Since the Cold War, more and more nations have held elections that may be highly competitive — but still don’t meet the minimum standards for being free, fair and democratic. The 2016 U.S. presidential election included some of the same violations of democratic norms and procedures often found in fragile democracies and “competitive authoritarian” regimes. As researchers of such regimes, we considered whether the election passed democratic muster.
Elections may come up short in either of two ways: through procedural abuses, and through violations of substantive norms of democratic fair play. We find both types of problems in the 2016 U.S. election, as we examine below.
1. Manipulating voting rules to advantage one party
Studies of competitive authoritarianism reveal how leaders manipulate laws and state institutions to create an uneven playing field. In the United States, we can find such efforts in some states’ measures to discourage turnout among likely Democratic voters.
The 2016 election was the first one held after the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013. As a result, it saw increasingly restrictive voter ID laws, the shuttering of polling stations in minority-dominated districts and exhortations to “monitor” polls for alleged fraud in nonwhite communities, which reportedly experienced systematically longer voting queues. It’s difficult to assess how much such measures affected turnout. But whether it changes an election’s result, targeting one party’s supporters to discourage or prevent them from voting undermines democracy.
2. Security agencies putting a thumb on the scale
We regularly find law enforcement interfering in a partisan way under competitive authoritarianism and in fragile democracies. In the United States, FBI Director James B. Comey announced that the agency would examine potentially incriminating evidence against Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server just 11 days before the election, reportedly influenced by an anti-Clinton atmosphere in the FBI. Arguably, in doing so, the FBI departed from the fundamental democratic principle that security agencies must remain politically neutral.
3. The electoral college’s anti-democratic impact
Perhaps most striking, the United States’ one-of-a-kind electoral college system delivered victory to a candidate who lost the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes, or more than 2 percent of the national total.
No electoral winner in any modern presidential democracy has ever lost the popular vote by such a substantial margin.
To be sure, the electoral college has been the law of the land for so long that its sheer continuity represents the rule of law. The vast majority of electoral college winners have also won the popular vote. Rules can be democratic because they protect minorities (like the populations of small states), not just when they empower majorities.
But the electoral college does not promise to protect minorities from “the tyranny of the majority” in the same manner as, say, the Senate does, by enhancing smaller states’ ability to influence legislation. By its very design, the electoral college has always had the potential to disenfranchise majorities in elections themselves. This means it is not counter-majoritarian, as many democratic institutions such as the Supreme Court are. It is anti-majoritarian.
This arguably makes the electoral college an intrinsically antidemocratic institution whose problematic nature has now been dramatically revealed.
4. The growing role of misinformation
Recent studies of competitive authoritarian elections also highlight how leaders undermine informal norms of fair play in ways that do not violate procedural democracy but prevent democracy from functioning effectively.
In particular, misinformation has become central to nondemocratic elections around the world. Of course, politicians always skirt the truth. But until 2016, falsehoods in U.S. presidential campaigns mostly involved misrepresentations of complex policy proposals. By contrast, this election saw an extraordinary number of blatantly false statements. Fake news often overwhelmed factual reporting.
5. Intervention by the “authoritarian international”
Some scholars see an emerging “authoritarian international.” In a number of post-Soviet states, Russia has worked to help elect pro-Kremlin politicians and to discredit democracy as rigged and corrupt.
Here in the United States, intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia worked “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” That included passing compromising material against the Democrats to WikiLeaks — minimally to discredit the election and maximally to tip it in Trump’s favor.
6. Discrediting the electoral process and opposition
Nondemocratic elections consistently feature candidates who decry democratic procedures as a sham and challenge the legitimacy of political opponents and dissenters. Trump frequently called the elections “rigged” and threatened not to recognize the results if they did not go his way. Trump also threatened to jail his opponent if he became president — a power no democratic president enjoys. He also encouraged his supporters to rough up protesters at his rallies. These were dramatic departures from standard American electoral practice that delegitimize core democratic procedures and principles.
7. Scapegoating and threatening minorities
Finally, ethnic and religious minorities frequently get scapegoated in “illiberal democratic” elections. Racist rhetoric by itself is not typically considered a violation of procedural democracy. Many established democracies have active xenophobic parties.
Yet scholarship in political sociology suggests that the equal protection of all citizens, regardless of race or creed, is a defining trait of democracy, substantively understood. Authoritarianism is often grounded in the idea that some groups are more legitimately national than others. As soon as specific minorities get branded as second-class citizens, their basic political liberties become tenuous.
Racist “dog whistles” are nothing new in U.S. political campaigns. But it is an extraordinary departure for a major party’s presidential nominee to explicitly claim that people of a particular race, ethnicity or religion are threats to national security. Trump repeatedly made overtly discriminatory statements against Mexican and Muslim immigrants, catered to anti-Semitic sentiment and resisted condemning white supremacists who supported him. Such divisive campaign rhetoric paves the way for any perceived threat from Islamic or other minorities to justify a major crackdown on civil rights.
The fate of U.S. democracy ultimately depends more on how Trump uses the powers of the presidency than on how he secured them. Yet democracy itself relies on free and fair elections that guarantee citizens’ equal rights. Examining the 2016 election, therefore, can help us assess whether U.S. democracy is already in serious trouble.
At best, America’s 2016 election showed early symptoms of several of the shortcomings afflicting unconsolidated democracies and competitive authoritarian regimes around the world. At worst, it showed advanced signs of democratic deterioration. Critics of U.S. elections have long decried their oligarchic features. It may be time to pay attention to their growing authoritarian tendencies.
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Dan Slater is associate professor of political science, director of the Center for International Social Science Research (CISSR) at the University of Chicago, and author of “Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia” (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Lucan Ahmad Way is professor of political science at the University of Toronto and author of “Pluralism by Default: Weak Autocrats and the Rise of Competitive Politics” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015) and, with Steven Levitsky, “Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War” (Cambridge University Press, 2010).