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Deepening crisis in US

Trump’s notion of electoral fraud has gripped the minds of many Americans

Deepening crisis in US

LONG-TERM DAMAGE: The moment there are questions over the election, not only is the government weakened, but also the very system it runs. Reuters



Manoj Joshi

Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

The political crisis in the US is deepening by the day. On Saturday, in an extraordinary intervention, President Trump was caught on tape trying to bully the Secretary of State of Georgia to ‘find’ enough votes to overturn his defeat in the state. On the same day, Vice President Mike Pence said he “shares the concerns of millions of Americans about voter fraud and irregularities in the last election.”

An Economist-YouGov poll in December found that 60% of the respondents believe that there was enough fraud in the election process to change the outcome.

These actions are incredible because as of now, the electors of various states have certified that Joe Biden is the President-elect. None of the state elections are disputed. Trump’s allies have lost nearly 50 law suits challenging the election results, and he has lost twice in the US Supreme Court. The Trump team may be desperate, but to some ears, this is sounding like an attempted constitutional coup.

Besides election officials in various states, both Republican and Democratic, government agencies, too, have found no problems with the elections. A joint statement issued by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has said the election “was the most secure in American history.” On December 1, Attorney General William Barr noted that the Department of Justice “has not seen fraud on a scale that could have affected a different outcome in the election.” He paid the price for this in being forced out of office.

On January 6, Pence is to preside over what is a ceremonial event to declare the results. But he has indicated he will allow a group of a dozen or so Republican Senators and members of the lower House of Representatives to challenge Biden’s election. The move is not likely to succeed, but will certainly add to the poison already coursing through the American political system.

The actual problem is deeper and more insidious. The notion of electoral fraud has now gripped the minds of many Americans and the deceitful claims made by Trump have taken on a life of their own. An Economist-YouGov poll in the third week of December found that as many as 60 per cent of the respondents believe that there was enough fraud in the election process to change the outcome of the election. In this sample, 86 per cent Republicans believed this to be the fact. Yet, not an iota of evidence has surfaced to prove any fraud.

The developments in the US have wider implications. Till now, the US was the leader among democracies, often holding other countries to account for their flawed elections and now a majority of Americans believe that the US elections themselves are flawed.

Legitimacy of the election process has a direct correlation to the legitimacy of the government elected. People accept that winners of a fair election have the legal right to govern. The moment there are question marks over the election, not only is the government weakened, but also the very system it runs.

The problem seems to stem from the fact that the Republican Party has become a minority party, with its adherents resorting to increasingly undemocratic means to retain their hold on power. The root of problem is that the institutions and processes of US political system are outdated. The biggest example is the electoral college which is essentially a ‘winner-take-all’ system which creates an anomaly, under which Republican Presidents like George W Bush (in 2000) and Trump in 2016, lost the popular vote, but were elected by the electoral college. Then, there is the problem of the conduct of elections which varies from state to state and in some states there have been restrictions on voting, the discarding of legitimate ballots, mostly aimed at denying the minorities their right to vote.

Democracy is not just about the rule that the majority wins and the minority loses. It is also about norms, process and procedure. What Trump and his acolytes are doing is to upset the well-established norms that buttress the American system. It needs to be pointed out that as of now, the electoral machinery, comprising both Democrats and Republicans, and the US judiciary, which has political appointees, have stood firm. The danger to the US system is not immediate, but the extent to which Trump will weaken the foundations of liberal democracy and enable its further erosion is cause of concern.

The political health of the US is important not just for the country itself, but the world, given its outsize influence as the foremost economic and military power. This is an important juncture where there are expectations that Biden will repair the rules-based international order damaged by Trump. He may rejoin the Paris climate change agreement and the JCPOA with Iran, but he faced major problems. The US is grievously wounded by the Covid pandemic and the term of Trump, who has deepened America’s divisions for electoral purposes.

For countries like India who are confronting a rampant China, the economic, social and political health of the US is important because it is the only country which can help with a pushback.

But, we should not ignore reality, Biden’s plate is already full. A quarter million Americans have died of Covid, which has yet to recede. The American society has gone through dramatic protests against racial inequality, and now on top of that there is this challenge to the very legitimacy of the electoral process that brought him to power. The road ahead, both for the US and the world, is going to remain rocky.


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