As if 2020 hadn’t given us enough drama, 2021 suddenly appeared on our television screens on January 6 with a riotous mob tearing through the US Capitol in Washington, DC, and interfering with the US Congress’s confirmation of Joe Biden’s election to the presidency, which eventually took place early the following morning.
The US is experiencing its worst constitutional crisis since Richard Nixon’s presidency and the Watergate scandal, if not since the 1861–1865 Civil War, thanks to current President Donald J. Trump.
It is essential to recognize that what occurred in the US reflects a purposefully indirect process for choosing the president and that, despite the system’s apparent antiquity today, this was the aim of the nation’s founders when they created it.
The United States is frequently called the “world’s first democracy.” Yet, it would be more appropriate to say that its founders intended the country to be an oligarchic republic. Remember that the US did not have “one person, one vote” at the beginning and that, up until 1913, senators were chosen indirectly by state legislatures.
Similarly, each state legislature determines its process for choosing its members of the Electoral College, which elects the president, by the US Constitution. In most states, these were initially not determined by public vote.
A very late date in the republic’s history, electors were not chosen in every state by popular vote until 1880. Additionally, there is a complicated process that follows an election. The US Congress formally accepts each state’s slate of electors on a date in January, just before inauguration day.
This confirms the outcome of the presidential election that was held the year before in November. Each state “certifies” its electors. The Trump-inspired mob staged its uprising on this very day, which if it had been successful would have amounted to a coup d’état. Contrast the ease of the Westminster parliamentary system with this US presidential election process.
Except in the instance of a hung parliament, where it may take some time to decide who can command a majority and stake a claim to becoming prime minister, the transfer of power is promptly started on election night (or, in India, on counting day), when it becomes evident who has won the election.
In the UK, for instance, the prime minister and his staff essentially evacuate 10 Downing Street, the official residence, and hand over the keys to the incoming prime minister the following morning in the event of a resounding defeat of an incumbent administration. Under the Westminster system, the drama we saw in Washington, DC, this January is just unimaginable.
Other nations, whose seeming democratic shortcomings are frequently criticized by American officials and by US political journalists, were more than a little amused by the shenanigans in the US capital.
The robustness of the US system, despite its well-known weaknesses, is demonstrated by Trump’s inability to reverse an election result against him through numerous judicial challenges and, at the very least, his moral support for insurrectionists.
— Luis Gonzalez (@LuisGonCT) December 19, 2022
While Trump may still have some tricks up his sleeve before his successor Joe Biden takes office on 20 January and while it is still theoretically possible at the time of writing this column that he may even be forcibly removed from office via one or more constitutional mechanisms, such as impeachment or the 25th amendment, what is beyond doubt is that the system worked, despite the harshest test it has ever been put through—a sitting president who refuses to accept defiant opposition
Given that neither nation is a democracy in any meaningful sense, the arrogance shown by China and Russia toward American electoral gaffes may be laughable. As events in the US played out, there was a fair amount of arrogance in India.
However, India is a democracy, albeit one with some well-known flaws. But let’s not forget that the Emergency (1975–1977), which venal and sycophantic politicians and bureaucrats imposed, was the first—and, hopefully, the last—time an elected prime minister refused to cede control in the face of a disfavorable court ruling.
Do we know what would have happened if Indira Gandhi had called an election in 1977 instead of extending the Emergency? Or what if she had resisted losing control after becoming victorious? We are lucky that neither of these hardly fantastical alternatives stretched the constraints of the Indian system further.
Any constitutional republic’s strength ultimately depends on the caliber of the institutions ingrained within it and a commitment to upholding the rule of law—not only in text but also in spirit—whether that constitutional republic is the United States or India.
Constitutional academics may still disagree about the legitimacy of Indira Gandhi’s use of emergency powers in a strictly legal sense. But the mootness of the issue was caused by a “committed” judiciary’s consent.
In contrast, as Trump himself admitted was annoying, even judges he appointed in the US refused to support his attempt to annul the election results. Vice President Mike Pence also refused to submit to Trump’s authority. The real lessons for other democracies are found in this.
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