Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin spoke strong words at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session this week. The very survival of democracy, he suggested, is on the line.
“Against a background of political upheavals occurring in the West, the free world, it is no secret that democracy – or Western liberal democracy – is in a state of confusion,” said Rivlin. “Many citizens across the world feel that the existing democratic system is struggling to function and, moreover, is struggling to offer an answer to their needs in light of the current threat of terrorism, the current wave of migration and refugees, or the ongoing economic and employment crises.”
Rivlin was speaking broadly, apparently referencing the various movements springing up in recent years at the fringes of what was once the political mainstream. These include new nativist and often xenophobic movements in Europe. The vote by Britain to leave the European Union is a symptom of a strain of political ideology that rejects open borders – both for trade and for people. While the Brexit vote was supported by people across the political spectrum, its campaign was led by the United Kingdom Independence Party, a movement pushing its way into the mainstream from the far right.
While Europe struggles with the challenges of and reactions to economic meltdowns and waves of refugees and migrants, the presidential election in the United States has been rocked by events that also threaten foundational understandings of democracy.
Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president, has suggested he may not abide by the results of the election, an outcome he is alleging to be “rigged.” There is no evidence, according to almost all commentators, of any rigging of the electoral system. Indeed, say most, the patchwork nature of the American electoral system makes comprehensive manipulation of a federal election essentially impossible. However, Trump’s assertions seem based less on the idea that the electoral infrastructure is rigged than on his perception that the media and the political establishment are nearly uniformly against him. As paranoid as this may seem, it is not altogether false. The political establishment, even in his own Republican party, is lukewarm at best toward their outsider nominee. And the media is merely reporting the attitudes of some of the public, many of whom are aghast and appalled at the successive emanations from Trump’s mouth.
However, if the establishment and commentators in the media are lined up against him, this should arguably be viewed as a statement about him, not them – which brings us back to the issue of Trump’s threatened refusal to admit defeat. Absolutely crucial to democracy is the legitimacy – and perception of legitimacy – of the electoral process. In the most contested election in modern history, in 2000, Al Gore accepted defeat even though he received more votes in the state of Florida than the declared victor George W. Bush and, therefore, should have been the winner. In the interest of national unity and the preservation of confidence in the system, Gore acceded to the determination of a Florida court.
Now, Trump suggests he may not accept the results even if he is conclusively defeated. Of course, anything is possible with this candidate, so it may be bluster. But the bigger picture in this scenario is the impact Trump’s words have on his followers. Some are already promising “revolution” if Trump is defeated.
Then, of course, there is the other possibility: Trump wins.
Where American democracy – and the country’s role as a model of responsible government – would go from there is an ominous mystery.