I Study Autocratic Elections and I'm Concerned about the US

The election is over and Republicans now control the Presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Democratic theory tells us that unified government brings clarity of responsibility. Starting January 20, 2017 the Republicans must answer for the state of the economy, national security, and the well-being of the nation. Should they fail to deliver, they will be voted out of office. As an Indiana Trump voter worried about her firm leaving for Mexico noted: “If he doesn’t pass that tariff, I will vote the other way next time.” Accountability is central to democracy. But accountability only works as well as the democratic institutions that support it. I study elections in autocracies and weak democracies and looking back at the 2016 election in the US, I’m concerned about six departures from recent elections. My concern here is less about who won and who lost the election than about preventing the erosion of democratic norms.

For first time in the modern era a candidate from a major party for the highest office in the land did not release his tax returns. This type of financial opacity is common in the countries I study and inevitably leads to speculation about whose interest the president is serving. Even Ukraine, one of the most corrupt countries in the world, which also happens to be run by a billionaire, recently required public officials to declare their wealth. Shouldn’t we ask as much of our high public officials?

Threats to imprison political opponents who have not been convicted of anything are familiar to anyone who studies elections in weak democracies and autocracies, but are novel in modern US elections. In the second debate, Donald Trump told Hillary Clinton that if he were president “you would be in jail.” Calls to “lock her up” were a staple on the campaign trail. This is new. It is hard to imagine Mitt Romney leading such a chant let alone condoning it with silence. Whether or not investigations into Hillary Clinton continue, the damage has been done. Threats to jail political opponents seem to have worked so we can expect to hear them again.

The role of foreign governments in this election was also unprecedented for the US. There is wide agreement among national security professionals that Russia interfered in the election by allying with Wikileaks to deliver compromising materials on Democratic officials. There may be more to learn from contacts between the Russian government and advisors to the Trump campaign. Even more troubling is that the winning candidate paid no political price for this implicit dalliance with a foreign rival.

Implicit racial and misogynist appeals are a staple of American politics, but this time around the appeals were far more explicit than in recent campaigns.The Willy Horton TV ad in the 1988 presidential election seems almost quaint amid charges that those who come to the US from Mexico are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They are rapists” or calls to ban travel to the US based on religion. John McCain correcting supporters who called Barack Obama an “Arab” and a “terrorist” seems like ancient history. Again, explicit appeals against minorities are part and parcel of elections in weak democracies and autocracies.

Media bias too is part and parcel of election in democracies and non-democracies alike. Bias is notoriously difficult to measure, but in the months preceding the election, newspaper headlines were four times more likely to mention Trump than Clinton. By another measure, television mentions of Trump were twice that of Clinton. Beyond bias, the unrelenting negativity of the coverage was damaging. Negative campaigning tends to reduce turnout and features such as CNN’s “Race for the White House” which glorified the dirtiest campaigns in US history likely did little to raise public trust in our political institutions or promote turnout. More generally, the media’s focus on the scandals of both candidates at the expense of policy may have had the same effect. Newspapers and television face unprecedented challenges with the rise of social media and seem more vulnerable to economic and political pressure than in many years. But if a free media is to be a guarantor of democracy in future elections, then the media (particularly television) will need to take a long and hard look at their role in the election.

Finally, the politicization of the security services is a familiar refrain in the countries I study. James Comey’s extremely clumsy investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server was a departure from the FBI’s standard practice of not commenting publicly on investigations. I understand James Comey’s predicament. Having been informed of the new emails, he needed a warrant to investigate, but getting a warrant would lead to leaks about the investigation so he went public. There are few things more dangerous to democracy than the security services intervening in a political campaign.Certainly, there is now a deficit of public trust in the FBI that will need to be rebuilt. It will be interesting to see whether the FBI pursues its investigations into the role of Russian hacking into the DNC and Paul Manafort’s potential conflicts during the campaign.

To be sure, US elections are far more democratic in just about every respect than those of the country I study and US political institutions have shown tremendous resilience over the decades. The FBI, the Federal Reserve, and the Supreme Court have traditionally guarded their institutional autonomy from political encroachment, federalism remains a potent force for democracy, and the press yet may have find a niche in this competitive environment. The US is not becoming Russia or Turkey tomorrow.

But these changes in our political practices should concern anyone who cares about democracy. It is not hard to imagine a sluggish economy and an erratic president delivering a new majority for the Democrats in the coming elections that would reverse positions and put Republicans at risk.

It is also not hard to imagine an IRS official who leaks Donald Trump’s tax returns, a Wikileaks-style data dump targeting Republican officials, a rich Democratic candidate refusing to reveal their sources of wealth, or a Democratic candidate receiving disproportionate attention in the mass media. These too would be very troubling. And normalizing these departures from democracy ensures that they will happen again. If we care about democracy, then we should devote ourselves to making sure that voters have the right to “vote the other way next time.”

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All contents © Copyright 2014 Timothy M. Frye

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