The irony cannot be missed. Where once democracy was cheerfully touted as the norm — and we speak of nations in the West — there are today clear concerns about the rapidity of the decline, which threatens the system. The threat is not that democracy has gone missing. It is rather the fact that politicians in the West, a growing number of them, appear to have gone on an offensive to undermine elections through refusing to accept the outcome of the vote.
Of course, it was Donald Trump who inaugurated this new trend in the United States when he publicly and unabashedly refused to concede defeat once Joe Biden defeated him in the presidential election in November 2020. But should people have been surprised at his attitude? The undemocratic nature of the Trump personality manifested itself in black and white back in 2016 as he sought the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency. In the debates involving candidates seeking the party nomination, Trump went no-holds barred in his denigration of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, insults and sarcasm being his weapons.
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And once he had the nomination in the bag, Trump went into doing the bizarre. He encouraged his base, termed as Make America Great Again (MAGA), to share his cheap theatrics aimed at Hillary Clinton. ‘Lock her up’ became a constant refrain in his attempts to undermine the Democratic nominee. The mood at Trump’s rallies was clearly a throwback to politics in much of the underdeveloped regions of the globe, where insults fly freely between and among rival political camps. But for America, in these post-modern days, it was a shocking state of affairs. And remember too that prior to the vote in November 2016, Trump refused to answer the question of whether he would accept defeat should Hillary Clinton win the White House.
The surprise is therefore not so much the fact that Trump refused to accept the results of the vote in 2020 as it is the grim reality of his position being endorsed by many powerful figures in the Republican Party. Congressmen and senators belonging to his party have echoed his claims that the election was stolen from him. In November last year, Republican candidates for gubernatorial, congressional and senatorial offices ran on the platform of election denial. A good number of them lost and yet would refuse to acknowledge defeat.
The decline of democratic politics — notice the lies peddled by a newly elected Republican Congressman about his background and the refusal of the new Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, to act against him — is not merely to be held against American politicians. The swift and insensitive manner in which the Republican appointees-dominated Supreme Court has taken down Roe Vs Wade is one of the more portentous signs of the fall of popular aspirations and thereby pluralism in the country. The Supreme Court is today an echo chamber of the Trumpian brand of politics.
Trumpism has now moved beyond America’s borders. Observe Brazil, where the climate change denying and coronavirus denying Jair Bolsonaro has just lost his bid for a second term as President to a reinvented Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. A former President, Lula was able to defeat Bolsonaro narrowly in the run-off for the top job, which itself is a sign of how politicians of the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro have stirred the political pot in a way which damages the pot. The damage is patent: millions of Americans and Brazilians have bought into the lies peddled by Trump and Bolsonaro, the lies being that they did not lose theirattempts to have a second term in high office. Neither Trump nor Bolsonaro has accepted the popular verdict with grace. Neither of them has had the decency to at – tend the inauguration of their successors. Trump flew off to his Florida home as Biden took the oath of office; and Bolsonaro too made his way to Florida rather than pass the presidential sash on to Lula.
Observe now the defilement of the constitutional process that the demagoguery of Trump and Bolsonaro set in motion once they realised, despite those loud public denials, they had lost the election. The Trumpistas stormed the Capitol on 6 January 2021 in their bid to re – verse the results of the vote; on 8 January 2023 Bolsonaro activists did better in the shaping of infamy: they broke into the presidential office and parliament building, apart from vandalising other government offices, to press their demand that Bolsonaro be restored to office. Away from the United States and Brazil, democracy has been taking quite some hits. Which takes one back a little in historical time. Adolf Hitler’s path to power was made smooth through an election, after which disaster was unleashed not only on Germany but also on the wider world. Of course, the scale of devastation Hitler initiated, having ascended to power through the machinery of democracy, is not a thought one associates with the rise of the extreme right-wing politician Giorgia Meloni in Italy. The problem, though, is that in recent times democratic elections have served as instruments to gain power and influence by politicians who in the West have never been enamoured of pluralistic politics anyway.
The extreme right in Europe may not push the world to a new era of deep vulnerability and even open danger, but it is its extreme views of such critical issues as immigration, climate change and its aversion to liberal politics, which raise the spectre of danger. Notice that leaders like Viktor Orban in Hungary remain hugely popular because they have been able to tap into the dark souls of major segments of the population.
In France, Marine Le Pen has till now not managed to be elected the country’s President. But do not ignore the fact that her share of the vote has steadily been going up. That is a warning sign. Le Pen is young and healthy and could yet end up being the occupant of the Elysee Palace, given that right-wing politics in the country has been inching forward and has now reached a stage where it can only and legitimately claim larger slices of the electoral pie.
A glance at Britain makes less than happy reading. Party-gate destroyed the Boris Johnson hold on power, but that is little guarantee that he will not return to prime ministerial contention at some point. In the campaign to succeed him, a majority of Tory MPs opted for Rishi Sunak. In the larger Conservative constituency, though, Liz Truss turned out to be the chosen one. And then policies not thought through or muddled or reckless pushed Truss from Downing Street a mere few weeks after her triumphant entry into it. Sunak was the one the Tories finally turned to.
A democratic mess? Or a messy situation insinuating its way into democracy? Five Prime Ministers in six years. Democracy, did you say? Or the making of carefully contrived chaos?
Long years ago, in 1960 to be precise, Richard Nixon narrowly lost the race for the White House to John F. Kennedy. The suspicion was that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was instrumental in putting Kennedy over the top with a sudden and questionable rush of votes but that Nixon had fairly won the election. When Nixon’s supporters advised him to challenge the outcome, he declined to take the bait. He was not willing to initiate a process, which would leave America’s democracy wounded. In 2000, the US Supreme Court stopped the counting of votes in Florida and decreed that George W. Bush would be the incoming President of the country, in succession to Bill Clinton, when the assumption was that Al Gore was edging ahead of Bush. Gore did not challenge the decision of the court. Democracy remained undisturbed. Such stories today do not get written or narrated anymore. And when classified files are recovered from the homes of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, documents that should have been handed over to the federal authorities when Trump exited the White House and Biden left vice-presidential office in 2017, it is a message of democracy being in a state of enervation which comes from Washington.
Benjamin Franklin, asked what form of government America’s founding fathers had opted for through the newly-forged constitution, responded: ‘A democracy, if you can keep it.’
In the early twenties of the 21st century, Americans are having a hard time keeping it.