Geopolitics

What’s happening with election denial and political violence in the world?

The Signal

What’s happening with election denial and political violence in the world? Lucan Way on the threat and limits of a new tendency in Western democracy.
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Not long ago, it would have been difficult for anyone in the United States to imagine a sitting president responding to an election loss by claiming his rightful victory had somehow been stolen—let alone that it would inspire a partisan attack on the U.S. Congress. Now, with recent events in Brazil, there appears a danger that election denial and political violence could be spreading globally. After the Brazilian general election in October, the country’s then-president, Jair Bolsonaro, announced that his defeat was the result of widespread electoral fraud. And on January 8—two years and two days after the U.S. Capitol riot—a mob of his supporters attacked and vandalized federal government buildings in Brasília, hoping to prompt military leaders to carry out a coup d’état and reinstall Bolsonaro. It all seemed very familiar. Has Donald Trump changed the playbook for the world’s anti-democratic populists?

Lucan Way is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the author of three books on authoritarianism. As Way sees it, while Trump has altered the political life of his country, and is still influencing political life beyond it, his most infamous populist technique can only go so far. While election denial has now been the pretext for political riots in two Western capitals, the only sustained benefit to its instigators has been to keep hardcore supporters engaged—at the cost of alienating others, activating opponents, and even, more in Brazil, losing political allies. Now that it’s in “the Western anti-democratic repertoire,” Way says, authoritarian populists will continue to try out election denial where they can—but they’ll be up against considerable democratic resilience.

Eve Valentine: What precedents would there be, other than the last U.S. election, for the leader of a country to deny the legitimacy of a democratic vote to try to hold power?

Lucan Way: In polarized “emerging democracies”—notably in sub-Saharan Africa but elsewhere—it’s been quite common for parties either to claim an election was stolen after the fact or to boycott one in advance, on the grounds that it was already rigged. Sometimes, in fairness, these claims have been true; oftentimes, they haven’t.

But if we’re looking at the wave of right-wing populism that’s been moving through Western “advanced democracies” in recent years, there, Donald Trump has been a real innovator—specifically in the way he’s not just disputed the outcome of an election but tried to delegitimize a long-standing, high-functioning electoral system altogether.

Now, all innovators have their influences, and in this case, the most important would be Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary since 2010—well before Trump’s political ascent—who mobilized his supporters around the idea that a powerful “deep state” had emerged as the big enemy of the Hungarian people, variously thwarting their democratic will.

Valentine: How did this idea make its way to the U.S.?

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Way: It actually originated in Egypt and Turkey—to describe the military’s effective control in those countries regardless of the outcome of elections. Orbán appropriated the idea to undermine the legitimacy of the Hungarian state’s independent bureaucracy and courts. That got the attention of Steve Bannon, one of Trump’s key early allies—and influenced Trump from there.

You can see the idea of the deep state as part of the backdrop for his innovation with election denial. After all, who could thwart a Republican electoral victory with Trump himself in power? Not the Democratic Party as such but a deep state supposedly allied with it, controlling the mechanisms of elections.

Before Trump took over the Republican Party, it had indulged over time in some questionable behavior around elections—particularly with regulations that would manipulate them indirectly by decreasing voter turnout among groups likely to support Democratic candidates. And the rationale for these efforts was often that they’d address alleged problems with voter fraud. But in seeking directly to upend the American electoral system as a whole, fusing the idea of voter fraud with the premise of the deep state, what Trump did was new—in the U.S. and the democratic world.

Anna Marinicheva
More from Lucan Way at The Signal:

It’s true that Trump’s election-denial innovation didn’t prevent the democratic transfer of power in the United States. It’s also true, and at least as important, that Bolsonaro’s attempt to replicate the innovation in Brazil was even less successful, because for a variety of reasons, many of his supporters, along with many of his elite allies, didn’t support the ruse—and now Bolsonaro has exiled himself to Miami. So in this sense, Brazilian democracy has been even more resilient than American democracy. Still, this innovation is now in the Western anti-democratic repertoire.”

I can’t imagine it not spreading—among populists who lose elections and aren’t committed to the stability of their countries’ democratic institutions. And they’re not disappearing. So I think it could become quite common. At the same time, I think it’s also likely to become less and less effective. … The vast majority of U.S. Republicans who now validate and amplify Trump’s claims about the 2020 election, for example, don’t really expect to see any elections overturned. They just want to activate their supporters. The question is to what extent they can keep doing this and for how long—and the results of the 2022 U.S. midterm elections shouldn’t encourage them.”

I’m optimistic about the survival of democratic elections. Of course, elections aren’t the whole of democracy—and I’m less fully optimistic about the survival of the kinds of liberal institutions, like minority rights, that help define the whole of democracy; I think these will potentially remain under threat in all kinds of ways. But there are vital forces that are limiting the erosion of democracy in the world—and that could even help strengthen it in the coming years.”

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