RECAP: “The 2020 U.S. Election Crisis in Global Perspective,” Panel Discussion

With political bandwidth in the U.S. more and more consumed by tribal warfare, the perspectives of the American public and American leaders alike have become rigidly, problematically domestic. As Rich and Nancy Kinder Chair in Constitutional Democracy Jay Sexton noted in introducing the March 5 panel of scholars he convened and moderated, this lack of attention to the rest of the world could not come at a worse time. Why? For one, the United States’ place in the global order is (and for some time has been) in a state of tumult. More importantly, the challenges that we face in the U.S.—as well as the means of overcoming them—are entirely global in nature. Climate change pays no heed to borders. Any grappling with the violent history of racism must account for its international dimensions and legacies. The dizzying economic and technological changes of our time, along with the broader reverberations of globalization, are impacting societies everywhere, and today’s social and political movements, as seen with the worldwide protests following the murder of George Floyd, are increasingly transnational in the awareness they raise.

The wager of the March 5 panel, Prof. Sexton highlighted, is simply that we have much to learn from other nations and other polities, including things about ourselves, and he began down this road by asking all panelists to reflect on how the United States’ recent election crisis was being viewed and discussed abroad.

Dr. Erika Pani, El Colegio de México

As Dr. Pani described it, for a people who have no choice but to be intensely interested in the United States, January 6, 2021, was, in Mexico, shocking but not surprising. In fact, if there was any surprise at all, it was rooted in the fact that there wasn’t more violence in the build-up to the 2020 elections. For Mexicans, she continued, the U.S. is often seen as a victim of its own success—a hegemon with a long history of reliably clean elections that, perhaps because of this, is plagued both by naivete and by the lack of a central mechanism for speaking truth to events and for solving controversies that challenge its image of itself. This might explain why, in the wake of January 6, CNN reporters likened the scene to reporting from the “streets of Bogota,” with nary a mention of the role that the U.S. played in 20th-century Latin American coups. Likewise, this might explain why armed forces weren’t present to a fault at the Capitol despite being omnipresent in Summer 2020 as protests were taking place around the nation. The lasting image, then, was of a country in which performance has replaced reason as the animating force to its politics, a country which didn’t fully realize how close it came to things going up in flames.

Dr. Bheki R. Mngomezulu, University of the Western Cape

When South Africa became a democratic nation in 1994, it looked to America and its liberal constitution as a model to emulate. That admiration took a hit in 2000—when Dr. Mngomezulu said he joked with his friends from Florida about having free elections for centuries and still not knowing how to count votes—but a more significant erosion of perception took place in the era of Trump. If, in 2016, South Africans were confused by the disconnect between the popular vote and the electoral college, that confusion transformed into disappointment in 2020. What posed as political debate was a disaster. And when the loser of a free, fair, and credible election refused to concede defeat, the post-election violence that the African continent has long known reared its head in the U.S. An old democracy had been compromised in the minds of South Africans, Dr. Mngomezulu argued in closing, and the onus is now on President Biden to rejuvenate and redeem the nation’s reputation on the global stage.

Dr. Adam I.P. Smith, Rothermere American Institute (University of Oxford)

To begin, Dr. Smith offered a contextual point of note: British political and media elites are completely obsessed with American politics, down to their most microscopic details. In this sense, other nations’ disappointment at the 2020 elections and their aftermath didn’t exist in Britain because it had very much anticipated high drama. Trump had one of the lowest approval ratings worldwide there, even among conservatives, so there was never much doubt that the next episode in U.S. politics would feature the kind of grim crescendo that ultimately unfolded. Perhaps more significant than how the recent past is viewed, Dr. Smith added, is the tempered optimism (emphasis on tempered) for the next four years. Ever since 1916, a sticking point in British geopolitical thinking has been alternating faith in or hope for a strong alliance with the U.S.—a “special relationship”—and in Joe Biden, British political elites saw and swooned over an old-style progressive who spoke about just that. The renewed hope that comes with the Biden presidency, however, is cut with post-Trump terror. After witnessing the polarization and violence that played out in the United States over 2020 and early 2021, there is deep anxiety in Britain that another Trump is just around the corner and that a catastrophic geopolitical explosion will follow if that anxiety bears out.

Dr. Fumiko Nishizaki, University of Tokyo

In Japan, Dr. Nishizaki explained, the image of the U.S. has always been conflicted, and the 2020 election did nothing to change this: the election itself was surprisingly placid, while Trump’s denial of the results and his supporters’ storming of the Capitol was horrifying. The more pressing question, though, has to do with the longer-term impact of the Trump presidency on Japan. There are, of course, differences between the two nations, perhaps most relevant to this discussion being the fact that there is no imminent threat of domestic terrorism in Japan. However, the notion of legitimacy, a cornerstone of constitutional democracy, has for some time been eroding there as it has been in the U.S. As for where overlap exists with regard to this issue, Dr. Nishizaki pointed to three particular areas: (1) There has been a persistent undermining of the rule of law in Japan, where the constitution is fiercely contested, something with which the U.S. is all too familiar; (2) Abuse of power in personnel affairs is rampant, especially when it comes to Japanese politicians’ drastic increase in control over bureaucratic positions and bureaucrats’ quid pro quo willingness to bend the laws for politicians. Compounding the problem in Japan, she added, is a legislature with little to no investigative power (a facet of U.S. Congress with which the nation is fascinated); (3) The use of obfuscating language is corrosively prevalent in Japan, where being prosaic is valued over being responsive when it comes to addressing the public (though politicians are more candid in addressing supporters). And while this is, to be sure, diametrically opposed to the vitriolic Twitter bombast of Trump, it undermines legitimacy all the same. This latter point, Dr. Nishizaki concluded, is an important one. If many were shocked to see what happened in the U.S., the question remains as to whether Japan is headed in the same direction by a different path.

For more on the remainder of the panel, which touched on everything from U.S.-Mexico trade agreements, to what we can learn about reckoning with racist histories from the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, and from Brexit and Trump, to the re-emergence of assertive forms of nationalism in Asian countries, click here for a recording of the full conversation and Q&A.