Democracy trumps

| Updated on January 08, 2021

Vandalism on Capitol Hill and the institutional response to it offer important lessons

Outgoing US President Donald Trump has been an outright embarrassment for a country that has sought to export democracy to the rest of the world. Smooth transfer of power is a sine qua non of a mature democracy, and the US, as one of the world’s oldest democracies, can lay claim to this tradition as can European democracies and, notably, India. But Trump will go down in history for trying to upturn the very foundations of electoral democracy by not accepting the November verdict, and thereafter goading his support base to take to the streets. He also persuaded, if not threatened, Electoral College representatives to overturn Democratic party wins in various provinces. Despite losing 40 lawsuits and the support of party Senators and leaders, he persisted with his rabble-rousing rhetoric — appealing to the “people” to make “America great” by being loyal to him and taking on institutions such as the Supreme Court and some members of Congress because they had “betrayed” him. This gracelessness culminated in a mob vandalising Capitol Hill at precisely the time that the US Congress had convened to validate the election result and declare Joe Biden the next President. However, in the farcical and tragic violence of January 7 there was a silver lining — the institutions in the US standing in unison to affirm the rule of law over the mob.

Those who stood out for upholding democratic ideals in a time of crisis were numerous Republican Senators, who said the President was unfit to hold office, even if for another 11 days or so, and notably Vice-President Mike Pence. Pence affirmed Biden’s win, despite being under pressure to use his office to question the Electoral College verdict — Republican Congressman from Texas Louie Gohmert appealed to the Supreme Court to impress upon Pence to overturn the result. Prominent Republican Senator Ted Cruz, too, played along in this act of brinkmanship. The Supreme Court refused to entertain such pleas despite its Republican bench strength. The fracas also points to a failing in the US electoral system: the leeway enjoyed by the Electoral College in interpreting the mandate is not clear.

The world over, democracy has from time to time been subverted by a mob or clique that claims to represent the popular will. In Turkey, Recep Tayyib Erdogan has subverted institutions and converted elections into a one-horse race. This has been seen across Africa, and to some extent in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Democracy is not just about being able to hold free and fair elections, but also about ensuring that institutional checks and balances are alive and kicking.

Published on January 08, 2021

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