setting that precedence, President Washington helped American democracy to be stable, based on some key principles, and be the inspiring force for democratic movements in developing democracies around the world.
What the Trump-instigated Capitol invasion has done is that it had soiled that rich history of America’s peaceful and cooperative transition of power for over two centuries. In the last four years, the Trump administration’s actions have inflicted damages on electoral integrity and judicial independence, seriously undermining democratic values and norms.
As per the Freedom House report, the quality of American democracy had reached the level of Argentina and Croatia, even before Trump refused to accept the election result and attempts to remain in power at any cost. There is no doubt that the US has lost some of its moral right to preach and promote democracies around the world.
After the end of the Cold War, the US had actively taken its ‘democracy project’ to several countries. Reasons to justify this ‘missionary’ act were many: Democracies are good for the international order, democracies are peaceful, democracies help long-term economic growth, democracies are better at protecting human rights, democracies are more climate-sensitive, and even, democracies produce fewer refugees.
American Congress still has the projects to support struggling democracies in many regions, but the world has been witnessing a decline in the number of democracies since 2005. Moreover, the global democracy project had become somewhat leaderless after the election of Trump as the president of the US in 2016.
The world, which was ailing democratically already, has experienced further democratic erosion due to the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has not only brought halts to democratic processes in many countries but, as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance points out, also has aided the rise of populists parties and regimes worldwide.
Democracy is serious crisis
Democracy is in a serious crisis in the world, and to somewhat address this challenge, President-elect Biden has planned to hold a global summit of democracies this year. This is an attempt to get back the global leadership role for the US, and also to strengthen the cooperation with the European allies.
The path to reverse the global ‘democracy’ trend would not have been easy anyway for the Biden administration not only due to predictable opposition but also several populist authoritarian regimes that have already strengthened their positions in many countries.
Adding to all these, the ugly contestation over the transfer of power has seriously damaged the credibility of the US as a ‘model’ democratic country and its moral power to lead the global democratic resurrection.
The post-Presidential election crisis in the US, though has taken away some sheen from America’s image and stature as a torchbearer of the global democracy project. However, the way its key institutions, civil society, and media have shown their strength — one thing is clear: democracy in the US is safe and solid.
The judiciary and the legislature of the US, despite ideological differences, did what needed to be done to negate the unlawful attempts of an incumbent President after his defeat in the election.
Armed forces and even the Vice President are committed to the constitution. Unfortunately, many democracies in the world, who have elected populist-nationalists as their leaders in the recent past will not be as fortunate.
They are not as rich as the US in having their political and social capital to be confident about a possible peaceful transfer of power based on a free and fair election in the future.
Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden.