American Democracy Might Bend But It Won’t Break

In an effort to sound like the smartest guy in the room, I often challenge the idea that electoral and legal institutions in the United States are stronger than those in developing countries. When talking heads on cable news networks reported on election fraud in Congo, I reminded everyone about the Bush-Gore race and its hanging chads. When political analysts ridiculed Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s decision to name his wife as vice president, the shrewd skeptic in me referred to the revolving door of cabinet members and other high-level advisers appointed to powerful positions when either party wins a US presidential election. 

The Correction

However, the dynamic between the judicial and executive branches in the United States over the last seven weeks has proven me wrong. In the months leading up to the 2020 election, pundits predicted that a potential Biden victory would be challenged—if not derailed—by President Donald Trump’s legal team. Their narrative predicted that Trump appointees in the federal courts system would uphold these challenges out of a debt of gratitude to the person who gave them the opportunity in the first place. 

With a global pandemic forcing the country’s election process to rely on alternative voting methods, the time was ripe for incumbent challenges to unfavorable outcomes. In fact, the president himself publicly pleaded for a judge to “have the courage” to overturn President-Elect Joe Biden’s victory. Amid the chaos of post-election challenges and contrived controversies about the COVID vaccine, one thing is clear: his plea has fallen on deaf ears. 

The Data

With nearly 50 legal challenges to the election results appearing before state and federal courts, Trump and his legal team have not achieved one stitch of success. In many of these cases, republican judges refuted the veracity of challenges made by the very person who nominated them for their positions.

For example, on December 8, the Supreme Court of the United States collectively rejected a request from Pennsylvania republicans to block certification of the commonwealth’s election results favoring Biden. Not one of Trump’s three appointees—Associate Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, or Amy Coney Barrett—stood by the president who nominated them. 


The Answer

While political analysts consider many factors when examining democratic institutions in different countries, not one variable carries more weight than the independence of the judiciary. In countries where the judiciary is not independent, judges are often influenced by partisan interests of key players in other branches of government. 

Many of these countries are fraught with endemic corruption. A simple Google search of Mexican politics reveals several incidents in which Mexico’s National Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) protected politicians charged with corruption, such as the Odebrecht scandal. If legislative and executive members of governments know that the judicial of the government will not enforce relevant laws, they are emboldened to use corruption as a primary part of their business plan. Such scenarios can cripple economies. 

Conversely, the decisions of US federal and state judges over the last six weeks demonstrates that we still have checks and balances—and that the voices of the majority can still ring louder than those of a few powerful people. 

In a holiday season that marks the end of one of our nation’s worst years, we can be thankful for generations of American leaders who upheld the rule of law and paved the roads to justice. While our democratic institutions might bend, they will not break.

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