How might we write about this election if it were happening anywhere but the United States? A former reality star who sought to claw his way out of debt ran for president in order to revive his brand and won despite millions more votes in favor of his opponent. His new rival is a familiar face with long ties to his party’s central organ; if elected, he would be the oldest president in the country’s history. The election will not be decided by the popular vote but by an antiquated system that privileges sparse and rural stretches of the country. Access to voting is unequal and patchy, a purposeful disparity upheld by the country’s increasingly right-wing judicial system. But here, in the world’s largest Christian-majority nation, citizens are used to it. After all, the last two Republican presidents have gained power through these quirks. No wonder their supporters believe in divine providence.
Earlier this year I started a website called The Ballot to cover every election except for the American one. The idea was that, in a time of rising authoritarianism, journalists from around the world could share what they know. In the past few months, The Ballot has published writing from some forty countries, many of which get little to no attention in the press we typically read at home.
Many of the articles we’ve published describe a situation familiar to Americans: people seeing their democracy leeched from them. In Hong Kong, our correspondent described being tear-gassed during months-long protests to preserve democracy, only to learn that China would be passing new restrictive laws repressing dissent. In Iran, our correspondent described a sense of dread at growing unemployment, poverty, and political repression because of the increasing isolation created by sanctions and political standoffs. In Belarus, where a colleague collected testimonials of local journalists who had been detained by President Alexander Lukashenko, a refrain was the need to keep fighting authoritarianism; the only other alternative was death.
But while people everywhere are envisioning how to hold their governments accountable, no other country shares America’s peculiar faith in its own institutions. Since Donald Trump’s election, we have been told that institutions are the answer. I remember standing in a D.C. kitchen the morning of the Women’s March, the day after Trump’s inauguration. Despite the excitement of the March, the conversation turned toward the power of career bureaucrats who were looking forward to working against the Trump administration from the inside; an embrace of government bureaucracy later exemplified in the heroization of Robert Mueller, a career administrator with a controversial record on issues like surveillance. This faith in American institutions is so blinding that egregious actions like Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold hearings for a possible Supreme Court justice even start to have their own status (“the McConnell rule”). Yet our institutions are so frail that a Democratic presidential candidate needs a landslide to eke out a narrow victory, and the death of an eighty-seven-year-old (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) can set into motion changes to labor and health-care law for a generation or more. This year’s historic, groundbreaking, galvanizing protests have begun to shake the grounds of this trust. But it often seems that this faith in the stability of institutions is just the newest form of American exceptionalism; an inability to see for in country what we would criticize anywhere else.
In early October, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put out a statement warning against irregularities in elections in Africa (he did not specify which country). A few days later, The New York Times published a story suggesting that problems in African elections were, to a certain extent, the fault of American election observers, who no longer cared about politics abroad. Why not invite outside observers to head to Harris County, Texas, site of one sole ballot box for millions of people? It would be foolish to think we have the luxury of claiming we know better than anyone else.
Madeleine Schwartz is a regular contributor to The New York Review. She won the 2019 European Press Prize for opinion writing. (February 2020)