Henry Thomson says what we are witnessing in the United States today is a straining of the world’s longest-lived and most prosperous democracy towards its constitutional breaking point

Henry Thomson says what we are witnessing in the United States today is a straining of the world’s longest-lived and most prosperous democracy towards its constitutional breaking point

In six weeks, US citizens will vote for President, 33 Senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives – and plenty more offices at the state, county and local level. This will happen during a pandemic, its associated economic dislocations, and ongoing social unrest in major cities.

Given the polarisation of the electorate and Donald Trump’s presence in the White House, the 2020 elections were always going to be contentious. For many voters and pundits on both sides of the partisan divide, the stakes are extremely high. The refrain that this is “the most important election of our lifetimes” is heard every four years in America, but this time it is being recited more frequently and with greater insistence than usual.

The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this Friday has ratcheted the tenor of political debate up another notch. If the executive and legislative branches of government were not enough, Ginsburg’s death has brought the highest echelons of the judicial branch into play. And although electoral battles recur relatively frequently, Supreme Court nominations are for life.

Unsurprisingly, given the circumstances, there is a distinct whiff of pandemonium in the air.

Even before Ginsburg’s death, one of the most striking features of the 2020 electoral cycle was a steady erosion of confidence in the upcoming election among politicians and commentators of the left and the right.

Donald Trump has famously and repeatedly refused to state whether he will respect the outcome of the election. His opponent Joe Biden has repeatedly stated that the military will remove Trump from the White House if he loses and refuses to leave of his own accord. Biden’s predecessor Hilary Clinton has implored him not to concede the election on the night of November 3 under any circumstances.

It is difficult to keep track of commentators’ musings on whether Trump will leave the White House if he loses the election; what US citizens should do in the (presumably likely) scenario that he does not; and how Democrats are using the pandemic crisis to quietly prepare a coup against Trump.

Bit by bit, the impression is forming that the results of the elections on November 3 might not be fully legitimate.

This impression in itself is alarming: At its core, democracy depends on a consensus among powerful actors that it is “the only game in town” and that all of them would rather concede an electoral battle and prepare for the next, rather than revert to some other form of political contest – presumably violent. It is no good thing when we hear politicians and influential media figures openly musing about taking the latter path.

However, the current situation goes beyond an impression of crisis because there is every reason to believe that the result of the presidential vote and other important races will not be clear on November 3. It will depend on counts of posted ballots by secretaries of state and county recorders across the country that could take days or weeks.

We experienced this very scenario in Arizona in 2018. A close Senate race between Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSally looked to be breaking for McSally on election night, but after early and mail-in ballots were counted the next day Sinema won by almost 60,000 votes.

The Sinema-McSally delay occurred despite Arizona being well prepared for mail-in voting; we have for years had one of the highest rates of postal voting in the nation. The Covid-19 pandemic has left many less well-prepared states scrambling to implement new mail-in voting rules. Delays in processing these ballots are likely and mistakes cannot be ruled out. Republicans and Democrats in Washington, DC and state capitols across the country have been arguing over the postal ballot issue for months, trading accusations that each side is somehow trying to rig mail-in votes in their favor.

Ginsburg’s death adds to the current political turmoil in at least two ways. First, because the question of nominating a successor is incredibly contentious. Although the Constitution is clear on this issue – the President nominates Supreme Court justices, and they are confirmed by a majority vote in the Senate – these formal rules are just as contested as mechanics of the presidential election are this year.

Democrats will use every argument and mechanism at their disposal to try and delay the nomination of a replacement for Ginsburg. They will point to Republicans’ refusal to confirm President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland during the last year of his presidency as precedent. Republicans have the power to confirm a successor – even during a Senate lame duck session after the election on November 3 – and have indicated that they intend to use it.

However, Ginsburg’s death adds a second dimension of complexity. This year’s presidential election is likely to be close, and the issue of mail-in voting presents myriad possibilities for contention. Some readers will recall that the result of the 2000 presidential election in Florida was litigated. The Supreme Court allowed the Florida Secretary of State’s original vote count to stand and delivered the state’s electoral college votes and the presidency to George W. Bush.

The prospect of a Supreme Court, including a fresh Trump nominee, deciding not only on divisive issues such as abortion rights but also on the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election is enough to raise the intensity of political furor to boiling point.

What we are witnessing in the United States today is the straining of the world’s longest-lived and most prosperous democracy towards its constitutional breaking point. Whether regarding the Electoral College or the nomination of Justices of the Supreme Court, the formal written rules of the political game are enduring and clear. What is becoming less clear is how willing powerful actors, and less powerful citizens, are to abide by these rules.

New Zealanders live without a written constitution and commonly have only a passing familiarity with the web of law and parliamentary convention that stands in one’s place. To us, what is happening today in the US might seem strange or incomprehensible. However, we should not be too smug. We should consider, when faced with the sorts of multiple reinforcing crises that the US is dealing with today, what are the political rules of the game in New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy?


Henry Thomson is originally from Amberley, North Canterbury and is now an Assistant Professor of Political Economy at Arizona State University. His research focuses on the political economy of authoritarian rule and transitions to democracy. You can read more about his research here and follow him on Twitter @HenryRThomson. His earlier letters are here.

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30 Comments

my prediction:

in next decade, the US will experience a great exodus of scientists, who will choose to live and work in China.

Why would anyone want to move to China.

I disagree, China is communist, USA is certainly not, the lifestyle and language is very different in China, there will always be a few experts that will work in China mainly for very good money only. The USA for all its faults will still be a place of great opportunity to come, many people from all over the world still want to live there, there is no other country almost identical like the USA yet.

Bollocks, it's coming apart at the seams. The last Empire of them all - becuse there isn't enough planet (and therefore not enough time) for anyone to take over.

Ther is no 'great opportunity to come' either - though I'm betting you'll be a Climate denier, a Limits to denier and probable a free-marketeer (being anything but) too?

The USA is playing its end game at the moment, the way it is going, it will crumble completely in our lifetimes, and it is the things that made it what seemed like the world's greatest democracy that will be used to turn it into a dictatorship. Dog help them

Good call. All virologists who want to check out viruses and how they can be released, and how they can affect the people of the world, will all be flocking to China where such things can easily be made to happen.

A comment from a US acquaintance "As to the legal issue, it is an absolute fact that many Democrat controlled states have not purged their voting roles, as required by federal law, for years. That means that there are potentially millions of registered voters on their rolls who have either died or moved to another state. .........The second phase of this strategy is that they are pushing extremely hard to get requirements for validating mail in ballots relaxed so that all of those ballots mailed to deceased voters or those that have moved can be submitted by someone else for, you guessed it, Joe Biden. Democrats want the rules about matching voter signatures, witnesses and, of course, any requirement that ballots be received by election day significantly relaxed, all in the name of "fairness." "
That's democracy at work for you

10
up

Your acquaintance is stuck in his Fox echo-chamber. Partisan inventions like that are making things toxic.

I think the Trump team have been very clever. Democrats are going to struggle to shake off all their problems, Trump team twisted this into a debate about credibility.

A new film out about Hunter Biden in China
https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=31&v=JRmlcEBAiIs&feature=emb...

Historically the elephant out muscles the donkey. When it gets to down and dirty the GOP is the heavier slugger by a country mile. Gore was almost there until forthcoming Secretary of State Baker arrived at speed in Florida. You can go way back to Republican Rutherford in 1876, a similar scenario, so much so that as president he was captioned as Rutherfraud. Not unique though, some may remember that our PM Muldoon failed to concede in 1984, causing a drastic run on the NZ dollar, before Jim McLay stepped up and in and sorted him out.

You are incorrect. Muldoon wouldn't concede because Douglas had told all his finance mates he would devalue the dollar - money flooded offshore - Muldoon knew it and knew if he waited the money would flow back in and support the dollar. He should have held his nerve.

That was interesting - thanks for the link.

Fascinating - as it made me ask the question, is it better for the world that the US sup with the devil or fight with the devil?

America has decided to "Be the Devil".

Even with Democrat voter fraud - Trump will win the presidency, Congress will go Republican and Senate will stay Republican. Just because the media want him to lose - he wont as the left have shown their cards -anti military, anti police and green energy garbage. Trump will go down in history as greatest president since Reagan.

Tim James,

Interesting comments. If we put aside Trump's almost endless character defects and concentrate purely on what he has done to Make America Great Again, what do we find? The trade balance with China is getting worse not better, the coal industry which he pledged to revive continues to dwindle, America's standing in the world has never been lower, environmental legislation is being dismantled across the country, debt/GDP is now over 100% and increasingly rapidly and his handling of Covid is a disgrace to any civilised society.
sadly, I think it all too likely that he will be re-elected-fraudulantly- and I fear the consequences.

The covid reference is not true, USA has a huge population, immigrants as well trading partners. Many air and land borders to police. The US laws in their consitution gives rights to there citzens to not be locked down as we can in Australia or NZ. To blame covid on one president is ridiculous. There are many factors in play.

Tell us a bit about Trump aligned election fraud. My sources show that the Democrats are far more likely to partake of such things. As they showed with all their fake impeachment accusations, Their fake Hillary and Joe question and teleprompter answers,their Charlottesville hoax accusations etc., etc.

Hahahaha!

My god, amazing to see how weaponised misinformation targeted at Americans indoctrinates even NZers.

Plus he will save all those children held underground in the world wide tunnel network.

The Democrats simply can't handle defeat. They lose in 2016 and start screaming about the electoral college and wanting to change it. They know they are staring at defeat again this year, so what do they do, they change the rules of the game with this mass mail in voting, which any reasonable person can see will be a disaster in the making. As for the Supreme Court, if Tump's nominee gets confirmed they will simply change the rules of the game again and stack the court as soon as they are able. It's the left who are destroying democracy in the US.

what a shame the highest court in the land has become so politicized. However it is also a shame the said judges cannot put their own beliefs or religion aside, and vote according to the legal argument alone. that is the only way to end the politicization.

USA has been through worse. Nov. 3rd and the following months will be interesting. The problems in the USA are distribution related. They'll still be world leaders in obesity and GDP in the next 20 years.

And indeed in many ways it is the Constitution itself that is at the root of their problems.

The Constitution effectively provides for a two-party state.

The Constitution provides for politicization of the judiciary.

The Constitution provides for a heavily armed citizenry.

The Hawaiians have a tree that they call the politician tree. It initially grows straight and then it starts to bend. The constitution has some similarity to English precedent law. The law in its initial form is strong and clear but over time clever barristers wear away the fabric and weaken the frame. NZ has plenty of examples, Joint Family Home for example is now quite assailable & penetrable compared to fifty years ago

It is not the Constitution, but the Amendments and attempts to interpret and misinterpret the words of the Founding Fathers. But to be fair, no document can survive in its original spirit for this long. It is a miracle that is has held.
The question is how the Judiciary became Political ? Is it because of the deterioration of the Leader of the Executive Branch over the decades or is it the Lure of the Office itself that has lent it to be politicised. I think both.
Congress being given the rightfully granted status of a Political Entity has seen its power eroded by successive powerful Executive Branch Leader.
Media being the Fourth Estate has also played a major role, especially after the advent of Internet and Social Media.
America/Americans have been plain unlucky, I guess.

My personal feeling is that Trump may just squeak in.
Trump's Middle East play is brilliant in timing. If Kuwait and Saudi Arabia join in, it will be a great boost.
He is also seen to be aggressive on business deals he is engineering like the TikTok one.
And his Supreme Court nominee may do more magic. Even divisive, that may get him more support.
His luck is doing overtime now.
Biden has to up his game massively from now on.
Not sure how Kamala will help. She seems to be a Snowflake ornament now. Nothing solid coming from her.

my friend who has travelled extensively through USA says that some city and state governments hate Trumpie with a passion, but the silent majority, the great unwashed, the deplorables, all think he is great, and the only way Joe's minders can possibly win is through electoral fraud.

“What we are witnessing in the United States today is the straining of the world’s longest-lived and most prosperous democracy towards its constitutional breaking point.“
So why are the Democrats and their media & their protestors so willing to take their country to breaking point?

A useful sidebar to all of this: George Friedman's 'Storm before the Calm'. Essential reading from a long-time geopolitical futurist. More optimistic than many here.....but it may take a while to show.