Weak Parties Endangered American Democracy — And Then They May Have Saved It

The transition from Trump-Pence to Biden-Harris is now moving full speed ahead. Even though the president’s lawsuits to overturn the election results continue, it is now very difficult to imagine how exactly even a successful lawsuit would overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Barring a truly unexpected turn of events, Biden and Harris will be sworn in as President and Vice President on January 21, 2021, just as expected.

Two weeks ago I reflected on the state of American politics, asking whether or not political scientists had overestimated the fragility of American democracy in the face of the Trump presidency. There are still a lot of questions to sort out—in particular, would I feel so sanguine had Biden-Harris’s Electoral College margin been slimmer?—but I remain convinced that political scientists ought to reevaluate their prior beliefs about just how vulnerable American democracy is to a Trump-like threat.

This is not the same as saying that there’s nothing wrong with American democracy.* Rather, we should think analytically about what precisely made Trump’s all-out assault on American democracy fail this November. And to be clear, that is exactly what Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results is: an assault on American democracy.

The two most common answers that I encounter to why Trump’s efforts are failing are (1) because Trump and his team are a bunch of incompetent nincompoops who couldn’t figure out how to steal an election properly, and (2) because vigilant Americans sounded the alarm about the depth and scale of Trump’s threat to democracy, and then a handful of Republican heroes stood up for their principles when it counted in Georgia and Michigan. Without denying either of these, I’d like to propose that we can draw some lessons from the comparative experience about what sorts of preconditions are necessary for an incumbent president like Trump to steal an election.

How to Autogolpe

It is obvious—but sometimes easy to forget—that stealing an election or suspending democracy is not something that can be accomplished by a single individual politician. It requires coordination and collaboration throughout a country’s institutions. One can imagine someone a president declaring “I have won this election”** but this statement has no authority unless people act as if it did. And in democracies, people and institutions expect that it is the votes that determine the outcome of an election rather than the statements of incumbent politicians.

Now, in other cases of presidential or prime ministerial self-coups, this hasn’t stopped incumbent chief executives from suspending parliament, reversing elections, or declaring a state of emergency or martial law. But doing so requires tools and structural preconditions that the American president does not currently possess.

For example, it helps if one has operational command over the domestic deployment of the armed forces, like Thai Prime Minister (and former General) Thanom Kittikachorn had. But the American president does not have that sort of operational command over the Army or the Marines. The National Guard may be federalized under particular circumstances, and the American president might conceivably employ federal paramilitary forces under institutions such as ICE or the U.S. Marshals to achieve particular political ends, but to accomplish this would require institutional collaboration as well. Indeed, one notable precondition for Alberto Fujimori‘s autogolpe was a sustained domestic insurgency that had reinforced the unity of the Peruvian military and encouraged it to support Fujimori in order to crush what was perceived to be an existential threat to Peruvian national security.

Without the tools to unilaterally suspend democracy or stop the counting of ballots by force, President Trump’s efforts to reverse the results of the 2020 presidential election required him to find a way to overturn election results, which in the United States are administered through a dizzying array of state and local institutions. This means that he needed to find willing collaborators in the electoral administrations in key battleground states.

Weak Parties in a Federal System

If you want to compel key actors to steal an election for you, and you cannot do it using military force, it does not suffice to rage about conspiracies. You actually need a mechanisms to ensure that key actors comply with your directives. The comparative record gives us plenty of cases in which incumbent politicians have responded to disappointing electoral outcomes by suspending democracy, such Malaysia in 1969***, without relying on the military. And the recent histories of Hungary and Poland show us how incumbents can erode meaningful checks and balances through deliberate strategies of opposition harassment, court packing, and legislative actions that tilt the playing field in favor of the incumbent and his party.

What prevented President Trump from succeeding in these efforts? We already have one piece of the puzzle: America’s federal structure makes it difficult for our national politicians to police the actions of local and state electoral officials. President Trump and his team cannot fire uncooperative county clerks. They cannot withhold pay from the Georgia Secretary of State for failing to disqualify Fulton County ballots. The best they can do is to make public pleas, to impugn their reputations, and to attempt to bribe them. No doubt these strategies might have worked, but it is a far cry from what is possible in a unitary system where the national government directly oversees election administrators. I have no doubt that, counterfactually, had President Trump been able to fire Brad Raffensperger and replace him with a toady, he would have.

For the second piece of the puzzle, I rely on insights I’ve learned from Julia Azari‘s analysis of how America combines weak parties with strong partisanship. America’s political parties are very weak—and for seven decades this has been something of a bugbear for political scientists. The weakness of American political parties is evident in their inability to prevent partisan outsiders such as Donald John Trump**** from securing the GOP’s nomination, and Bernie Sanders—who was not even a member of a major political party—from nearly securing the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination twice. America’s political parties simply do not have the internal discipline and top-down control that is characteristic of political parties in other advanced democracies.

But here is the hidden upside. To wit, without strong top-down political control over his copartisans, President Trump cannot use the party’s resources or authority to effectively punish any copartisans who might not toe his line. In a strong party system, even if President Trump were unable to fire an uncooperative official, he could arrange for their expulsion from the GOP. His team could ensure that these officials never were again allowed to run for office by denying them a position on a party list. These things happen in democracies strong party systems with some frequency, and it is the threat that they might happen that allows aspiring autocrats to use their political parties as weapons against their opponents both within and outside of the party.

As it is, the only tool that the President Trump has to punish uncooperative Republicans is the threat that the voters will punish them later. This is the threat that a loyal elected GOP official will be primaried by a Trumpist. This is indeed a threat that many GOP officials probably take seriously. But, but, and once again, but… even though Trump is a formidable campaigner, this threat is less credible once Trump is out of office. And GOP officials need not openly defy Trump, they can claim instead that they are simply “following the rule of law.”

Viewed in the American context, the threat of being primaried later seems like a very powerful tool in President Trump’s arsenal. But viewed comparatively, it’s just not that effective. Even as Trump vies for control over the institutional GOP, it is striking how little power this gives him over the actions of his copartisans, even when the chips are down.

Without stronger political parties or a unitary system of government, there’s just not much that the president can do to stop GOP election administrators from acknowledging that he lost the election. There are plenty of ways in Trump’s administration can (and is) doing lasting damage to America’s democracy. But perhaps surprisingly, the same weak parties that helped give us Trump are now helping to show him the door.



** Indeed, the president has said this a couple of times.

*** Note, however, that even here, the incumbent ruling coalition had won the election, just not with the parliamentary supermajority that it desired.

**** That’s right, the casino guy! From TV!