Despite President Donald Trump’s attempts to undermine it, the American democracy seems to have survived. We now need to analyze more closely the principles and institutions that saved it.
Editor’s Note: This is a translation of an op-ed article published on January 11, 2021 in the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter. ProMarket previously interviewed Rothstein about his decision to resign from the Blavatnik School of Government after learning that Leonard Blavatnik, the school’s main financial backer, had made a substantial contribution to President Trump’s inauguration.
Democracy is a fragile form of government. History has shown that democracies can be undermined in several ways. This 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 pointed out that there are some things to be especially wary about. If there are political leaders who do not unequivocally take a stand against political violence, who do not respect the democratic rights of their opponents, and who refrain from promising that they respect an election result that goes against them, then democracy is in danger. Already during his election campaign and even more so during his time as president, President Donald Trump has 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 6 are all clear examples.
But despite this, American democracy seems to have survived. The institutions of democracy have “stood their ground.” However, we now need to analyze more closely the principles and institutions that de facto saved American democracy. Some often taken for granted things can be dismissed. Was it the democratic election that was the decisive factor? Admittedly, Joe Biden won, but in many of the crucial states, his win was very narrow. Despite Trump’s pathological lying and his many attacks on the basic principles of democracy, he received over 11 million more votes than he did in 2016. We did not hear a resounding yes for defending democracy from the American electorate. Democracy had luck on its side this time, but as is well known, luck is an unreliable partner.
Nor is it the principle of a free press that has saved American democracy. Until very recently, Trump has had free access to social media and several important TV channels have supported him and continuous to do so. Nor is it the existence of a free organization and a vibrant civil society because Trump has had significant support from many NGOs and, for example, from the NRA and from the powerful evangelical churches. Nor is it a free party system that can 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 a large extend, grass root Republicans and party officials continue to support him. To this must be added the Republican Party’s efforts to make it difficult for minorities to vote and their attempts to manipulate the construction of electoral districts in their favor, which began long before the Trump era and will in all likelihood continue. Nor is it “free business” that has saved American democracy because Trump and his party have been flooded with huge amounts of money from big business.
Instead, it is two other, less well-known principles that have saved the US democracy. One is the principle of impartiality in the implementation of public policies. The other is the principle of knowledge realism. As for the principle of impartiality, I am referring to the surprisingly large number of local and state election officials in the United States, many of them Republicans, who opposed the Trump administration’s repeated attempts to persuade (and in some cases threaten) them into rejecting election results, that did not give the victory to Trump. As is well known from a famously recorded telephone conversation, Trump has personally tried to persuade the person responsible for the counting of votes in a state of Georgia to “find” the number of votes that would make him the winner.
A large number of reports in the American 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 also provides strong support for an impartial and professional election administration being a condition for establishing 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 election result because he could not prove the existence of any decisive irregularities in the vote-counting.
The principle of knowledge realism is about the concept of truth. Simply put, if it is possible to know if something is true or if this is always a question determined by power relations or by the notions that are dominant in the culture. Obviously, the election officials, the judges and the journalists who claimed there were no irregularities in the election, at least not to an extent that may have affected the result, were inspired by a realistic view of the possibilities of gaining certain knowledge of what is true and what is not true. 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 actually be established by existing evidence.
Had the courts and election officials given up the principles of impartiality and knowledge realism in order 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.
What deserves to be emphasized is that both the principle of impartiality and the idea of knowledge realism are strongly questioned, both in general but also within parts of the research community. Concerning impartiality, the so-called “public choice” approach in economics and political science takes as its starting point that everyone who holds a public office only strives to use this to serve their (economic or political) self-interest. Impartiality is a nullity in this often-invoked theory. As Nobel Laureate Amarty Sen pointed out long ago, agents acting solely from this self-interest script will outsmart themselves into a suboptimal equilibrium from which they, due to a lack of trust, will not be able to escape. Instead, they will find themselves in a “social trap”.
The same is true of several theories about identity politics, which have become widespread in large parts of the humanities. As stated by one leading theorist, Iris M. Young, the ideal of impartiality is just an idealist fiction. 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 the principle of 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 that it is not possible to determine with any reliable methods what is true without such being determined by established power relations or our personal and ideological perceptions. My point is of course not that Trump and his followers have ever read anything of relativistic postmodernism, they probably have never heard about it. Instead, the problem is that this approach lacks a working intellectual argument against the “alternative facts” mindset that seems to dominate the MAGA movement.
The principle of impartiality in the performance of public tasks and the principle of realism of knowledge thus constitute the cornerstones of the possibility to secure a functioning democracy. It is therefore worrying that significant sections of the academic community have distanced themselves from these fundamental principles of democracy.