Our Work Begins at Home

This commentary is part of CSIS's Global Forecast 2021 essay series.

How damaged is the United States’ standing as a leader of the community of democratic nations?

In the two weeks since the seditious invasion of the U.S. Capitol, I have had numerous conversations with foreign friends and journalists. All ask the same rhetorical question: how fragile is democracy in the United States now?

To be sure, the attack on the heart of U.S. democracy was exceptionally dangerous, but no one believes that this incoherent mob could have succeeded in any way. Rather, most commentators fear that it shows a widely shared disdain for our democratic institutions. Can the United States be a democratic leader when there is great division at home?

President Donald Trump's behavior after his electoral defeat is unprecedented. He started to seed the narrative of a stolen election months earlier. But no one anticipated that he would stimulate dozens and dozens of lawsuits and legal challenges to the election results. This was an unrecognized good thing, however. In over 60 legal challenges presented in various courts of law, no court found any credible evidence of fraud or corruption. The U.S. judiciary was challenged repeatedly and consistently demanded facts and truth over campaign rhetoric. Most legal challenges were objectively vacuous and meritless. Still, the judiciary heard out the plaintiffs, demanding facts that meet objective standards.

The United States has a unique federal structure of sovereign power. Some powers and authorities reside exclusively with the national government, and other powers are reserved exclusively for state and local governments. It is the exclusive responsibility of state and local governments to conduct elections. No time in my adult memory has there been such widespread challenges to the manner in which municipal governments held elections.

Trump supporters forced recounts in numerous states, but none of the recounts revealed significant errors in the original tally. Trump supporters appealed to the courts, but none found fundamental flaws in any jurisdiction that required court-directed intervention. In the most challenging of times—with a raging pandemic at home and active Russian interference from abroad—local government authorities conducted disciplined and objective elections.

Over two-thirds of Americans believe the election was fair and honest. Shockingly, two-thirds of Republicans continue to say that President Trump probably won the election. This is a serious problem. A majority of Republicans support an assertion that has been consistently and impartially disproven.

Objectively, these perverse challenges over two months have proven the fundamental strength of U.S. democracy. The rule of law is rock solid. The structure and conduct of elections are rock solid. Sadly, national-level politicians have succumbed to superficial political pressure, departing from truth to participate in political gestures that raise doubts in the minds of citizens about the state of U.S. democracy.

I do not believe that more than a tiny handful of members of Congress actually believed President Trump's claims of a stolen election. The real tragedy is that while so many politicians did not fundamentally believe these allegations, they also did not think it mattered to play along with a fraudulent narrative. The conclusion is sadly obvious: for a large portion of nationally elected officials, the responsibility of governing is secondary to the politics of power.

Is this a mortal wound for U.S. democracy? I do not think so. The foundation of democracy—rule of law and honest elections—showed great strength in the face of passionate assault. Over 90 percent of the Republican members of Congress who played along with the narrative of a stolen election and voted against recognizing the electors from Pennsylvania have subsequently condemned the seditious invasion of the Capitol building. Politicians are excellent barometers of their own political health, and they realized that Americans widely were horrified and disgusted by the action of these domestic seditionists.

Objectively, the United States proved the strength of its democratic institutions. But the politics showed a deeply riven nation. This is the real challenge of the United States remaining a leader of democratic nations. We now need to focus on the profound domestic problems that have generated this political disunion. Ultimately, the United States’ standing as a leading democracy stems not from verbal assertions or the mass of the economy or the strength of the military. It derives from our ability to solve internal domestic problems in a transparent and effective manner. We can be a strong nation only if we solve these domestic flaws. We advance democratic values in the world when we solve our problems at home. President Joe Biden is right to give priority to these challenges.

John J. Hamre is CEO and president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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John J. Hamre
CSIS President and CEO, and Langone Chair in American Leadership