Why the incoming US President lacks democratic legitimacy

With the end of Obama’s Presidency we are losing rare inspirational and humane leadership. The exemplary and graceful leadership provided by the Barack Obama Presidency includes First-Lady Michelle.

However, the drama that has unfolded under his watch, regrettably, is the election and inauguration of an unqualified and unfit president with assistance of Vladimir Putin, the ‘leader’ of the undemocratic world, while aided by a misdirected intervention of the FBI.

These days, with the respectable exception of Civil Rights Leader John Lewis, the political elite in Washington DC appears to be ‘keeping up appearances’ while the biggest political and constitutional crises in American history unfolds before our eyes with an incoming president lacking the required democratic legitimacy. It is the unresolved dilemma and weakness of democracy that it can be voted out.  Are we witnessing the end of the ‘American ‘dream’?

Democratic legitimacy is to incorporate not only the procedural process of electing a president into office but also the quality of leadership exerted in obtaining the broadest possible consent of the citizenry to govern in a manner consistent with the values of democracy.

Why does the incoming 45th US president lack democratic legitimacy?

  • Unbecoming, undemocratic behaviour: demeaning a wide range of population groups and expressing ethnocentric sentiments during the entire election campaign;
  • Lack of policy dialogue: Serious dialogue on policy was avoided, reverting instead to empty hyperbole avoiding substantial debate;
  • Want of accountability and transparency: refusal to disclose his tax returns while unwilling to divest himself of his business interests;
  • Losing the popular vote: elected with 2.8 million less votes than his opponent, the biggest deficit in obtaining a majority in US history;
  • Freedom of press: aggressively attacking media and journalists, while in a democracy the role of the media is to keep the President, the Executive, accountable and not the other way round;
  • External intervention: evidence of Russian manipulation of the outcome of the American elections in support of the Republican candidate, the facts on the extent of which are gradually exposed;
  • Domestic intervention: The FBI failed to stop external manipulation of the outcome of the elections while it shortly before the elections, against established practice, chose to intervene against the interest of the Democratic candidate.

One may argue about the impact of each of these aspects on the presidential legitimacy, but all of them taken together give an inescapable finding. Recent opinion polls bear out this fact, indicating that only about 40% of American citizens approve of the way the incoming President has handled the transition period, a bad omen for things to come.  Again, this is an unprecedented low score.  President Obama, for example, scored an 84% approval rating in how he handled his transition in the run-up to his inauguration.

Why should one speak of a political and constitutional crises?

During the past weeks, it has become evident that insiders in Washington DC were briefed about the manipulation of the outcome of the American election by the leadership of Russia.  At the highest DC policy level, people will, no doubt, have realised the implications for the legitimacy of the new President of this partisan intervention. It has yet to be explained why the Obama administration kept quiet, or alternatively, how the Administration tried to counter this intervention.

How can the democratic legitimacy of an elected president be allowed to be affected by an external autocratic leader?  Was it the mistaken belief and complacency, based on the vast majority of opinion polls that the Democratic Party candidate would win nevertheless?  Or was it because the constitutional instruments are lacking to intervene in the on-going electoral process without being seen to be partisan?  Or is it perhaps a combination of the two?

From a democratic perspective nobody can, in all honesty, be satisfied with the process that now results in the inauguration of the 45th American President. But how can a repeat of such a situation be prevented and what constitutional and policy instruments should be considered?

Will the dominant position of the Republican Party that came into power through this process, allow for an open debate about these fundamental issues?  The polarised political relations in the US give little reason for optimism in this regards.  Perhaps the democratic political system in the US is too ‘broken’ to self-correct and a fundamental overhaul of the electoral system and administration is long overdue. A new agreement about an enforceable code about how election campaigns are conducted is necessary.  This overhaul, under the current political environment, is not likely to come from Washington DC and will need a mobilisation of the citizenry, regardless of political affiliation, as the departing President called for in his farewell Chicago address.

For the 2017 – 2021 presidential term, the foundational democratic principle ‘we the people’ in the US Constitution has been deeply compromised.  Hopefully, not irreparably.

  *This article was published by Mail & Guardian Africa. To view the article on their website click here

Roel is a leading international expert on supporting democratic transitions and consolidation. For three decades he has worked for the advancement of democracy in over 30 countries on all continents. An active participant in the major international democracy networks, he has worked with all leading international organisations with mandates to support democratic governance.

He was the first executive director of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) and led the organisation for nearly 10 years. Prior to NIMD, he held a senior executive position at the Institute for Democracy and Election Assistance (International IDEA) and initiated the establishment of the European Partnership for Democracy (EPD). He helped pioneer the inclusive dialogue methodology in his work at IDEA and NIMD. Based on full local ownership – recognising that democracy has to be built from within – these dialogues result in substantial consensus about national democratic reform agendas, including links to necessary economic reforms.

To read publications by Roel von Meijenfeldt on our website please click here.

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