Europe needs to address the risk come 2024 of facing not only a non-democratic superpower to its east—but to its west too.
It is by definition difficult to imagine the unthinkable.
Ever since 1917, when the United States joined the allies in the first world war, many have perceived the country as the anchor of democracy and guarantor of the rule of law and liberalism in the world. Although its democracy has and continues to have many serious shortcomings, the US is today the only democratic superpower. Yet there is reason to ask the almost unthinkable question: will this continue to be so?
Many democrats breathed a sigh of relief when Donald Trump lost the November 2020 presidential election. They hoped Trumpism, based on demagoguery, lies, racism and nationalist populism, had come to an end. And they hoped the Republican Party would return to a more responsible democratic conservatism.
On the contrary, Trump has strengthened his grip on the party. Its leading representatives have protected him from being held accountable for the attack on Congress in January 2021. He and his supporters continue to claim, though bereft of evidence, that they were robbed of victory in the presidential election through various forms of fraud in the counting of votes. Polls show that nearly 70 per cent of those who define themselves as Republicans believe the election was ‘rigged’ and Trump should have been proclaimed the winner.
Democracy in danger
It is not only political commentators on the Democratic side who are now expressing concern about the future of democracy in the US. More than 120 leading American political scientists have warned, in a public ‘statement of concern’, that its democracy is in peril. Among the signatories are some of the world’s most renowned democracy researchers, such as Sheri Berman, Larry Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Robert Putnam and Susan Stokes.
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Elections to Congress and for the presidency are not administered centrally in the US: they are handled by the 50 states, which are responsible for ensuring these are carried out correctly and impartially. And the political scientists emphasise the danger that the Republican Party has begun to take control over, and politicise, election administration.
The Economist recently concurred that the threats to American democracy had to be taken seriously. It highlighted that in many ‘red’ states the ruling Republicans have chosen to get rid of impartial election administrators and replace them with people from their party—including those who had argued that the vote-counting in 2020 should have been ‘fixed’ to make Trump prevail.
Georgia’s top electoral officer, the Republican Brad Raffensberger, became world-famous for standing up to Trump’s direct demands to conjure up votes suggesting he had won there. Raffensberger has since been removed by party members in the state.
The same pattern of a purge of those who stood for impartiality in the counting of votes is found in several other important states. Martin Wolf, a respected Financial Times writer, has also pointed to the risk of the Republicans politicising election administration and warned that the US may be on the verge of acquiring a non-democratic authoritarian government—which would ‘change almost everything in our world’.
Republicans are now trying in every way to undermine the principle of impartiality in election administration. According to the ‘statement of concern’, several states no longer meet the minimum requirements for elections to be considered ‘free and fair’ and ‘one must question whether the United States will remain a democracy’.
The University of Notre Dame, a leading conservative-Catholic institution in the US, has launched a major research project to prevent ‘American democracy from collapsing’ after the next presidential election. And in a high-profile article, the conservative political commentator Robert Kagan has tried to describe what might happen in its aftermath.
According to Kagan, the US risks ending up in complete political chaos, with weeks of mass protests in many states. Politicians from both sides will claim to have won the election and accuse the other side of trying to seize power by unconstitutional methods. Supporters of the various camps will be heavily armed and more likely to resort to violence than in 2020. Will the governors of the states call in the National Guard to quell violence? Or will the president, Joe Biden, take control of the National Guard and send military troops to the states where the situation is precarious?
There are, Kagan points out, no clear rules in the US constitution as to who has the power to do what in such a scenario. This could lead to a very dangerous eventuality, including extensive political violence.
The renowned legal theorists Bruce Ackerman and Gerald Magliocca have presented a similar scenario. This is based on the possibility that Trump may, because of his role in the violent attack on Congress, be disqualified as a presidential candidate in states controlled by the Democrats. This would ‘provoke a genuine constitutional crisis’, which they predict would lead to political chaos and violent protests. Barbara Walter, a highly respected political scientist and expert on security who specialises in the origins of civil war, has also warned about this in a recent book.
In Canada, Thomas Hober-Dixon, another prominent political scientist, has argued that the political establishment must be prepared for the fact that its big neighbour may soon cease to be a democracy. Given the close security and defence co-operation between most European countries and the US within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the same question can be posed across the pond.
All focus in Europe is now on the threat from Russia towards Ukraine—and there are very good reasons for this. But the question must be asked whether there is any mental preparedness within the security and defence establishment in Europe, still less actual readiness, to face the risk that the anchor hitherto of western liberal democracy may cease within a few years to be a democracy itself.