• Ideas
  • politics

What Happens Next with America’s Electoral Legitimacy

7 minute read
Ian Bremmer is a foreign affairs columnist and editor-at-large at TIME. He is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, and GZERO Media, a company dedicated to providing intelligent and engaging coverage of international affairs. He teaches applied geopolitics at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and his most recent book is The Power of Crisis.

It was bound to be an eventful week for U.S. politics, with the impeachment trial of Donald Trump wrapping up the same week as the State of the Union. We got all that drama and then some, courtesy of the Iowa Democratic Caucuses and a faulty election app. It became a disastrous week for U.S. election integrity… and it’s only going to get worse.

Why It Matters:

No shortage of U.S. political news to follow this week, as all the major stories drove to the same unavoidable conclusion—upcoming presidential elections in November will be considered the least legitimate by American voters in at least a century. Up until this week, conventional wisdom was that the biggest threat facing U.S. electoral legitimacy emanated from Russia (and other foreign actors) looking to actively interfere in the proceedings, from attempting to hack vote totals to purposely spreading fake news. But this was the week the American people should have woken up to the fact that the greatest threat to U.S. elections may well be from Americans themselves.

Begin with impeachment. After much hemming and hawing, the Senate voted both to bypass the need for more witnesses and to acquit President Trump of his impeachment charges along party lines… save for GOP Senator Mitt Romney, who joined Democrats in voting to find Trump guilty of abuse of power (though not of obstructing Congress). A Trump acquittal was always going to be a problem for Trump critics who believe Trump’s decision to leverage military aid into an investigation into his political rival clearly qualifies as “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors”—any Trump victory that follows would be inevitably tainted in their eyes. But deciding to forgo witnesses (even when one, former national security adviser John Bolton, seems to have enough pertinent information to literally write a book) only fuels more feelings of illegitimacy for the upcoming presidential elections. And the GOP approach to framing impeachment as a purely partisan attempt to overturn the 2016 election results (Romney’s vote to convict notwithstanding) was a smart bit of politicking that allows Republican senators to avoid engaging the evidence that had been mounting against Trump and simply focus on the process matters they took issue with… a tactic to keep Republican voters onside while at the same dinging Americans’ faith in U.S. political processes more broadly.

Now turn to Iowa. Iowa has long been in the crosshairs of critics arguing that a state as small, rural and white shouldn’t have such a prime position in the nominating calendar. It’s also been in the crosshairs for past missteps as well—in 2012, Romney was declared the winner of the Republican caucus by a slender 8 votes, only to have his victory officially reversed 16 days later in favor of Rick Santorum, though the damage to Santorum’s momentum was already done. 2016 proved to be a testy Iowa contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton as well, which probably factored into some prominent Sanders supporters (and possibly even campaign surrogates) implying that the fix against him was in. And it didn’t help that prominent Trump surrogates like Donald Trump Jr. and Senator Lindsey Graham jumped at the opportunity to pile on the Democrats, fanning the flames of conspiracy theories by suggesting that the DNC is (yet again, according to them) conspiring to prevent Sanders taking the nomination. And all that was after multiple candidates tried to claim victory for themselves, the digital app for reporting the votes malfunctioned and delayed the results for days on end, and the chair of the Democratic National Committee called for a “recanvass,” only to be rebuffed by Iowa Democrats.

All of which is to say—there are elements on both the Republican and Democratic side whose interest it is to erode the legitimacy of elections in a short-term play to gain votes for their preferred political candidate with long-term consequences to the legitimacy of U.S. elections and political processes going forward.

What Happens Next:

There’s more to come. Now that Trump has been acquitted, he’s emboldened to take even more aggressive and controversial political decisions. While Senator Susan Collins of Maine believed that Trump learned his lesson, Trump himself begs to differ (forcing Collins to concede that her comments were more “aspirational” than anything else). And with the precedent set that this batch of GOP senators are highly unlikely to abandon him (especially as elections draw nearer), Trump may well solicit other foreign actors to interfere on his behalf—at this point, he’s facing his last election ever and has little to lose by doing so. The Trump team has proven it will go to great lengths to ensure that his conversations with other foreign leaders never see the light of day, which is a disaster at a time when more transparency is needed to renew confidence in the electoral process and the American public has grown numb to White House denials. And while Trump’s State of the Union speech steered clear of the divisive issue of impeachment, his post-impeachment press conference sans teleprompter served a reminder that the worry with Trump isn’t typically the scripted remarks—it’s the ones he makes off the cuff… and he’ll be making plenty of those over the next few months. As election day draws near and the pressure mounts, Trump is liable to lash out in increasingly provocative ways.

As for the Democrats, the Iowa debacle isn’t doing them any PR favors (read this New York Times story about the contradictory results Iowa’s Democratic Party has put out), and opens the space wider for die-hard progressives outside the party’s mainstream to argue that the DNC is conspiring against them. Anti-establishment Democrats have long been railing against establishment politics, and can easily point to Trump’s acquittal as Exhibit A. Should Bernie Sanders fail to capture the Democratic nomination, in their mind they have Exhibit 1A. And if state Democratic parties screw up any more primaries, more mainstream Democrats will question the legitimacy of the process as well, fueled by GOP operatives who will seize the opportunity to show how inept the Democrats are, another short-term push for voters that ends up delegitimizing the overall American political process in the long run.

The Key Statistic That Explains It:

According to a poll conducted by Ipsos and C-Span this past September, 46 percent of Americans have little to no confidence that November elections will be “open and fair.” This week’s developments won’t help.

The One Thing to Read About It:

Eurasia Group’s Top Risk #1 for 2020. I was particularly proud of the list Eurasia Group put out this year, but I didn’t think our top risk would begin panning out less than two months into the new year.

The One Major Misconception About It:

People have long been pointing the finger at Trump and foreign actors like Russia whenever the issue of election legitimacy comes up. This week conclusively proved that Democrats are going to add to the conspiracy theory mix, and that the U.S. doesn’t need any help muddling electoral results, it can do so just fine by itself, thank you very much.

The One Thing to Say About It at a Dinner Party:

In a functioning political system, Iowa would be the wake-up call both sides need to get serious about protecting the legitimacy of elections, from both threats foreign (election interference, hacking, fake news) and domestic (all that plus US politicians seizing on conspiracy theories for their own political purposes). But given the toxicity of U.S. politics these days, it’s more likely that all sides will point fingers at each other in the hopes of scoring a victory in an election both sides will frame as illegitimate, only to contend the same election was legitimate once their side wins it. Call it the law of diminishing political returns. #RaceToTheBottom

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.