The 2020 American election is a gift that keeps on giving for the propagandists of hostile regimes. Russian commentators are having a field day, describing the presidential poll as “neither free nor fair” and speaking glibly of ballot stuffing and “administrative measures” to rig the results. In China, the official media hammer at themes of chaos and disorder in the campaign, the extravagant cost of American politics, racial unrest, polarization, and the potential for violence or coup attempts.
This commentary on the election is part of the authoritarian indictment of liberal democracy as anarchic and spent—“obsolete,” according to President Vladimir Putin. The objective varies from country to country. In Russia, the underlying domestic message is that elections under Putin, where opposition candidates are jailed or prevented from registering and opposition politicians poisoned or murdered, are just as valid as American polls—unruly affairs, open to fraud and arranged to entrench elite domination. In China, coverage of American politics is designed to buttress the Communist Party’s theme that one-party rule—orderly, efficient, decisive—is superior to American democracy’s disputes, gridlock, and chaos.
The election of Joe Biden will, if anything, intensify the anti-democratic drumbeat. America’s critics have had years to perfect their arguments for internal audiences. Now these critiques, developed by RT—Russia’s state-controlled television network—and other Russian sources, have been embraced by populists and demagogues in America and Europe as well. We have reached the point at which President Trump and his followers have concocted the bizarre scenario of an election stolen by the Democrats; a few have gone as far as to call for martial law and a new election. For the immediate future, at least, a sizable segment of the voting public will have views of American democracy that dovetail with the lies broadcast by the Kremlin’s cynical information warriors.
So far, democracy’s advocates have responded to this propaganda onslaught with bewilderment or complaints that this or that action by President Trump breaks institutional norms. A more assertive response is required, one that reminds the American people why democracy matters and, more particularly, why liberal democracy is essential to Americans’ economic well-being, physical security, and honest government, and to America’s standing in the world—in other words, why democracy is essential to American greatness.
Consider, for example:
1. It is a strong alliance of democratic states that stems both the ambitions of autocratic powers seeking global domination and the sense of security strongmen feel from challenge. This resistance is especially important when, as now, a loose but effective coalition of regimes—a kind of Autocracy International—provides military, diplomatic, and economic assistance to beleaguered autocratic regimes like those of Venezuela, Belarus, and Iran.
2. Democracies rarely go to war with one another and are highly unlikely to present military threats to America or their own neighbors. Past wars and nuclear standoffs have invariably involved totalitarian regimes or dictatorships. Most recently, Russia has invaded Georgia and Ukraine; and China has provoked apprehensions about its military aggression in East Asia and, now, in South Asian states like India, Nepal, and Bhutan. In contrast, alliances with Japan, South Korea, and NATO have played crucial roles in maintaining peace in difficult times. The fact that American military strategy has been revised to focus attention and resources on China and Russia is powerful evidence that our chief adversaries, even in what has been called a post-ideological age, are two of the world’s leading autocracies.
3. Democracies are relatively likely to be safe and prosperous and, thus, less likely to produce refugees and asylum seekers. Repressive countries like Eritrea, South Sudan, Myanmar, Venezuela, and Syria, as well as countries with weak democratic institutions and adherence to the rule of law—like El Salvador and Honduras—are major refugee producers as well.
4. Democracies do not arrest and hold American citizens for ransom, while in recent years China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have all held Americans, Britons, Canadians, and Australians as prisoners with dubious justification.
5. Democracies are much less likely to strip assets from corporations, expropriate property, arrest American business personnel on fraudulent charges, extort transfers of technology or intellectual property, or hack American hospitals and medical research facilities (as Russia has done during this pandemic, to say nothing of its massive hack in 2020 of U.S. government agencies, companies, and think tanks). American businesses are generally secure in systems in which the rule of law prevails, while doing business in an autocracy is more likely than not a risky enterprise.
6. While private parties in democracies try to influence U.S. government policy through lobbyists and public relations campaigns, they do not employ the often underhanded and frequently illegal methods that characterize business-government relations in Russia, China, and other autocracies.
7. Democracies, though they are victims of terrorist acts, seldom incubate terrorism. Democracies are less likely to allow terrorist groups safe haven, cede territorial control to them, or collapse into failed states that are unable to resist them.
8. Democracies grapple with the threats that new technologies pose to privacy, civil liberties, and the rule of law; but they are much more likely to regulate new technologies with ethical rules meant to limit abuse. In contrast, China touts artificial intelligence and other new technologies as tools of an advanced surveillance state and aggressively markets technologies of repression beyond its borders.
9. Democracies accept and even encourage freedom of expression. In contrast, modern autocracies are developing increasingly powerful tools to censor the internet, prevent open debate on sensitive political issues, and muzzle leading dissidents and opposition figures, even outside their borders. Autocracies thus cripple the free speech that political stability requires.
10. Democracies are more likely to discourage corruption. Anti-corruption institutions and initiatives are more prevalent in the United States and other democracies, including new democracies like Romania and Ukraine. In autocracies, by contrast, corruption is an accepted part of doing business; often, these regimes are even complicit in transnational money laundering and other illicit cross-border enterprises, as with the use of Russian and Chinese money in the United States and Europe, stolen wealth from Malaysia, African kleptocracy, Azerbaijan’s bribery in the Council of Europe, and Venezuela’s state involvement in drug trafficking.
11. Democracies are more likely to cooperate and vote with the United States in international forums like the United Nations.
12. The combination of effective institutions and opportunities provided by democratic societies ultimately produces more durable economic progress. Democratic, market-based countries also tend to be more reliable and trusted trading partners.
13. Kleptocracy can flourish only in a non-democratic country, where there are few checks on executive authority from formal institutions like the judiciary or from non-state institutions like civil society watchdog groups and an independent press, especially investigative journalism. For the same reason, kleptocracy requires repression. Kleptocratic states, in turn, often engage in transnational crimes from money laundering to drug and arms trafficking, thereby destabilizing regimes and subverting the rule of law.
14. Climate change is both an existential threat in itself and an increasing driver of desperate migration. For the most part, democracies are more likely to act to mitigate this threat. The Trump Administration pulled out of the Paris Agreement; but America will rejoin the accords, and most of the world’s democracies remain committed to them.
For all the commotion from Trump and his supporters in the wake of the 2020 election, things could have been much worse. Trump could have been re-elected. In a second Trump term, America would have moved closer to a system with authoritarian characteristics: heightened attacks, fortified by proposed laws and policies, on the media; baseless investigations and prosecutions of political opponents; further scapegoating of minorities and immigrants; worse corruption; and slavish devotion to the party’s leader from congressional figures.
Fortunately, some seven million more voters chose Biden over Trump—eighty-one million to seventy-four million. Biden’s electoral college numbers match Trump’s numbers from 2016. The outcome is a source of enormous relief to democracies and concern to autocracies around the world. That alone should be reason for renewed hope in America’s ability to correct course and return to the democratic fold. Biden will have his hands full, but American democracy will have another chance to demonstrate its worth.
Arch Puddington has written widely on global democracy. He is author of the Freedom House Special Report, Breaking Down Democracy: Goals, Strategies, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians (2017).
David J. Kramer, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights & Labor in the George W. Bush Administration.
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