US Elections Untangled - EP 1: American democracy in peril with Mika Aaltola
Is the American democracy itself at stake in the 2020 elections? Will foreign powers try to interfere with the elections again? What is the significance of these elections to climate change, NATO or the American relationship with Russia, China and Iran?
FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled dives deep into the big questions surrounding the 2020 elections. Drawing on the expertise of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), the series looks mainly at the international relations implications of the elections.
The series is hosted by Visiting Research Fellow Maria Annala from The Center on US Politics and Power (CUSPP) at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs who is an expert in present day American politics. Joining her in the studio will be a wide array of international relations experts from FIIA. This podcast was made possible in part through support provided by the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation.
Episode 1 – American democracy in peril with FIIA Director Mika Aaltola
Is the United States sliding towards autocracy? Can the 2020 elections turn out in a way that threatens the longest standing democracy in the world?
“We are living in very dramatic, tense times and quite a lot is hanging in the air,” says Mika Aaltola, Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and the guest of the first episode of the US Elections Untangled podcast.
Aaltola sees many red flags about the health of the American democracy. One alarming tendency is the dehumanization of political opponents that has led to chants of “Lock her up”, demands of investigations into the sitting president’s actions and even to some Americans finding it acceptable for the president to ask foreign powers for help with his re-election.
When a political opponent “becomes more of an enemy than your geopolitical foe, then something big has happened,” Aaltola points out.
Read more about the US elections:
Covid-19 pandemic threatens US elections: The pandemic adds significantly to the risk of a contested result and a constitutional crisis, FIIA Briefing Paper 285
Read the text version of the episode
The host Maria Annala: Welcome to US Elections Untangled – a podcast series brought to you by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Audio recording of Donald Trump: From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it is going to be only America first, America first.
Audio recording of Joe Biden: Donald Trump’s brand of America first has too often led to America alone.
Maria Annala: Hi everyone and welcome to US Elections Untangled. I’m Maria Annala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and I’m going to be your host throughout this podcast series.
Annala: In this very first episode, we are going to be talking about whether American democracy itself is at peril. Our guest today is the director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs Mika Aaltola.
Hi Mika, thanks for being here. From your perspective what is at stake in November?
The guest, FIIA Director Mika Aaltola: Well, with any American elections, there is usually a feeling of crossroads. America going to different directions, choosing usually between two main candidates. But I think that this time around there’s quite a lot more at stake than usually. Many commentators are saying that this is the most crucial election in a long time. In Europe, we are thinking that this waiting game is finally over – that somebody else than Donald Trump is going to win the election. I think the biggest stake in the game right now is that fate of American democracy itself; how this great experiment is going to go starting from next November. We are living in quite dramatic, tense times and quite a lot is hanging in the air.
Annala: I spent first few years of Trump presidency living in the US and the Americans clearly have this really strong feeling that a lot is at stake right now. They had that feeling for the previous elections, the 2016 elections and they definitely have that feeling now. The people who are opposed to Trump are so fiercely opposed to him and they have to be playing this waiting game like you said here in Europe. Just waiting for this to be over and then on the other side you have the Trump people who feel that he’s the lightbringer and if you take that light away the US is going to sink into darkness. So the emotions are riding so high – it’s fascinating how tense it’s gotten.
Aaltola: I think there is also kind of a vision that liberal progressivism of US that is under pressure. The idea that US is an experiment that is perfecting itself somehow going forward. This idea has always been there, the progressivism of US, but since 1960s, because of the Civil Rights Movement, there has been a sense that things are moving finally towards the right direction – that it is becoming this kind of a global village of different nations. The melting pot idea finally happening and US is moving away from the European inheritance towards much more global, much more heterogeneous nation. But the other side, as you said, is wanting to take the US back to its roots and claiming that actually that is the true thing to do. In order to perfect the US, you have to recognize the roots and you cannot alienate the US from its true origin. These two visions for the future are clashing very violently when it comes to the rhetoric of it but also when it comes to action on the streets different cities and when it comes different movements of people. Also, besides that there’s also the external component, the US being the lone global superpower. Everybody knows that there is quite a lot at stake in the US elections and the meddling intentional or unintentional is also happening. What happened in 2016 with the election meddling campaign having some effect on the outcome, the US hasn’t actually done much to secure the elections. There is kind of a standing invitation to come and meddle, and Russians are by no means the only meddlers currently. There are quite a lot of other states that have stakes in US elections, and Europeans are among those, so we are clearly expressing the desire that the US will return into a more normal mode. But will that happen; most likely not.
Annala: It’s really being striking how partisan even this question of foreign influence, foreign meddling in American elections has become. It kind of speaks to how hyper-partisan and how divided everything is right now. But even threat coming from the outside is not something that unites Americans, or even American politicians. The Congress has not been willing to step up bipartisan and just say we’ll do anything we can to keep foreign countries from meddling with our elections we have to protect our democracy. Instead, even this question of whether Russia meddled and whether Ukraine was part of it and whether the Americans need to take strong action to protect the American elections. Even this question has become just one more reason for more partisan fighting instead of it being this uniting thing.
Aaltola: Yep, well in 2016 when election meddling investigations where happening on both the Senate and House of Representatives, the committees took kind of a consensual view that there was certain chronology through which the meddling took place, and the intelligence community also shared that view. But that has been crumbling as well. The very idea what is foreign is becoming much more murky so the foreign competitors, the geopolitical foes; who they are and what are their intentions is becoming more ambiguous. And that is a sign of something very alarming when the kind of boundary of what is US and what is foreign is becoming increasingly confused. So what the Russians did was like natural part of the geopolitical game and who are your political competitors inside US. So the very idea democracy as that one single community is little bit under question mark. Should foreign powers intervene or can the president even invite foreing powers to intervene in order to beat the competitor inside the democracy and kind of the elections; are about something much bigger than merely US elections. So those questions are clearly surfacing. That is, I think, one of the warning signs we should looking for in any democracy but in particularly in the US. So when the boundary becomes murky, something very alarming is happening. When your domestic competitor becomes more of an enemy than your enemy geopolitical foe, then something big has happened. And that is kind of a sign, what it means to be a patriot in the US has changed quite a lot. Your compatriots should be your friends and there should be kind of a friendship between you and your political competitors. You view them as legitimate competitors and when they win the elections then you surrender the power to them. That has been the pattern in the US and it has worked. That has been one of the main strengths of democracies over autocracies – transfer of power can happen and it is viewed as legitimate it’s part of the game. And to a degree, in 2016, there were still elements of that; Hillary Clinton won by few percentage points when it comes to popular vote but lost because of 70,000 votes in three states. Power was surrender in a legitimate way, although of course the reason why Donald Trump won had to do with the electoral system, but it was still viewed as – everybody knew the rules of the game and the game was played and the victor emerged from the game. But what is going to happen now, it’s much more murky. If Trump loses the elections; what will happen after that. How, if the Democrats return to power, how will they treat their opponents will there be investigations on the four years of Donald Trump and what will result from that. So it seems that we are looking towards very dramatic times, already times are very dramatic.
Annala: Yes, in 2016, Donald Trump shocked a lot of people when he refused to say that ‘yes, of course I will concede if I lose’. He kind of left it dangling in the air and kept making these comments about how the system is rigged and sort of seemed to be building up to this big standoff if he were to lose that he might not concede. Of course that same fear remains today that he might cling to power by means that ten years ago no one could have imagined possible in a long-standing democracy like the US. Even on the Democratic side it was kind of shocking how many people when they protested against Trump, a lot of people had these signs like ‘not my president’. And in California some people were saying that California should become its own country and just separate itself from the US. There were a lot of reactions also on the Democratic side that were very undemocratic, so to speak, not honoring the tradition that you just spoke of; this tradition of seeing the democratic process as somehow holier than whether your side wins. That regardless of ‘what I think of this next president it is my duty as a citizen to support him’. This kind of thinking seems to have gone away and it’s become more this almost Civil War kind of thinking, where the people who your compatriots, people who are citizens of the same country as yourself are the evil, they are the enemy.
Aaltola: Yes, the governance of US has become much harder over the years. Of course there has been problems before; there has been closures of the federal government; there has been very dramatic moments but it seems that the frequency of those is now stepping up – impeachment and different other very radical actions are taken. The juggling over the Supreme Court nominations over the past few years has been much more intense than ever before. So there clearly is a sense where USA is no longer governable in the political sense. Of course, the economy has been growing and unemployment rate has been very low. So the society still seems to be functioning especially when it comes to the economic aspect of it. On the whole yes quite a lot has been changing and the very nature of democracy – what it means, what means American patriotism, what means kind of an undivided nation and president who represents all Americans instead of those people who voted for him or her. So that sense has been gradually disappearing that the US is united. One particular issue is important to note: the presidency itself and the value of it. It use to be very uniting aspect of the US. US is a heterogeneous nation that doesn’t have many uniting symbols, kind of a politically sacred symbols. The presidency has been one of those and now it seems that a large part of the US is antagonistic when it comes to the current president. That can after a while lead to a situation where this uniting symbol disappears as a legitimate entity. Then the question becomes to whom the power then flows to. Does it go towards the state level or kind of new movements of people. So quite a lot of power seems to be hanging in the air waiting for somebody to grab it. That is of course not a healthy sign in any political system, particularly in a democracy that is very worrying.
Annala: United States is the longest-standing democracy in the world but as we’ve talked to today, it’s not really a super healthy democracy anymore, it’s not clear how strong just how strong the democracy is. You have a book coming out this fall about the decline of democracies. How far do you say that US has slid, how far away are they from being a true democracy or how would you describe the state of American democracy today?
Aaltola: Well, I think it’s weakening and becoming more vulnerable. If democracy has to do about society, people’s participation in the political processes. In particular, we are talking about elections as the most critical times in democracies, when the power can change hands. That is a very vital part of it. But democracies have also other sides: accountability rule of law, transparency. Those are usually seen as the main strengths of a democratic political system. It seems that in the US what has happened is that instead of those key functions like accountability being vital part of how people see the process, it is becoming accountability in name only. It is becoming transparency name only. And democratic process, the legitimacy of the elections is being questioned quite radically right now. So there are quite a lot of things that are happening in name only. And that is a sign that democracy is declining, it is becoming weaker and more vulnerable. And the slide towards the brink, towards autocracy can be happening in main democracies and in US. I can see alarming signs of that.
Annala: Speaking of like these red flags, these alarming signs that we’re seeing, could you give some examples of signs of democratic decline in the recent years, like you mentioned accountability issues?
Aaltola: There’s quite a lot recently, for example the Department of Justice making decisions… It just be something that is semi-detached from the presidency itself, so it wasn’t used for political purposes. At least there was a sense that it shouldn’t be used for political purposes. Now it is clearly being used for those. So the investigations directed towards intelligence community kind of made decisions that resulted in the impeachment process. So you can clearly see a revenge taking place there, politicization of justice, that is an alarming sign. And after the 2003 Iraq War, there were certain new steps and reforms taken to keep the intelligence community safe from political pressure and those steps are now being eroded. We all know that US intelligence has capabilities that can be used for good and purposes and the politicization of that, kind of of taking away the firewall between presidency and the intelligence community and powers of the US government can be clearly seen as a bad omen of things to come. But at the same time of course what is happening when it comes to police violence for example in the US , it seems that people’s trust of the government is declining. So what the government does… Of course in the US there has always been you could even say healthy doubts on the powers of federal government but right now it is being criticized and seeing us as taking sides in the big identity conflict that is emerging.
Annala: One alarming thing has also been these recent firings: the New York prosecutor Berman was fired; there’s been firings of several inspectors generals. It seems to me that if it’s somebody’s job to watch the government, to be the Watchdog sort of, then they are immediately at risk of being fired by Trump or by his administration.
Aaltola: Yes, the neutrality of justice, the rule of law aspect is being… at least there’s an appearance that is being eroded. And of course during the Trump years, there has been other alarming signs. The promotion of relatives to important positions, promotion of friends and business partners to important positions in the government. There used to be laws against that but those laws are not obeyed and they are laws in name only. So this idea of things turning from living and trusted and legitimate entities into entities and rules that are in name only. That is something that spells out the dangers of eroding democracy and regressive processes taking place.
Annala: Yes. Trump likes to attack the media and even call it the enemy of the people, which is definitely not a very democratic thing to do. But at least that is out in the open, that is sort of happening… Like you say in name only you have these laws and some people might be tricked into thinking that everything still okay because we have these laws even though they only exist in name only. But the attacks on the media they’re very out in the open and people are very much aware of them but I guess from the like Trump supporters’ perspective they’re not attacks on free speech is they are attacks on lies and attacks on this machinery that has taken sides, that is on the opposing side. That’s also really alarming if there’s not even a common language anymore if you have such polarized, partisan views of the media that you don’t have the two sides reading the same newspaper or listening to the same TV or radio shows they’re not going to have a basic fundamental understanding of what words mean even for them to have a conversation. It seems almost like there’s two different languages evolving the liberal and the conservative language were words don’t mean the same things anymore and once it reaches a point where those two sides can’t even understand what the other side is saying like truly, truly saying and meaning – and it might have even reached that point already – then it becomes really, really hard is not impossible to bring those two sides together again if they lose the common language. When I was writing my book on Trump supporters, I looked into a lot of research that has being done about people who supported and voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and what kind of people did so. I feel that the common denominator, even though I always trust like there’s a lot of very different people who voted for Trump for very different reasons. But still if you have to find a common denominator there, I think it’s kind of a fear of multiculturalism or opposition to multiculturalism. People, for some reason or other, it could be they are conservatives with a Christian worldview or it could be you that they are white men who doesn’t want to lose power to women or doesn’t want to lose power to people of color, they come from very different backgrounds and they have very different reasons for opposing multiculturalism but there is some kind of a feeling with a lot of Trump supporters, they have some reason to feel that the more minorities have a say, the worst off my people are or my values are.
Aaltola: It boils down to identity security; do I have the right to to be who I am? For quite a lot of the white America that has to do with the rise of minorities. So they feel that their identity is not secured and Donald Trump is the person who secures the identity and gives them kind of a voice through his Twitter account and through other people giving a space for movements around him, kind of the MAGA people who support the identity security of particular part of the American electorate. In that sense it has to do about that. They feel that the common sense of the way of the process through which the common sense is arbitrated has been broken because of political correctness. So certain things cannot be said. And particularly certain white segments of the population cannot anymore say certain things so that suffocates their freedom of expression or the way they express their grievances right now. Donald Trump is seen as a symbol of a better America where you can say what you think and reach perhaps a better common sense for the whole nation. They saw Donald Trump and the election of Donald Trump as a corrective move away from the Obama years where political correctness – from their perspective – went too far. So there has been kind of return into something that they value more and they have have a president who is not fearful of expressing his opinions and opinions which they find very identity securing. So kind of the logic of that is clealry there but that means the other part of American, it might be the majority of Americans, who think that America should move forward towards the more liberal vision, feel that they are alienated in the process and that limits the ways in which common sense can be reached is being now strongly argued about. And in a way that perhaps people don’t understand the common meanings that are emerging from that and that can of course lead, when there is this kind of losing of sense of what the words means, it can confuse certain parts of the population and agitate them into more violent actions. Not in terms of protesting, which is a long American tradition of protesting but also when it comes to expressing their views in a violent way. And then you can see the rise of for example of far-right violence, racist violence in the US. Kind of the confusion what it means to be American, what is my identity can agitate certain vulnerable people into action.
Annala: I think a lot of people who are worried about the present-day situation… A lot of people want to believe that it’s all about Trump and if only Trump will lose this election then everything will go back to normal and American democracy will be healthy again. But a lot of the things we’ve talked about here today are really not just going to go away regardless of who wins the 2020 election. What’s your opinion… If Joe Biden wins, will that help American democracy heal or are there a lot of red flags that we will still be present even in Joe Biden America?
Aaltola: I think America has changed for good and the world is changing rapidly, so there is no return back to anything that was before so things are going to move forward but has to do with what way they move forward. Perhaps Biden administration would be more systematic in its use of powers that the government has. American political system would still be relatively stuck; no major reforms could be passed but the administration would be more systematic. But many of the themes from Trump years would remain there. When you think about foreign policy, they have to deal with China; US engagement with China is going to be much tougher than it used to be. US approach when it comes to free trade for example is going to remain skeptical, and is going to be emphasizing economic nationalism much more than it used to be. So certain trends that Trump is a signifier of… Trump also represents change that is true, it is happening and Biden administration has to take those trends into account. So he needs to also co-operate with the Trump supporters if he feels that he is representing all of US. So I don’t expect that Biden administration would be very different but in what ways it might differ from Trump years is that it is more predictable more systematic. Trump is relatively random in his way of expressing things and that confuses people, so when it comes to allies in Europe, I think they would welcome Biden administration. But at the same time Biden administration is going to be much tougher when it comes to negotiations with Europeans because they are systematic. With Trump you can always kind of play around and play the waiting game and give signs that you are giving… you are moving towards compromise and doing what Trump wants to do. You know, you can say that you’re going to raise defence expenditure in Europe and Trump then pays attention to other things and moves on, whereas Biden administration most likely will be more persistent, much tougher when it comes to its approach towards both friends and foes.
Annala: Earlier you mentioned that if Biden wins, there might be investigations into the president, then ex-president Trump and how he has handled things during his presidency. Isn’t this also a worrying sign that we might expect regardless of who wins, we might expect these investigations into political opponents. Trump had his ’lock her up’ campaign. In 2016 a lot of Trump supporters were really seriously hoping to see Hillary Clinton end up in prison which luckily never happen. It would be very scary to see a president put away the person who ran against him or her but we might be seeing more of this kind of in the future if the Democrats are in power again and they choose to pursue all these investigations into President Trump.
Aaltola: Yeah, well there is quite a lot of hunger for revenge in the US. When Trump was elected there was quite a lot of that that we need to somehow tame the too far liberal, too progressive elements of US society. The media was the other big red flag for Trump. He said that the media was an enemy of the public and that is of course something also very autocratic. But you could see that hunger for revenge also happening if Trump loses as can be now seen lightly, although quite a lot of things can happen between now and November. But yes there is that feeling and even justified feeling that wrongs need to be corrected and justified and something needs to happen to Trump when it comes to moving with these investigations into different scandals that were surrounding his presidency. So that hunger for revenge is, I think, very dangerous for democracy. You should respect your political competitors and they have valuable things to tell… I was just saying that Trump was a signifier of something that is very true to America. If you have a revenge on Trump and you have revenge on what he represents, then perhaps you are not paying attention to where America is currently on the way, where America is moving. So you have to be very careful and I hope that political center will emerge after the November elections and that there is a political process of reconciliation taking place and trying to find the common sense in a way that is healthy and would also perhaps do some justice for Trump supporters who might feel very alienated from the process if Trump loses. The same applies also to the progressive element of American society if Trump wins again. Then there is danger that sense of revenge will ultimately happen that now when we won again and now perhaps with a bigger margin, then we can actually lock people up who oppose us and we can do away with the nasty liberal media.
Annala: What would it take for the American democracy to heal again?
Aaltola: I think it takes number of years and takes also clarity when it comes to the direction of the nation. I feel that all the democracies are feeling this kind of a pressure of globalization, the pressures of becoming part of this global value chain and that are transforming the localities in different corners of all over the Democratic world. And that’s globalism then clashes with the much more nationalistic, much more routed vision of how things used to be in the good old times. These clashes are going to take many, many years to play itself out and know what we see is kind of the phases of trying come in terms with what a globalized world means. There are other things also emerging from the globalized world like climate change and pandemics. We are much smaller than we used to be. And the identity pressures and strains are going to manifest themselves in different ways through different movements. My fear is that we are only seeing the first regressive phases of the process in different democracies. And they are contagious as well, so they spread very easily. In 2016, there was quite a lot of talk that Russians somehow influenced the American elections – I think democracies are influencing each others elections quite a lot. So we are looking what is going to happen 2020 in the US elections and in Europe and we are going to adapt to that, but we also being influenced by the American elections – radically so in certain cases. America is something that we look up to, we see it as a mirror of democracy and because of that understanding of US it has quite a lot of power on European democracies. So we are not isolated from the American experiment, we are part of the American experiment here in Europe.
Annala: Could you describe one kind of doomsday scenario and one hopeful scenario about how the 2020 elections might turn out?
Aaltola: Kind of the contrary to expectation gain can also happen. We are also gloomy about the US elections and what will happen in November; different scenarios how things might go wrong are clearly being expressed but it might be that it is a rather uneventful because of the kind of the dramatic expectations that are build up to it. Then the surprise that nothing has happened that actually Trump lost the elections and power was handed over in a relatively peaceful and then you have much more kind of a healthy rethorics and politics at least for few months returns to something that is aching to old normal. But of course things might go according to the dramatic expectations that Trump if he loses, he doesn’t recognize the fact that he lost; he says that the election process was fraudulent and not legitimate. Or then, if Biden wins in a narrow way, it can go to courts it can be dramatic and different parts of the US and different segments of the population understands the outcome in different ways. So there is quite a lot of chances that things can go badly. But there’s of course… I’m hopeful that there is a political center in the US, that there are reasonable politicians. You know, the US is the longest-standing democracy and it has gone through very dramatic experiences before. You have the appreciates this sense of drama that Americans have. We sometimes in Europe can perhaps misinterpret from our kind of very homogenous national bubbles, we can over interpret the American drama as something that is unsustainable; clearly it has been sustained over centuries and most likely it is going to still remain powerful in the future.
Annala: Thank you so much for coming.
Aaltola: Thank you.
Annala: Thanks for listening. Please tune in next week for our next episode. We’ll be discussing what will most likely determine who Americans vote for in November. Will it be the same old factors or might there be surprises this time around? Our guests will be Charly Salonius-Pasternak, Senior Research Fellow from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.