The US has long rejoiced in the title “leader of the free world”. The American presidential election was the ultimate example of democracy in action. But we are about to witness an election night like no other. People around the world will be acutely attuned not just to the vote tally, but to any sign that the results are going to be contested in the courts or on the streets.
The failure of democracy is something most Americans thought happened only in foreign lands, but democracies can fail anywhere. Painful lessons learnt from the nation’s own faltering efforts at “democracy promotion” abroad could also apply in the US.
One common idea is that democracy is about more than voting. If election results are not to be undermined or overturned, democracy also requires a free media, a strong civil service, independent courts, a secure constitutional framework and — perhaps most important of all — a democratic culture in which the election losers will accept defeat.
All of these things used to be taken for granted in the US. But perhaps no longer. The willingness of Donald Trump to accept defeat is clearly in question. The president has repeatedly suggested that he will not acknowledge a result that he deems “rigged”. Many Democrats believe Mr Trump’s complaints are simply a front for his own plans to steal the election.
Talk of a rigged or stolen election is dangerous. As recent experience in Belarus demonstrates, if millions of people believe an election is fraudulent they can take to the streets — leading to social paralysis or political violence.
Rage at a stolen election is one reason why democracies collapse. But if the costs of losing seem too high, then the willingness to accept defeat — even if the vote is fair — can also disappear. Both Republicans and Democrats sometimes talk as though the very survival of the US, or of the communities they represent, are at stake in this vote.
Some senior Republicans have begun to say out loud that the survival of the values and system they cherish is more important than democracy itself. Senator Mike Lee of Utah recently tweeted: “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and [prosperity] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
Watching these events unfold, some US diplomats fear that political pathologies they once thought were confined to failing democracies overseas, are appearing at home. Philip Gordon, a senior official in the Barack Obama administration, recalls trying to persuade Egyptian generals and officials of the Muslim Brotherhood to coexist within the same political system. He was rebuffed. Both sides in Egypt saw each other as an existential threat, to be defeated at all costs and by any means necessary. Now Mr Gordon fears the same winner-takes-all logic is undermining American democracy.
Worryingly, even the simplest step in the process — the voting itself — looks flawed and ramshackle. People across the US have been forced to queue for hours to vote early. In several states, the Republican party has deliberately made voting more difficult, particularly for racial minorities.
The inconsistent patchwork of state rules about how people can vote — and how those votes are counted — is a recipe for confusion. Mr Trump’s repeated allegations that mail-in ballots are open to fraud lays the ground for him to dispute the results.
It is therefore entirely possible that, as in 2000, the election result will end up being settled by the Supreme Court. That possibility underlines the crucial importance of an independent judiciary in a democratic system. But the unseemly rush to get an ultra-conservative new justice, Amy Coney Barrett, appointed to the court before the vote risks making the country’s highest judicial body look like just another instrument of partisan politics. Mr Trump has hinted heavily that he hopes that Ms Barrett will tip any ruling on the election in his direction.
In 2000, Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, was prepared to accept a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling against him and in favour of the Republican George W Bush. There were no significant public protests. But it seems unlikely that the Democrats would passively accept another court-inflicted defeat if they regard Republican complaints as bogus and the court as “packed”.
Democratic party outrage would be accentuated if Mr Trump had lost the popular vote, but gained victory through the electoral college, which tallies votes on a state-by-state basis. That system, which used to seem like a charming historical quirk, now looks increasingly like a device to thwart majority opinion. Combine it with the over-representation of small, Republican-leaning states in the Senate — which, in turn, confirms Supreme Court judges — and you have a recipe for a crisis of legitimacy in US democracy.
Any such development would also be a profound crisis for American allies and admirers. The country’s claim to be “leader of the free world” is not just a piece of vainglorious self-congratulation. The world’s democracies do indeed look to the US for support, leadership and inspiration.
When efforts at democracy promotion fail in Egypt or Iraq it is a tragedy for the country concerned. If democracy fails in the US, it will be a global tragedy.