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The global necessity of American democracy

Sep 29,2022 - Last updated at Sep 29,2022

MADRID  —  In his prophetic 1838 Lyceum Address, a generation before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln predicted that the fall of the United States, if it were ever to occur, would not come from an outside threat, but rather as a result of internal division. “It cannot come from abroad,” he said, “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”

At grave historical moments, the fears of America’s greatest leaders re-enter the country’s political discourse. In a speech in Philadelphia this month, President Joe Biden’s concern for American democracy was eerily similar to Lincoln’s. Biden’s choice to deliver his speech outside Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was debated and adopted in 1776, was meant to convey the significance of his remarks. The title of the address  —  “The Continued Battle for the Soul of the Nation”  —  reflected the polarised nature of contemporary US politics.

The US is the world’s leading power, so what happens there, good and bad, rarely stays there. Its political health affects the world’s overall stability. Without a politically stable US, we cannot effectively address any of humanity’s most pressing challenges.

I first set foot in the US in 1965 as a Fulbright scholar and lived there for five years. Lyndon B. Johnson was the president, and the country, mired in Vietnam and reckoning with the Civil Rights Movement demand for an end to legal racism, was in turmoil.

Six decades later, the US is again experiencing political upheaval, but of a very different kind. While the social conflicts that defined the 1960s revolved around unacceptable injustices for any modern society, America’s foundational institutions remained unquestioned. Nobody in 1965 questioned whether Johnson was the legitimate president. Today, by contrast, the legitimacy of the country’s democratic institutions, particularly its electoral system, is at stake.

Against this background, the US midterm elections will be immensely consequential for American democracy, as one of the parties responsible for sustaining it has succumbed to former US President Donald Trump’s populist authoritarianism. Of the 208 candidates Trump endorsed in Republican primaries for the House of Representatives, the Senate, and state governorships, 95 per cent will be on the ballot in November.

The international community’s ability to lead a fragmented world out of crisis will also be on the ballot. Following a pandemic from which the world has yet to recover, the war in Europe threatens to upend societies and economies worldwide. Making matters worse, the multilateral institutions created to manage the opportunities and risks of globalisation are being overwhelmed by the world’s accelerating division into rival geopolitical blocs and the decoupling of its two major powers.

Given the political clout Trumpism has gained in recent years, some fear it could become a fixture of US politics. Trumpism would never have been able to take root without conservatives’ success in consolidating power, even when faced with electoral decline. After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the Republican Party flipped 11 state legislatures in the 2010 midterms. While Democrats were busy carrying out their domestic and international agenda in Washington, Republicans leveraged their dominance in state politics to rig the electoral map in their favor through extensive partisan gerrymandering.

Fortunately, Trumpism is not invincible. Democrat Mary Peltola’s recent triumph over Republican former governor Sarah Palin in the special election to fill Alaska’s seat in the House of Representatives shows that even in traditionally red states, Trump-like populists can be defeated. To replicate this widely, however, Biden will have to unite Democrats and moderate Republicans, a monumental task.

But even building democratic majorities may not be enough to save democracy. One of the strengths of the US political system is its institutional architecture, which separates the federal government’s power into executive, legislative, and judicial branches, thereby preventing overreach by any individual branch. Yet, the US Supreme Court is suffering a crisis of legitimacy, with recent rulings by the conservative super-majority calling into question the authority of the entire judiciary. As retired Justice Stephen Breyer recently said, if judges are seen merely as political operatives, the power of the courts to uphold the rule of law is diminished.

History and its scholars provide an invaluable guide to understanding current events and their potential implications. A month ago, Biden called a group of historians from the country’s top universities to the White House to analyse the current state of American society. The key takeaway was clear: political polarisation is leading US democracy to the brink of collapse.

In 1838, Lincoln began his Lyceum Address with a question  —  “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?”  —  and gave a categorical answer that still rings true: the greatest threat to the future of democracy in the US is the internal divide. Today, Lincoln’s prescient warning is of the uttermost relevance, for Americans, and international stability.


Javier Solana, a former EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, secretary general of NATO, and foreign minister of Spain, is president of EsadeGeo  —  Centre for Global Economy and Geopolitics and Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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