When a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and stopped Congress from certifying Joe Biden as the nation’s next president, it was scary – and fatal for at least five people.
But it did not pose a serious threat to the nation’s democracy.
An attempt at an illegal power grab somehow keeping Donald Trump in the Oval Office was never likely to happen, let alone succeed. Trump always lacked the authority, and the mass support, required to steal an election he overwhelmingly lost. He didn’t control state election officials or have enough influence over the rest of the process to achieve that goal.
Nevertheless, over his term as president, he repeatedly violated democratic norms, like brazenly promoting his own business interests, interfering in the Justice Department, rejecting congressional oversight, insulting judges, harassing the media and failing to concede his election loss.
However, as scholars who study democracy historically and comparatively, we predict that the biggest threats to democracy Trump poses won’t emerge until after he exits the White House – when Biden will have to face the Trump presidency’s most serious challenges.
It wasn’t a coup
Trump never really threatened a coup, which is a swift and irregular transfer of power from one executive to another, where force or the threat of force installs a new leader with the support of the military. Coups are the typical manner in which one dictator succeeds another.
A coup displacing a legitimately elected government is quite rare; prominent examples from the past 100 years across the world include Spain in 1923, Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Greece in 1967, Chile in 1973, Pakistan in 1999 and Thailand in 2006.
A military-backed takeover was not going to happen in the U.S. Its armed forces are extremely unlikely to intervene in domestic politics for regime change, especially not in favor of a president who is historically unpopular among its ranks.
Even if Trump’s most ardent supporters believe he won, there aren’t enough of them to credibly threaten a civil war. Despite their ability to breach a thinly defended Capitol, a sustained insurrection would be easily quashed by law enforcement.
Trump couldn’t even stage an “auto-coup,” which happens when an elected executive declares a state of emergency and suspends the legislature and judiciary, or restricts civil liberties, to seize more power. There have also been very few of those perpetrated against democratically elected governments over the last 100 years. The most prominent examples are Hitler’s Germany in 1933, Bordaberry in Uruguay (1972), Fujimori in Peru (1992), Erdoğan in Turkey (2015), Maduro in Venezuela (2017), Morales in Bolivia (2019) and Orbán in Hungary (2020).
A U.S. president can’t dismiss the legislative or judicial branches, and elections are not under his control: The Constitution declares that they are run by the states. And the declaration of election results is also well outside the power of the president (or vice president). It doesn’t matter whether the losing side formally concedes; the new president’s term begins at noon on Jan. 20.
The attack on the Capitol may have threatened the lives of federal legislators and Capitol police officers, but the most it achieved was to interrupt, briefly, a ministerial procedure. Within hours, both the House and Senate were back in session in the Capitol, carrying on their certification of the electoral votes cast in 2020.
Still a threat to democracy
By objecting to the outcome of the election, Trump highlighted aspects of the process that many Americans were previously unaware of, ironically ensuring the public is better informed about the mechanics and details of American elections. In that way, he may have, paradoxically, made American democracy stronger.
And it was fairly strong already. There was no evidence of any sort of widespread fraud or other irregularities. Major media organizations continue to explain and document the facts regarding the election, contradicting the president’s disinformation campaign. In 2020, voter turnout was higher than it has been for a century. Despite the pandemic, Trump’s rhetoric and threats of foreign tampering, the 2020 elections were the most secure in living memory.
But beyond elections, Trump has threatened America’s other bedrock political institutions. While there are many seemingly disparate examples of his disregard for the Constitution, what unites them is impunity and contempt for the rule of law. He has committed numerous impeachable acts – including potentially the incitement-to-riot on Jan. 6. He is facing a criminal investigation in New York state, and may be looking at federal inquiries both about possible misdeeds he committed in office and from before he became president.
The framers of the Constitution feared many things they designed the U.S. government to defend against, but perhaps one anxiety eclipsed all others: a lawless president who never faces justice, and was never held accountable during or even after leaving office. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, “if the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution.”
There’s very little time left to hold Trump to account during his term. After the events of Jan. 6, he now faces public backlash from longtime congressional allies and resignations from his Cabinet. He has also been locked out of Facebook and Twitter.
But the question of real, lasting – and legal – accountability will fall to Biden, and his nominee for attorney general, Merrick Garland. They will decide whether to continue existing investigations and potentially start new ones. State attorneys general and local prosecutors will have similar powers for the laws they enforce.
Newly elected leaders can often face strong incentives – and encouragement – to prosecute their predecessors, as Biden does now. But that approach, often called restorative justice, can also destabilize democracy’s prospects if lame-duck executives anticipate this and decide to hunker down and fight instead of conceding defeat. Consider Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, toppled by Western military intervention and killed by his people in 2011. He refused to flee or seek asylum for fear that both foreign governments and his own successors would prosecute him for human rights violations.
Perhaps counterintuitively, it is when outgoing presidents in transitioning democracies enshrine protections against their prosecution directly before leaving office that the democratic system is more likely to endure. This was the case in Chile with dictator Augusto Pinochet, who left power in 1989 under the aegis of a constitution he foisted on the country on his way out.
By contrast, after-the-fact pardoning of crimes – as Gerald Ford did of Richard Nixon – runs the risk of creating a larger threat to democracy: the idea that rogue leaders and their henchmen are above the law. If Trump finds a way to pardon himself, he may reduce his legal vulnerability, but he can’t erase it entirely.
If prosecutors or Congress let Trump off the hook, they may be the ones breaking new and dangerous ground, truly shattering the rule of law that underpins American democracy.
[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]
James D. Long, Associate Professor of Political Science, Co-founder of the Political Economy Forum, Host of “Neither Free Nor Fair?” podcast, University of Washington and Victor Menaldo, Professor of Political Science, Co-founder of the Political Economy Forum, University of Washington
Taiwan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been among the world’s best. With a population almost the size of Australia’s, the island nation has reported only 496 confirmed cases of the disease and no locally acquired infections for months.
What began with the hackers of the “open source, open government” movement g0v and student protesters has grown into an experiment in radical democracy that is yielding astonishing results.
‘Fast, fair and fun’
While the notion of “digital democracy” is as old as the internet, few countries have really tried to find out how to practice democracy in digital spheres. In Taiwan, however, there is a strong collective narrative of digital democracy, and government and civil society work together in online spaces to build public trust.
The pillars of Taiwan’s approach to digital democracy are “fast, fair and fun”.
Taiwan was among the first countries in the world to detect and respond to the virus, thanks to crowd-sourced, collective intelligence through online bulletin boards. Warnings of the virus were first noted in December 31 2019, when a senior health official spotted a heavily “up-voted” post on the PTT bulletin board.
Before long, civic tech hackers were working on open data projects for citizens to interact with live maps, distributed ledger technology and chat bots to find the nearest pharmacy to claim free masks, with stock levels updated in real time to stop panic buying. Audrey Tang dubbed this rapid, iterative, bottom-up process – as opposed to a top-down government-led distribution system – “reverse procurement”.
A “humour over rumour” strategy has also been very successful to combat misinformation, fake news and disinformation. Taiwan is engineering memes to spread public awareness of positive behaviours through the virality of social media algorithms.
Government departments are responsible for addressing disinformation by providing a “memetic” response according to the “2-2-2”: a response in 20 minutes, in 200 words or less, with 2 images.
Alongside dog memes and pink face masks, one of the most successful is a rapid response to halt runs on toilet paper. This featured a cartoon video of Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang shaking his backside with a caption saying “We only have one pair of buttocks”.
How hacktivists reached the halls of power
How has the mindset and culture of hacktivism been cultivated to motivate civic hackers to participate in Taiwan’s digital democracy?
First, a figurehead and a manifesto. Audrey Tang is the figurehead, and her manifesto On Utopia for Public Action espouses post-party politics, free speech and deliberation, all enabled through thoughtful and experimental application of digital infrastructure.
Third, inviting participation, listening to community voices, and taking action as a result. Taiwan’s culture of civic participation follows the model of open source software communities. This means working from the bottom up, sharing information, improving on the work of others, mutual benefit and participatory collective action.
Underlying these initiatives and digital infrastructures, is two-way trust. In the words of Yun Chen, a member of the “decentralized civic tech community” g0v:
The first key is trust … it was the trust that made government officers take open data as performance instead of troubles, which led government to initiate open data and be willing to accept tech assistance from civic tech communities.
Despite low overall trust in government and leadership in Taiwan, recent polling suggests 91% of citizens are satisfied with the Central Epidemic Command Centre. Tang has said “the government needs to fully trust the citizens”, and that this trust is reciprocated.
A small experiment
With all of this enthusiasm, I wanted to try participating in digital democracy myself. I had heard Tang quote some statistics on increased public trust in several interviews, but I couldn’t find the source. At the suggestion of my Taiwanese compatriot Chih Cheng Liang, I simply asked Tang for the source on Twitter.
Tang’s response was extremely impressive: in less than 5 minutes, she replied with a link to the relevant Taiwanese poll.
A radical experiment
In many countries, policy makers don’t fully understand the technical and governance dynamics of the digital realm. In Taiwan, we are seeing what can happen when they do: bringing “hacker” tools and methods into the institutions of government to increase public participation in democracy.
It’s a vast change. Digital infrastructures are inherently political, or spheres for political engagement. They emerge out of the interaction between technology and society, and are influenced and constrained by human agents.
Radical democracy is essentially radical. Tang also sits on the board of of American economist Glen Weyl’s Radical Xchange initiative, which aims at “uprooting capitalism and democracy for a just society”.
There is now talk of trying out the collective decision making system known as “quadratic voting”, and other experimental crowd-sourcing mechanisms that have surfaced from the Ethereum blockchain community.
Other countries are free to pick up both lessons and digital innovations from Taiwan’s innovations. Many tools and models have been made available on an open-source basis at Taiwancanhelp.us.
In recent days, the prime ministers of the UK and Australia each declared they are working toward providing safe haven visas for Hong Kong residents. In the US, lawmakers passed a bill that would impose sanctions on businesses and individuals that support China’s efforts to restrict Hong Kong’s autonomy.
The prospect of a shift from rhetoric to action reveals just how dire the situation in China’s world city has become.
July 1 is usually associated with Hong Kong’s annual pro-democracy march. This year, it saw around 370 arrests as protesters clashed with police under the shadow of a brand new national security law.
Hong Kong police have been cracking down hard on demonstrators for over a year – with Beijing’s blessing – and most of this week’s arrests were possible simply because police had banned the gathering.
But ten arrests were made under the national security law for conduct including the possession of banners advocating Hong Kong independence.
What’s in the national security law and how it could be applied
The national security law had been unveiled just hours earlier, its details kept secret until this week. It was imposed on Hong Kong in unprecedented circumstances when Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Beijing’s appointed leader in the city, bypassed the local legislature and promulgated it directly.
The law creates four main offences: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security.
Hong Kong law already contains some offences of this sort, including treason, a disused colonial relic, and terrorism, tightly defined by statute. The new national security offences are different beasts – procedurally unique and alarmingly broad.
Secession, for example, includes the acts of inciting, assisting, supporting, planning, organising or participating in the separation or change of status of any part of China, not necessarily by force. This is calculated to prevent even the discussion of independence or self-determination for Hong Kong.
Collusion includes making requests of or receiving instructions from foreign countries, institutions or organisations to disrupt laws or policies in or impose sanctions against Hong Kong or China.
This is aimed at barring Hong Kongers from lobbying foreign governments or making representations at the United Nations, which many protesters have done in the past year.
The law contains severe penalties: for serious cases, between ten years and life imprisonment. It also overrides other Hong Kong laws. The presumption in favour of bail, for instance, will not apply in national security cases, facilitating indefinite detention of accused persons.
Defendants can be tried in Hong Kong courts, but in a major departure from the city’s long-cherished judicial independence, the chief executive will personally appoint the judges for national security cases.
The chief executive also decides if a trial involves state secrets – a concept defined very broadly in China. In these cases, open justice is abandoned and trials will take place behind closed doors with no jury.
While Hong Kong courts can apply the new national security law, the power to interpret it lies with Beijing alone. And in the most serious cases, mainland Chinese courts can assume jurisdiction.
This raises the prospect of political prisoners being swallowed up by China’s legal system, which features no presumption of innocence and nominal human rights guarantees. China also leads the world in executions.
Much of the national security law’s content contradicts fundamental principles of Hong Kong’s common law legal system and the terms of its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Even the territory’s justice minister – another unelected political appointee – has admitted the systems are incompatible.
Why it is deliberately vague
In the typical style of mainland Chinese laws, the national security law is drafted in vague and general terms. This is designed to give maximum flexibility to law enforcement and prosecutors, while provoking maximum fear and compliance among the population.
A Beijing spokesman has said the charge of collusion to “provoke hatred” against the Hong Kong government could be used against people who spread rumours that police beat protesters to death in a notorious subway station clash last year, echoing the infamous mainland Chinese law against “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.
The law does not appear to be retroactive, but fears that it could be interpreted that way have caused a flurry of online activity as people have deleted social media accounts and posts associating them with past protests.
This is unsurprising given the Hong Kong government’s record of trawling through old social media posts for reasons to bar non-establishment candidates from standing at elections.
Dissent in any form becomes extremely hazardous
Despite the promise of autonomy for Hong Kong, enshrined in a pre-handover treaty with the UK that China claims is now irrelevant, the national security law has escalated the project to “harmonise” the upstart region by coercive means, rather than addressing the root causes of dissatisfaction.
Under the auspices of the new law, the Chinese government will openly establish a security agency, with agents unaccountable under local law, in Hong Kong for the first time. It has also authorised itself in the new law to extend its tendrils further into civil society, with mandates to manage the media, the internet, NGOs and school curricula.
Under the weight of this authoritarian agenda, dissent in any form becomes an extremely hazardous prospect. It is no doubt Beijing’s intention that it will one day be impossible – or better yet, something Hong Kongers would not even contemplate.
The aim of silencing all opposing voices – including those overseas – is clear from the purported extraterritorial operation of the law.
The international community has condemned Beijing’s actions, but its members have a responsibility to follow words with actions. The least that democratic countries like the US, UK, Australia and others can do is offer a realistic path to safety for the civic-minded Hong Kongers who have stood up to the world’s premier authoritarian power at grave personal risk.
Some 23 years after China achieved its long-held ambition of regaining Hong Kong, it has failed to win hearts and minds and has brought out the big stick. Its promises may have been hollow, but its threats are not.
At the height of the coronavirus emergency, and on the back of devastating bushfires, Australia’s much awarded and trusted national broadcaster has again been forced to make major cuts to staff, services and programs. It is doing so to offset the latest $84 million budget shortfall as a result of successive cuts from the Coalition government.
In the latest cuts, wrapped up as part of the national broadcaster’s five-year plan,
250 staff will lose their jobs
the major 7:45am news bulletin on local radio has been axed
ABC Life has lost staff but somehow expanded to become ABC Local
independent screen production has been cut by $5 million
ABC News Channel programming is still being reviewed.
Even the travel budget, which allows journalists and storytellers to get to places not accessible by others, has been cut by 25%.
These are just the latest in a long list of axed services, and come off the back of the federal government’s indexation freeze.
Announced in 2018, that freeze reduced the ABC budget by $84 million over three years and resulted in an ongoing reduction of $41 million per annum from 2022.
The indexation freeze is part of ongoing reductions to ABC funding that total $783 million since 2014. In an email to staff, Managing Director David Anderson said the cut to the ABC in real terms means operational funding will be more than 10% lower in 2021–22 than it was in 2013.
To be fair, the way in which the ABC executive has chosen to execute the latest cuts does make some sense, pivoting more towards digital and on-demand services. Right now, the commuting audience that has long listened to the 7:45am bulletin is clearly changing habits. However, with widespread closures of newspapers across the nation, the need for independent and trusted news in depth, that is not online has never been more important.
ABC Life is a particular loss. It has built an extremely diverse reporting team, reaching new audiences, and winning over many ABC supporters and others who were initially sceptical. The work they produced certainly wasn’t the type commercial operators would create.
Clearly the coronavirus pandemic has slashed Australia’s commercial media advertising revenues. But the problems in the media are a result of years of globalisation, platform convergence and audience fragmentation. In such a situation, Australia’s public broadcasters should be part of the solution for ensuring a diverse, vibrant media sector. Instead, it continues to be subject to ongoing budget cuts.
Moreover, at a time when the public really cannot afford to be getting their news from Facebook or other social media outlets, cutting 250 people who contribute to some of Australia’s most reliable and quality journalism and storytelling – and literally saving lives during the bushfires – appear to be hopelessly shortsighted.
The latest Digital News Report 2020 clearly showed the ABC is the media outlet Australians trust the most.
These latest cuts join a long list of axed services in the past seven years. They include
The World Today and ABC PM radio current affairs programming halved
the closure or reduction of international news bureaus
cuts since 2014 to Radio National (for example, Sunday Nights)
cuts to international broadcasting/media services such as the Australia Network, which was cancelled in 2013
the end of short wave radio services to the Northern Territory
a reduction in live concerts on Classic FM
a contraction of Australian drama
cut costs for Australian children’s programming
reductions in women’s and local sport
an end to the coverage of international events such as the Olympics cancelled
an end to non-news and current affairs television outside of Sydney and Melbourne
the closure of ABC Open
100 websites shut down.
While not everyone will miss every program or service that has gone, and even with its occasional missteps, there is no doubt the ABC is the envy of the liberal democracies that do not have publicly funded assets, particularly the United States.
Has the ABC’s budget been increased?
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has continued to suggest the funding cuts are not real, are sustainable without service reductions for Australians, and has claimed the ABC has received “increased funding”.
The minister’s comments are not consistent with data we published last year based on the government’s own annual budget statements and the reality of the ongoing situation for the ABC.
The government argues base or departmental funding is higher in 2020-21 than it was in 2013-14. The relevant budget papers do show that in 2013-14, the ABC was allocated $865 million for “general operational activities”. The most recent budget statement shows this has increased to $878 million in 2020-21.
So how can it be the ABC budget shows this increase when we have been arguing they are facing an overall cut?
First, we noted last year the complexity of the budget process, which means, for example, the reinstatement of short-term funding can be counted as extra funds, or the ending of such funds, while reducing an agency budget, will not appear as a reduction in allocation.
Second, the 2020-21 ABC budget reflects the inclusion of indexation for increases in CPI-related costs between 2013-14 and 2018-19. This is the funding that is being halted until at least 2021-22.
So despite statements to the contrary, nothing can change the fact the ABC has suffered massive cuts in recent years. The data published last year showed the reality of the ongoing situation for the ABC, with an annual cost to its budget in 2020-21 of $116 million. As the table below shows, taking into account actual budget allocations and adding the items cut, frozen or otherwise reduced, the ABC should have funding of approximately $1.181 billion in 2020-21, not the $1.065 billion it will receive.
It is against this background the latest funding freeze, due to a failure to meet the impact of inflation costs, occurs. While it doesn’t sound like a lot, the three year impact is $84 million, and has resulted in the cuts announced today.
But more importantly, these ongoing cuts represent an attack by the federal government on the broadcaster, its role in democracy, and in keeping Australians safe, informed and entertained.
During the current coronavirus crisis, it has once again become one of the most crucial issues that social democrats need to address.
Coronavirus itself does not discriminate in terms of class. Indeed, those with the financial means to travel have often been among the first victims. More men than women appear to be dying of it.
Nonetheless, what a difference your position in the social hierarchy can make.
Access to excellent and affordable health care obviously remains a key issue, even allowing for the fact the wealthy may also fail to have access to ventilators in the current crisis. Years of neoliberal cutbacks have undermined the formerly good public health systems that social democrats established from the 1940s.
Significantly, the struggling Italian health care system has suffered from privatisation and substantial budget cuts.
Years of wage stagnation and the growth of precarious work have also resulted in rising economic inequality. This has made it impossible for many workers to build up a financial buffer for hard times and seriously limited their ability to stock up with food and medicines.
The economically vulnerable are also less likely to be able to afford the technology to enable people to work from home or help children study while schools are closed. Similarly, it is harder for them to buy in food or other services.
Women are disproportionately affected, too
Women may have a lower mortality rate than men, but have often been in a weaker financial position due to wage disparities and precarious and part-time work. In many countries, these factors can also reduce the payments women are entitled to if they become unemployed due to the pandemic.
At the same time, women’s (gendered) carer responsibilities will have massively increased. Many are working in industries, such as aged care or health care, with an increased exposure risk. Some are now restricted to home with abusive partners.
Bizarrely, conspiracy theories are now appearing suggesting the coronavirus is divine punishment for increased gender and same-sex equality. It is apparently all the fault of “gender theory”.
The perils of globalisation
The list of COVID-19 scapegoats is a long one. Various racial and ethnic groups were among the first to experience virus-related discrimination.
Many racial and ethnic groups are also often in an economically vulnerable position, which then exacerbates their existing problems during a pandemic. Remote Indigenous communities are particularly at risk.
Doctors are having to make difficult choices about who gets access to scarce medical equipment. The elderly are at particular risk of being denied treatment in some countries. Older citizens are more prone to dying as a result of the virus, but there are suggestions ageism could be a factor, too.
Meanwhile, the perils of globalisation are becoming clear as global supply chains of crucial medical equipment, chemicals and food are disrupted. Countries are discovering they can no longer manufacture the essential products they need, including medical ones.
Major pharmaceutical and other companies are among those racing to develop treatments and vaccines. But will cheap, generic versions be publicly available or will they be subject to restrictive patents and price gouging?
After all, there are claims the shortage of ventilators in countries such as the US is partly due to firms prioritising producing more expensive and highly profitable models over cheaper, basic ones. Bidding wars for scarce ventilators are already breaking out.
A return to social democracy?
Given the market is not coping and the need for government to intervene is more apparent than ever, one might think the time for social democracy has come again.
Some countries, such as Sweden, are indeed evoking social democratic values of solidarity and caring for others. Controversially, the Swedish government may believe those values are so strong that stricter lockdown provisions are not required to enforce community compliance.
Other social democratic countries such as Denmark were among the first to introduce forms of wage support for those thrown out of work.
However, in a time when even conservative governments in countries such as Germany, Britain and Australia are abandoning neoliberal strictures on fiscal restraint to throw billions at the pandemic and their collapsing economies, the need for social democratic governments may not be as apparent as before.
Furthermore, social democratic governments face the same impossible challenges as conservative ones.
In my recent book on social democracy and equality, I argued that one of the main aims of social democratic governments was to make citizens feel secure and less fearful. Providing good publicly available health services and income support for the sick and unemployed was an important part of this.
But how can any government or political party make people feel secure or less fearful in a pandemic and economic disaster of this scale? This is a once-in-a-hundred-year crisis that could exacerbate xenophobia, as well as existing domestic social and economic divisions.
Consequently, the challenge for social democrats is that issues they would normally address may instead be taken up by their mainstream conservative opponents or those on the far right.