If it wants to have a functional democratic system, the US would do well to benchmark itself against other countries – and learn something from them too.
As Americans and the rest of the world waited anxiously for a winner to be declared in the US presidential race, dismay mounted as President Donald Trump doubled down on his unsubstantiated attacks on the vote count and continued to falsely claim victory in the election.
Officials and newspapers around the world lamented the polarisation and dysfunction in the world’s oldest democracy as Joe Biden’s path to the White House became firmer.
While the US electoral system has remained resilient to ensure that every vote is counted, many see the unprecedented rhetoric coming from a sitting president to undermine the foundation of democracy – free and fair elections – as the latest assault on the fabric of the 244-year-old republic, while a deeply divided nation teeters on the precipice.
What is undeniable is the election has highlighted deep fault lines in the American democratic project, and Trump’s four years in office might have once and for all demolished one of the biggest myths of our time: The myth that American democracy was exceptional and a model for others to emulate.
That might be a painful realisation for Americans. And rather than teaching the rest of the world about democracy, the US might have much more to learn from other countries.
A flawed system
A preliminary reportby the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) pointed to systemic weaknesses in US elections, as well as the stress imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic and Trump’s calls for an end to vote counting in certain states based on false claims of fraud.
The international observer said that the elections have been “tarnished” by legal uncertainty and Trump’s “unprecedented attempts to undermine public trust”.
The OSCE found issues caused by the pandemic and an erratic president compounded long-term systemic problems, like voter suppression that disproportionately targets the poor and ethnic minorities, and the disenfranchisement of former felons.
Underlying all this is the electoral college system, which theoretically could still deny the presidency – for what would be the third time in 20 years – to the candidate for whom the greatest number of citizens voted.
This anachronism may have been what America’s 18th-century founding fathers intended when they tried to empower states against the “tyranny of the majority”. But in an era of equal rights, it’s a bizarre relic that hardly serves as a check or a balance.
Hence, the US constitutional system lacks certain immunities against electoral debacles that newer democracies are much better equipped to deal with.
Useful lessons in democracy
In India for example, the nonpartisan Election Commission of India has even more far-reaching constitutionally protected authority to administer elections over a challenging terrain and infrastructure to reach every single voter, even in the remotest village.
While the country’s populist Prime Minister Narendra Modi assaults press freedom and civil society, elections still remain a crucial pillar of Indian democracy.
Mexico, even though it is a federal system like the US, has a politically independent National Electoral Institute that administers its federal elections. Taiwan has a strong national system of election administration led by nonpartisan authorities.
The American system is instead a hodgepodge of state and local authorities. Most are staffed by professionals, but state legislatures and secretaries of state can introduce partisanship and thus cast doubt on impartiality when administering national elections.
Neither does the US have a standing authority to investigate national-level corruption; Congress largely investigates and punishes itself.
Democracies like Latvia and South Africa meanwhile have established independent anti-corruption bureaus that oversee political and campaign finance. France has a “moralisation” law that bans politicians from employing close relatives or taking certain payments, and removes their impunity.
When it comes to its Confederate past and problematic statues, the US can take a cue from Germany’s model for reconciling a painful national past and taking responsibility for it.
While apex court nominations in the US have become highly politicised, many democracies have measures to depoliticise their constitutional courts.
No other democracy allows life tenure to powerful justice positions – they either face term limits (12 years in Germany) or age limits (70 years in South Korea), or both. In Israel, a broader committee nominates Supreme Court justices, including both the executive branch and parliament.
The US-style presidential system itself is flawed; routine political deadlocks are established by regular conflict between the legislature and the executive. This comes in the way of power-sharing that is necessary for accommodation of a multiplicity of views.
Its unique federalism means that power is assumed to be with the state rather than the centre. In a time of national elections, you notice that each state has its own rules of who can vote, under what procedure, and what timetable results can be counted.
The US is also a textbook example of what political scientists call symmetrical federalism, whereby every federal unit has exactly the same power. And so, you can have each state – no matter how big or small – that has two seats in the US Senate (which is more powerful than the House of Representatives, the chamber that is reflective of states’ population).
Alternatively, asymmetrical federalism in countries like Canada and India are better suited for living with deep diversity.
Something as fundamental as voting itself can be an impediment in the US.
Tuesday is traditionally election day, probably explaining to some extent why voter turnout in the US is generally quite low (the outlier being this election cycle) and trails behind that of other developed democracies.
27 of the 36 member states of the OECD (largely made up of advanced democracies) conduct their national elections over the weekend. South Korea and Israel hold theirs during the week but have made it a federal holiday.
Change is hard, but necessary
The first step is admitting the problem.
The US seems close to hitting rock bottom: Only 17 percent of Americans still consider their country “a shining city on a hill”, found a poll by YouGov; only 14 percent say they are “very happy” reports the University of Chicago; and even before the pandemic, only 17 percent said they could usually trust government to do what was right, according to Pew Research.
The silver lining after the Trump years might be that his unruly administration revealed parts of the system that need fixing fast.
All future presidential candidates should be obliged to divest their assets, release their tax returns and report foreign attempts to meddle in an election. They should also lose their power over federal prosecutors, and over inspectors-general who act as watchdogs of cabinet departments.
Whether American policymakers prioritise such critical reforms, or take lessons in democracy from foreigners, remains to be seen.