Liberal Democracy on the Ballot

Nov 7 , 2020
By Christian Tesfaye

My interest in politics was sparked by the 2016 US elections. I was of voting age but had never voted. I was an Ethiopian citizen but could not be bothered to learn its history. I was hired by this very publication but was not at all interested in following the political situation of the country.

But when the 2016 US elections came, it piqued my interest by drawing sharp differences with what I had been normalised to expect. One more factor helped engage me even more – one of the candidates was Donald Trump, a TV personality and a gifted brand marketer, many things a strong contender for the leader of the Free World was not supposed to be.

Following that election was like being immersed in a universe-building work of fiction. Whenever there is a book or a movie with a plot that takes place in a time and place where the rules and systems are unusual, authors use a character that is suddenly introduced to this world and has to learn about it along the way. As that character understands more about the peculiar world, so do readers. For me, Trump was that character, leading me by the hands as I learned of the American political norms and structures that he became a major player in.

From that election, I learned what democracy was supposed to be and how it can easily be undermined. A democratic country needs to have shared values, sober and informed discourse, institutions free of political interference and norms that make engagement between contenders for power more civil – all of these Trump either despised or actively attempted to erode through his rhetoric.

In the end, he won too. But once he was President, the significance of the office, the breadth of the responsibility he would have to undertake, would weigh on his shoulders, and he would become more "presidential," they said. This did not happen. If this fails, his staff at the White House, the conservative elements of the Republican Party, those in higher office, would curb his worst instincts. This also turned out to be an overestimation.

By his fourth year in office, he had "caged" immigrant children, pulled out of a historic international climate agreement, torn up the Iran nuclear deal with barely any justification and botched the response to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Currently, there are almost 10 million reported cases of the virus and nearly a quarter of a million deaths in the US, higher in both cases than any other country in the world.

Still, nearly half of American voters wanted to re-elect him when he ran for his second term in 2020, according to the polls tallied last week. Despite his repeated refusal to disavow White supremacists, he has gained more Black voters than he did four years ago. Even more bizarrely, for a man that has heartened social conservatives, his support among LGBT individuals has also doubled, an unusual phenomenon that would doubtlessly be studied by social scientists and political theorists for years to come.

But at the time of writing this article, it seems that Trump will be a one-term president. Despite losing the popular vote once again and failing to produce any remotely credible evidence for voter fraud, he has already indicated that he will be unlikely to accept the results as humbly as his contender, Hilary Clinton, did in the 2016 elections. Although most election experts suggest that outcomes will not change, he may drag the whole process through the courts and even undermine American democracy in a manner that would be hard to mend.

Myself hailing from a country that has never seen free and fair elections, it is a tragedy to see such a two-century-old reputation of smooth transitions of power almost be tarnished.

Even in the worst case scenario that Trump succeeds in getting the results overturned to his advantage, however, there will be good news. And that is the fact that there exists a majority of people that did not vote for him, as the nearly four million more popular votes Joe Biden, his Democratic opponent, has over him indicate.

It is not just Trump’s policies or achievement in office that was on the ballot. It was his person. This election was between liberalism, science, tolerance, understanding and decadency on the one side, and the person of Trump – sexist, casually racist, arrogant, anti-science and opportunistic. It was a contention between progress and reactionary conservatives, and his defeat at the polls was a vote against all that he has come to represent.

It was a sign that an informed citizenry can filter through the divisive rhetoric, fake news and the uncertainty to come to the centre. It portends that the day has not dawned on liberal democracy just yet.

Granted, Biden barely won, and the outcome of the election did not turn out to be a resounding admonishment of Trump's behaviour. But this is 2020, a frantic and bleak year. At this point, we should take every victory we can get.

PUBLISHED ON Nov 07,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1071]

Christian Tesfaye ( is a researcher and Fortune's Deputy Editor-in-Chief whose interests run amok in the directions of political thought, markets, society and pop culture.

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