For foreigners who look to the United States as an exemplar of democracy, this election has been as tense as it has been for most Americans.
President Donald Trump’s premature declaration of victory and effort to scrap millions of votes shocked the democratic world. Ditto for the clumsy way our election system has performed (even before discussing the Electoral College).
This is not small stuff. America’s soft power, the belief in the U.S. as a model of democracy (despite racial injustice and other warts), is still critical to America’s influence abroad.
Yet, when it comes to our election system, the world has seen America acting less like an advanced democracy than a third-rate power, or even an autocracy where voters are suppressed. A look at how the world views this election is a bracing reminder of how much our convoluted election system needs change.
Leaders and commentators in allied countries were stunned by the Trump declaration.
German parliamentarian Norbert Rottgen, considered a potential successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, told NPR that Trump’s claim showed “a total lack of respect for the law.” The conservative Times of London wrote bluntly: “It is hard to look at our closest ally this morning without concluding that it is a nation in trouble.”
France’s Le Monde newspaper wrote that such a Trumpian call for vote suppression was “common in authoritarian regimes” and “not worthy of the United States of America.”
Beyond amazement at Trump’s demagoguery, foreigners are also confused by the convoluted election system in the U.S. that makes voting harder. And they are astonished at GOP plans to ask the Supreme Court to disqualify tens of thousands of votes.
The New York Times did a fascinating short video interviewing young people from Estonia, Britain, Australia, South Africa and elsewhere who were agog at the multitude of different state rules for voter registration.
“Why do you need to register?” asked a young Estonian, noting that in his country you are automatically registered. In Canada, you can register when you arrive at the polls. And most democracies either grant time off for voting or have it on a nonworking day.
As for making it harder to cast mail-in ballots, the universal reaction was disbelief. An Indian woman exclaimed, “It’s like you want to stop people from voting.” Yes, well, exactly.
You get the point: It’s past time to make voting easier, not harder. Some states such as Oregon have done it. After this year’s bruising struggle, perhaps others can be sufficiently shamed or encouraged to follow suit.
But equally important is to refurbish America’s democratic image, so tarnished by Trump and this election.
I was reminded how much this matters as I watched the election returns at home with a visiting journalist from Moscow, Yevgenia Albats, who came to check out this swing state.
Long a leading Russian opposition journalist, Albats was editor of a superb investigative news magazine until the Kremlin put it out of business. Albats has survived all kinds of pressures, including an explosive device left in her car, but has never lost her hopes that democracy will one day come to Russia. Despite Trump’s disturbingly cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin, she retained her belief in the American model – until now.
Watching the confusing patchwork of election rules, state by state, county by county, and the struggle over voter suppression and absentee ballots, she told me, “This is exactly what the Russian authorities use as an argument against democracy. They tell Russians, ‘Do you really want this mess?’ ”
On Tuesday evening, Albats found it hard to believe Trump had won over nearly half the country, whatever the final results. “After four years, when this president lied to the American people about COVID-19, how is it possible so many voted for Trump, given what he did?” she asked. “I thought America was capable of learning from its own mistakes, a lesson America has given over and over to the world. But now I understand it is not.”
Albats was pained that Trump had said not a word about the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, or the ongoing struggle by Belarusian democrats against a dictator.
“It’s important for us who keep fighting for democracy in Russia to believe that somewhere there are people who believe in democracy,” she said. “We understand you can’t help us, but we need you to be a model. That is America’s soft power. Yours is one of the most educated populations in the world, with great experience in democracy. So this is not just about Trump.”
Whoever wins this election (and I write before the results are final), America’s soft power has been deeply tarnished during the Trump years. All the more so if Trump rejects a clear Biden victory.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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