Back in May, Georgios Kostakos and I published two columns on the global and national responses to Covid-19, and its implications for global governance. The biggest impact, we said, will be determined by the responses of China and the US.
In this column, I analyse the United States itself – in the midst of both the pandemic and elections. What global implications might these developments have?
My conclusion: while the US has been the leader of the world order created after WWII, its leadership role is now deteriorating. But there are positive and well as negative scenarios.
US exceptionalism: some worrisome trends
- Failure of the US pandemic response
The fact that the US has been the worst in the world in dealing with the pandemic is surprising and indicating a possible gradual decline of the US’s role in the international system. Five reasons for the US failures:
- Political leadership has sent conflicting messages and has been unable to create a national plan for testing, supplying protective equipment and how the states could consistently follow CDC guidelines. President Trump challenges and disagrees with his own scientific epidemiologists, does not mask up at his rallies, failing to show an example to America in general, and does not condemn the fact that his supporters are neither social distancing nor wearing masks in his own rallies. The fact that he contracted the virus himself with several top officials in the White House is a striking demonstration of failed leadership.
- The US is decentralized in terms of decisions on mask mandates, lockdowns and enforcing guarantees. State governors rule; they can overturn the intentions of local mayors who want to apply more stringently the CDC guidelines on lockdowns, mask-use, permitted gatherings and school openings. The political divisiveness inside states and between the blue and red states creates confusion and social disharmony, leading potentially to violence and instability.
- The US has for decades downplayed the role of public health services and agencies. This has meant that the preparedness of public health agencies at the federal, state and local levels was in imperfect shape when the pandemic hit. With no federal funding, the situation is just getting worse.
- The protection of ‘American individualism’ has become a central issue in terms of masks and lockdowns. Certain right-wing segments of the media, but also Attorney General Barr, see lockdowns and mask mandates as violating basic rights of Americans to choose their destiny, warning of attempts by the opposition to pave the way for socialism and ‘dictatorship of big government’.
- The emergence of super-emotional commentary, and vitriolic hate speech at its worst, as well as conspiracy allegations between Democrats and Republicans and between the news media and social media supporting each side, with President Trump strongly encouraging such divisiveness, is a new feature of contemporary US politics. This thwarts a unified national strategy to combat the Covid-19 threat based on joint values and narratives.
- Pandemic’s contribution to US political instability
Covid-19 has also intensified other new trends in American politics and culture.
The racial divide has become a renewed focus of the American political discussion after a number of cases of police brutality. This divide is used by both right-wing and left-wing extremists to create violence and instability. Law and order has become a new campaign issue. Both the protests and counter-protests, mostly without masks and no social distancing intensify the spread of the virus and create more divisiveness and allegations of hypocrisy and lawlessness behavior by both sides.
Prof Lawrence Douglas’ book “Will He Go? Trump and Looming Election Meltdown in 2020″ and Barton Gellman’s 23 September on-line article in The Atlantic ”The Election that Could Break America” – among other similar accounts – have revealed the so far hidden truth that the US Constitution does not provide a path for a peaceful succession in case a sitting president campaigning for a second term does not want to leave the office whether or not he wins or loses the elections.
The US Constitution assumes that a loser of the presidential election is willing to concede the electoral loss. But it has no clear provisions when the loser is unwilling to make such a concession. Barton Gellman offers evidence that Trump will never concede and his strategy is to delegitimize the elections as Biden’s win has seemed likely already months before elections. Covid-19 is a contributing to this dangerous situation.
- Nightmare scenario: Imperfect constitutional provisions for succession
The nightmare scenario would be the outcome of two basic factors.
- First the Democrats vote usually overwhelmingly more often by mail than Republicans and now, because of Covid-19, they are expected to vote many times more by mail than in earlier elections. Polls have found that Republicans are much less worried about the pandemic and might mostly vote in person in polling places like in earlier elections.
- Secondly, President Trump and his supporters see these facts an an opening for delegitimizing elections because of mail voting – in case Biden is on the path to victory – and actively discouraging mail-in voting in key states as well (e.g. the Republican Governor of Texas decreed that there should be only one drop-in mail box site in each county of the state meaning in some cases one box site for millions of residents).
This nightmare scenario might not be realized if Biden is able to win by a landslide on Election Day. But it is important to consider this scenario as it reveals the vulnerability of the US constitution in case of a future ruthless president seeking a re-election or any future populist presidential candidate understanding the constitutional loopholes and using them to his or her advantage.
In Gellman’s nightmare scenario, Donal Trump leads on Election Day while Biden wins after all voting is counted. Trump’s strategy is to declare him a winner on 3rd of November and to seek both the courts, including the Supreme Court, and the assistance of Trump’s sympathetic Republican legislators and governors in swing states to stop any further vote-counting.
So far this kind of situation has not happened in the US for some 150 years. But in 1876, in key swing states at that time the situation was similar as now in swing states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. The legislature was Republican, but the governors were Democrats. In 1876 the Republican legislatures certified a Republican candidate (Rutherford Hayes) as a winner but Democratic governors a Democratic candidate (Samuel Tilden) as a winner. When the Congress met in early January to declare a new president there were two contradicting results from key swing states. This can happen in a worst case scenario on January 6th, 2021, as well.
In January 1877 the leaders of the Congress (and others who were involved) were able to negotiate a winner (Hayes) but the process was difficult. Two days before Inauguration, the sitting president, Ulysses Grant, was so concerned that he considered declaring martial law and naming fellow Republican Hayes as the winner. In 2021, Trump may welcome this kind of scenario. His friend and fixer, Richard Stone, has already suggested to Trump the use of martial law for his benefit.
Prof Bruce Ackerman, in a Slate article, refers to a related scenario. The declaration of the winner is supposed to happen in a joint session of the Congress on 6 January 2021. Ackerman continues:
“Mike Pence, as president of the Senate, will chair the joint session of Congress that decides who won the election. Before the session begins, Trump announces that Pence will disqualify close Biden victories as plainly fraudulent, while upholding close Republican victories as entirely legitimate—making it mathematically impossible for Congress to select Biden. The president’s lawyers claim that precedents from the founding era authoritatively establish Pence’s unilateral authority on such matters. To counter this threat, Nancy Pelosi refuses to allow the joint session to take place and asserts that the plain language of the President Succession Act makes her, as speaker, ‘acting president’ on Jan. 20. This conflict on Capitol Hill provokes an escalating wave of street protests across America, and violent police measures, as Inauguration Day approaches.”
If the above scenarios prove to be true then either the Congressional leaders (with covert assistance from generals, state governors and others) will reach compromise before Inauguration Day, or they just cannot. Then, if Trump declares martial law, and himself as President for more four years, the US will become an ‘unstable democracy’.
This is not such a far-fetched scenario as it might look in the first instance as some see already a possibility of civil war situations when we approach late 2020 and thereafter. One such scenario was studied in summer 2020 in four days of simulations of Transition Integrity Project modelling the election and its aftermath in an affect to find out the worst case scenarios. Gellman describes one such worst-case scenario as follows:
“John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair in 2016 led a Biden team in another scenario that was prepared to follow Trump to the edge of civil war, encouraging three blue states threatening a secession.”
The strongly ingrained attitudes and ideological rigidity of both Democrats and Republicans regarding the Trump victory has just intensified recently auguring badly for the election aftermath. Hillary Clinton jumped the bandwagon saying: “Joe Biden should not concede under any circumstances.”
Implications for the global community: A question of values
The pandemic has hit the world hard – increasing poverty, inequality and economic and social hardships everywhere. Its impact on environment and climate change is not yet clear. But its impact on our values is maybe the strongest.
The US has been a champion of the stable and globalized liberal world order with free trade and support for international organizations and coalitions. But since Trump’s election we have seen a clear erosion of US leadership in these areas. The US has also been a champion of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the world but Trump has shown little interest in following US presidential tradition.
The US reputation in the world was already hit hard by its poor initial Covid-19 response. Any election instability will further erode its potential leadership role particularly in furthering democratic values and setting an example to new or restored democracies that are struggling to maintain such principles and practices amidst the pandemic and deepening economic and social calamities.
Worse, US electoral instability might inspire a new wave of ruthless leaders to resort blindly to national interests and ‘survival of the fittest’ away from globalism and internationalism as strong global values that grew out from the tragic experiences of the WWII, and the idealism of the victorious states. Populist leaders, and of course dictators, can use the vulnerabilities in democratic constitutions and practices, and sudden openings for power crab created by Covid-19, for their own political benefits.
But perhaps the most dangerous trend inspired by the current US politics is the effort at undermining the value of truth. Honesty and integrity are under attack by populists, dictators and conspiracy theorists who want to create a strong feeling of divide between ‘us and them’ – the ‘evil’ and the ‘patriotic’. Strong emotions dominate when ‘fake news’ is a new political slogan and truth is losing its impact as a uniting force in national and global politics. The culture of ‘lying without shame’ might become the new normal. Prof Joseph Nye calls this trend a ‘1930-like authoritarian challenge’.
The international governance system is also under attack and might see major changes. Trump’s isolationist strategy will probably continue whether Trump or Biden is the next US president, albeit less so with Biden. But Biden as a new president might face so wide street violence and instability by Trump supporters that he might not have the luxury to devote much time to international affairs as he is trying to save the US from civil war like conditions.
As a consequence, both China and Europe are likely to become more influential players on the world scene. Because of Covid and the election instability, US leadership and exceptionalism in the world is bound to decrease. China’s growing role might be inevitable. That might not bode well for global democratic values and transparency in global governance. The EU, however, might offer a balancing counterpoint.
The above trends are mostly negative currents in the world governance system of today. But not all possible future trends are negative. Joseph Nye saw a possibility for a greener planetary future. Public opinion in many democracies is beginning to place a higher priority on climate change and environmental conservation. Some governments and companies are re-organizing to deal with such issues. Even before Covid-19, one could foresee an international agenda in 2030 defined by each country’s focus on green issues. By highlighting the links between human and planetary health, the pandemic accelerates adoption of this agenda.
Trump’s re-election might not further greener global trends but it might not stop them either. Biden’s win might accelerate the international focus to stop global warming as an existential threat to all of us.
The future will show if the goal of a sustainable planet will unite us all amidst the aftermath of the pandemic. Such a new unifying global value is, in fact, badly needed.