What saved American democracy?

by Bo Rothstein on 13th January 2021
Democracy in the United States survived last week’s assault by Donald Trump and his supporting mob. But why it survived raises questions awkward for some.
Democracy is a fragile form of government. History has shown democracies can be undermined in several ways. It can happen quickly, as in a coup, but democracies can also erode more slowly, as is now taking place in Poland and Hungary. Based on research on how democracies have collapsed, political science has highlighted what to be especially wary about. If political leaders do not unequivocally take a stand against political violence, do not respect the democratic rights of their opponents and refrain from promising to respect an election result that goes against them, then democracy is in danger.
During his election campaign and even more during his time as president, Donald Trump undoubtedly violated these three principles. His many false claims that the election was rigged, and that he actually won, his support for his Republican party colleagues’ efforts to impede minority turnout and his incitement to the mob that forcibly broke into Congress on January 6th were clear examples.
But despite this, American democracy seems to have survived. The institutions of democracy ‘stood their ground’. Yet we need to analyse what principles and institutions in fact saved the day. Some often taken-for-granted rationalisations can be dismissed.
Luck on its side
It’s not that this democratic election as such was decisive. Admittedly, the Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, won but in many of the crucial states his win was extremely narrow. Despite Trump’s pathological lying and his many attacks on the basic principles of democracy, he received more than 11 million more votes than in 2016. Apparently, we did not hear a resounding defence of democracy from the American electorate. Democracy had luck on its side this time but, as is well known, luck is an unreliable partner.
Nor did the principle of media freedom save US democracy. Until very recently, Trump has had free access to ‘social media’ and several important television channels have supported him. And nor did freedom of association turn the trick: Trump has drawn significant support from many non-governmental organisations—think of the National Rifle Association—and the powerful evangelical churches.
Nor can a free party system be said to have rescued democracy, because Trump’s constant lies about a manipulated election have been widely supported by many prominent Republican politicians. To this must be added that the Republican Party’s efforts to make it difficult for minorities to vote and to manipulate the construction of electoral districts in their favour began long before the Trump era and will in all likelihood continue. Nor, either, did ‘free enterprise’ make the difference: Trump and his party were flooded with huge amounts of money from big business.
Public impartiality
Instead, two other, less well-known principles saved US democracy. One is impartiality in the implementation of public policies; the other is knowledge realism.
In terms of impartiality, witness the surprisingly large number of local and state election officials, many of them Republicans, who opposed the repeated attempts from the White House to persuade (and in some cases threaten) them into rejecting election results that did not hand Trump victory. In a now-famous recorded telephone conversation, Trump sought to persuade the person responsible for the counting of votes in Georgia to ‘find’ the number of votes that would make him the winner in the state.
A large number of reports in the US media testify to the election officials’ strong will to live up to the principle of impartiality in the counting of votes, regardless of their party affiliation. Political-science research more generally indicates that an impartial and professional election administration is a condition of a functioning democracy.
In addition, the courts in the US, including its Supreme Court—despite those judges to a large extent being appointed on political grounds—refused to comply with Trump’s demands to reject the result, because he could not prove any decisive irregularities in vote-counting.
Knowledge realism
The principle of knowledge realism is about the concept of truth: simply put, it is possible to know whether something is true, rather than this always being determined by power relations or by notions dominant in the culture.
Obviously, the election officials, the judges and, moreover, the journalists who claimed that there were no irregularities in the election (at least not to an extent that might have affected the result) were inspired by a realistic view of the possibility of gaining assured knowledge of what is true and what is not. Their determined dismissal of the Trump administration’s allegations of vote-rigging must have been based on the idea that what is true and what is false, in a case like this, can be established by reference to the evidence.
Had the courts and election officials given up on the principles of impartiality and knowledge realism, so as to reject the election result for party-political and/or ideological reasons—or considered that there existed ‘alternative election results’—American democracy would probably have been beyond rescue.
Strongly questioned
Yet both these principles—of public impartiality and knowledge realism—are strongly questioned, in general and specifically within parts of the research community. Concerning impartiality, consider the significant strand in economics and political science usually called ‘public choice’. This takes as its starting point that everyone who holds public office only strives to use this to serve their (economic or political) self-interest. In this often-invoked theory Impartiality null and void.
The same holds for the theory of identity politics, which has become widespread in large parts of the humanities. According to this view, a person with a certain identity (ethnic, religious, sexual, cultural, ideological) can never relate impartially to something or someone with another identity.
As for knowledge realism, here too large parts of the humanities but also parts of the social sciences have been infused by relativistic views that go under the name postmodernism. Within this approach, it is generally considered impossible reliably to determine by any methods what is true—what is deemed true being purportedly a product of established power relations or personal and ideological perceptions.
Impartiality in the performance of public tasks and epistemological realism thus constitute the cornerstones of a secure, functioning democracy. It is therefore worrying that significant sections of the academic community have distanced themselves from these fundamental democratic principles.
A Swedish version of this article appeared in Dagens Nyheter. See our series on the US elections
(Bo Rothstein is professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg.)