After 240 years, American democracy is facing a serious challenge. If Donald Trump, the most unconventional candidate for president in modern times, wins the November election, democracy may be in danger because of his oft-illiberal and authoritarian prescriptions. If he loses, there is a risk the world’s most advanced democracy will face the sort of post-electoral acrimoniousness associated with failed or failing states and banana republics.
This is because Mr Trump has said he is worried that the election will be rigged against him. His campaign manager has suggested that the justice department is not to be trusted. And a long-time associate has spoken darkly of an election defeat triggering “a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience … a bloodbath”.
The American political class has expressed stupefaction. Prominent supporters of Mr Trump's own party have challenged the notion of a rigged election. Charles Fried, a Harvard law professor and Ronald Reagan's former solicitor general, lambasted the "invitation to violence and civic disruption". American journalists have dared their tribe to do the "patriotic" thing and expose fears of electoral fraud as fantasy. Magical realism is being employed in serious political magazines such as Foreign Policy to visualise an America in uproar about a "stolen" election, with Mr Trump refusing to accept the result and encouraging people to take to the streets.
There is anxiety that this electoral season’s low politicking will delegitimize the democratic process by which America sets such store, even presuming to export it to distant parts of the world. There is the embarrassing possibility that the United States, which routinely counsels other countries on the need for a fair and non-violent election process, may wind up needing intervention itself. For the first time in modern American history, there are concerns about the peaceful transfer of power.
It figures. No major party presidential candidate has ever cast doubt on the American democratic system as a whole. The 2000 election, in which Democratic Party candidate Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral college to George W Bush, was probably the worst-case scenario. But even after that contentious chapter, Mr Gore did not suggest that Mr Bush was an illegitimate president. Instead, he invoked the stirring words of senator Stephen Douglas on being defeated by Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and declared that “partisan feeling must yield to patriotism … this is America, and we put country before party. We will stand together behind our new president.”
This has pretty much been the way US politicians of every stripe have dealt with their country’s quadrennial trysts with democracy. But, how fair are American elections really?
The need for election reform has long been discussed but this has mostly focused on matters of policy and procedure – the weight given to the electoral college, the role of private money in politics and the need to move away from a two-party system.
It’s hard to stand up claims that US elections are rigged. As president Barack Obama pointed out in response to Mr Trump, the federal government does not organise the vote. That is the task of local election boards. Both major parties are able to send monitors to any and every precinct. Officials audit precincts at random before they certify the election. At present, the chief election officers in states representing 287 electoral votes – 270 are needed to win the White House – belong to Mr Trump’s Republican Party. This will make it difficult for him to scapegoat the system should he lose.
In fact, as Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, says, there have been only 31 credible incidents of voter impersonation out of one billion votes cast in the US since 2000. There are more deaths by lightning – 30 or so – each year. Vote-buying and ballot-manipulation are also rare and generally quickly identified and punished.
Finally, American elections have been routinely observed by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) since 2004. The organisation, which has traditionally focused on monitoring polls in emerging democracies, agreed to president George W Bush’s invitation after a petition from 13 Democratic Party senators.
The OSCE’s verdict on the 2012 US presidential election was cheery. Commending the “vibrant” campaigns, media coverage and “broad public confidence”, it recorded satisfaction that the polls “took place in a competitive environment and were administered in a professional manner”. The only fault it found was in the over-politicisation of “decisions on technical aspects of the electoral process”. It also suggested further steps “to improve the electoral process” in areas such as voting rights, accurate voter lists, campaign finance transparency and recount procedures. These are flaws but hardly a sign of massive electoral dysfunction and fraud.
In suggesting that the bedrock of American government is crumbling and rotten, Mr Trump may be toying with something he doesn’t recognise as an improvised explosive device. Until now, his penchant for the word “rigged” – also applying it to the economy and media coverage – has generally reflected his own sense of ill-usage and whatever gripe he thinks might be popular with voters at the time. Now, he is casually positioning a bomb that could blow up the entire structure.
It is an Olympian task to restore legitimacy to a system once it has been challenged. It was well said that leadership is not about the next election, it's about the next generation.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is a writer on world affairs
On Twitter: @rashmeerl