Sore losers in democracy

Eschew dangerous passions, inflammatory expressions and erosion of the constitutional spirit as these unleash an authoritarian streak of ‘muscular politics’

1801 is a landmark year in the proud traditions of American democracy. It was the first time a political party handed over power to its rival and marked the first peaceful transfer — an important precedent in the global experiment with democracy. The second US President John Adams made way for Thomas Jefferson and slipped out of the then still-under-construction White House in the wee hours of the morning. The run-up to the elections had witnessed a bitterly polarised campaign that played out in the partisan Press, and Adams had controversially made key judicial appointments before the elections, just as Donald Trump had done. While Adams did not show grace in attending his successor’s inauguration, the subsequent traditions that evolved institutionalised the civility and formality of procedures pertaining to the transfer of power.

In the 2016 US presidential elections, the shocking defeat of Hillary Clinton, despite having three million more popular votes than her rival Donald Trump, upheld those democratic tenets when she graciously accepted in her concessional speech that “Donald Trump is going to be our President. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power. We don’t just respect that. We cherish it. It also enshrines the rule of law; the principle we are all equal in rights and dignity; freedom of worship and expression.” Despite Trump’s extremely personal, vile and often false accusations against his predecessor, Barack Obama, and his previous presidential rival, Hillary Clinton, both dignified the American dream and the institution of democracy by attending and abiding by all the transfer procedural formalities.

The founding father of the American democracy, who adopted and ratified its hallowed Constitution, George Washington, had sensed the inherent dangers of a roguish individual or party, who could potentially diminish the cherished democratic values. He had warned, “However, (political parties) may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of Government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” One such looming danger today is the unprecedented digging in the heels by Trump, who seemingly has thrown caution to the winds and refused to accept the electoral verdict, with the expected behaviour of a defeated candidate in a participative democracy. Anarchical portents loom and Trump, who has the dubious distinction of making at least 20,000 recorded lies in his presidential tenure, has inelegantly put his personal vanity and incorrigibility over the desideratum of democracy.

Trump’s toxic rhetoric preceding his electoral defeat had a definite pattern that clearly suggested that he was not going to bow out very easily. Murmurs about Trump rejecting the electoral results over one manufactured reason or the other were building up. What makes the ground situation frightening is the extremely divided, polarised and militant electorate and groups who harbour supremacism, racism and extremism that just need a nudge and wink to explode. The nation is awash with private firearms and “armies” amid societal faultlines that have further opened up with protest rallies and expressions of violence.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), whose purpose is to sound alarm against any foreseen conflict, war or societal unrest, had for the first time looped in the US presidential elections 2020, by noting, “Trump himself has refused to commit to leaving the office peacefully, and suggested that he could lose only if the election was rigged.” The second warning issued by the ICG was to avoid projecting a winner until the outcome was certain. Almost on cue, Trump did exactly what was feared — the sore loser claimed that rivals were “stealing” his mandate and he himself had announced his victory prematurely, when he tweeted, “We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election” and later added, “I will be making a statement tonight. A big win.”

Veteran Senator Bernie Sanders had prophesied the exact script that Trump was likely to follow knowing that the counting of mail-in ballots would tilt the scales in favour of Joe Biden. Hence Bernie suggested that Trump could say, “Thank you, Americans, for re-electing me. It’s all over. Have a good day.” However, Trump did say so and much more.

The fact that Trump still managed to retain a substantial, loyal and angry voter base, despite his gross mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic, societal disharmony and after alienating almost all global allies, should concern all democracies about the sticky power of hatred, illiberality and undemocratic propulsions, even in those countries which overtly pride on being called, “democracies.” A timely lesson for democratic nations is to eschew dangerous passions, inflammatory expressions and erosion of the constitutional spirit, as these unleash an authoritarian streak of “muscular politics” which might appeal to the basic instincts in the short term but eventually play havoc with the nation, in the long term.

When the national discourse becomes dangerously aggressive, divisive and political parties no longer seek to defeat the “ideas” of opposition but to “destroy” them, the stakes for reciprocal animus and vengeance set in. This attitude ultimately breeds the sort of politics that wants to win at any cost, by hook or by crook. As the Trump saga suggests, the foreboding signals are unmistakable when the supposedly apolitical institutions start getting compromised, political language becomes intolerant and intimidating, or when falsehood becomes normalised and preferred over the more sobering reality. Only time will tell if Trump can ever match his fellow Republican John McCain’s brilliant concession speech in 2008, “Tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Senator Obama, and I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my President.”

(The writer, a military veteran, is a former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands)

Source: The Pioneer