What Does It Look Like When Citizens Don’t Trust Elections?

Perhaps more than anything that he has said through his campaign, Donald Trump’s charge that the upcoming presidential elections will be rigged have frightened political observers, and especially political scientists. The reason is that elite and public acceptance of electoral procedures is essential to democratic politics. Political scientists understand that the foundation of democratic political order is the acceptance of the rules of the game. The only way that we really know that losers accept those rules when they lose and respect the outcome. The politics of a losing presidential candidate rejecting the election itself is almost unimaginable. It would risk a crisis of systemic legitimacy.

But what would such politics look like, now that we must imagine it? American history is no great source of information. There is the case of the Civil War, which began when southern states seceded from the union. But this was a cleavage first and foremost over policy—slavery—and the political order that it required. And as such, the Civil War had a clear regional divide over that policy. Trump’s allegations about vote-rigging are not regionally defined, and they are not about specific policy. They are channeling mass dissatisfaction with the entire political system, refracted (as is often the case with Trump) through the candidate’s own self-obsessions. No state could, or would, secede from the union over Trump’s electoral defeat. The crisis of systemic legitimacy would be national, within the states, between supporters of Trump and his opponents.

To get a sense of what anti-systemic politics looks like, one must look comparatively. This puts us in the territory of comparative politics. There are no perfect analogues for the United States in 2016, but there are cases that give us an imperfect glimpse of the stakes.


What’s the parallel? I have written a bit about Thai politics here before. Thailand today is run by the military after a coup in 2014 that unseated the party associated with Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister himself forced out of power by the military in 2007. This is just the most recent manifestation, though, of a struggle in Thai politics between a traditional Bangkok-centered elite and challengers who represent (either in truth or in aspiration) political outsiders. Those who don’t favor what they anticipate to be the outcomes of elections respond by boycotting them, so results are lopsided but lack a participatory democratic mandate. Protests by both sides have paralyzed the capital, and contributed to a continuing sense of political crisis with no end in sight.
What’s different? Thailand’s political crisis differs in two ways from a hypothetical U.S. scenario in November 2016. First and foremost, Thailand’s politics is partially regional, with Thaksin enjoying particular strength in the north and northeast. Second, the losers in Thai electoral politics are those associated with the royal family, the military, and the bureaucracy, who together still hold an immense amount of political power. The problem facing Thailand is that the power-holding minority faces a voting population that will almost always defeat it in free elections. In the U.S., the problem would be that a relatively disempowered minority had been defeated in an election.


What’s the parallel? In 2001, two candidates declared themselves the winner of Madagascar’s presidential election: Didier Ratsiraka and Marc Ravalomanana. More precisely, Ravalomanana declared himself to have won in the first round, and incumbent Ratsiraka rejected this claim. What followed was armed conflict between the two sides which only ended with Ratsiraka seeking exile. Fast forward to Madagascar in 2009, beset by a political crisis when the popular mayor of Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina, led protests against Ravalomanana. The details are complicated. The outcome was Rajoelina unseating Ravalomanana, military intervention, and a protracted transition to new elections in 2013 marked by constitutional rulings about who could and could not legal participate in the election. The result is poor governance and, again, a simmering sense of political crisis that cannot be solved by having another election.
What’s different? Madagascar is a very poor country with a capital city whose politicians dominate national politics (Rajoelina and Ravalomanana both are former mayors of Antananarivo, and Ratsiraka, pointedly, is not from Antananarivo). Parties are incredibly weak, little more than personal vehicles founded by elites who wish to enter politics. As in Thailand, the military plays an important political role. In the U.S., both parties are stronger, with more geographically dispersed bases of popular support.

Crises of systemic legitimacy in Madagascar and Thailand, as noted above, differ in important ways from the crisis of legitimacy that Trump’s commentary about election rigging might generate. These differences come from social structure, history, and political institutions. Yet we can identify three lessons from these two cases that ought to give elites across the U.S. political spectrum, both within and outside of the two main parties, pause.

(1) When electoral procedures lose popular legitimacy, it is nearly impossible to get that legitimacy back. Elections are one great way of building popular legitimacy, and if by assumption they no longer do, what will?
(2) The downstream consequences from the loss of electoral legitimacy are nearly impossible to predict. Andry Rajoelina as President?
(3) Non-electoral sources of power are particularly dangerous when elections no longer legitimately empower politicians. This point cannot be overstated.

A caveat: There are good reasons not to fetishize democratic procedures. Any number of Americans can tell you that they have never considered the current U.S. system to be legitimate. But even the strongest critics of electoral democracy must take seriously the gamble that they entertain when candidates like Trump undermine the legitimacy of U.S. elections. After all, look what happened when U.S. politicians tried to undermine the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency: Donald J. Trump became the GOP nominee.