Butterfly Effect: Who’s the Sh*thole Now? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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America finds itself in unflattering company. What it does next could shape the future of democracy itself.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

Three countries have held national elections over the past week — and so far each has seen a similar outcome. The opposition has accused the ruling administration of trying to manipulate the electoral process. The incumbent president has claimed victory even though there’s enough evidence to challenge that assertion. The dispute over who voters have chosen appears set to continue for days, if not weeks.

You know one of these nations: the U.S. The other two? Tanzania and Ivory Coast, which belong to a set of African nations that President Donald Trump in 2018 reportedly referred to as “shithole” countries.

In Tanzania, opposition leaders have vowed to continue protests after President John Magufuli was declared the winner of last week’s election, insisting that the poll was riddled with irregularities. The police have cracked down on protesters, but the opposition insists it isn’t budging until the election is held again.

For all its flaws, America has served as a model for pro-democracy advocates from around the world for centuries, whether they’re fighting against feudal monarchies or authoritarian regimes.

In Ivory Coast, meanwhile, the opposition has declared they’re forming a parallel government after President Alassane Ouattara was controversially announced the winner of that country’s election, with a hard-to-believe 94 percent of the vote. Ouattara, who just completed his second term as president, had previously said he wouldn’t run in 2020, but then jumped into the fray after the sudden death of his handpicked successor.

And in the U.S., police across the country are readying for the possibility of post-election violence. Businesses have been boarded up in multiple cities in anticipation of street clashes. Trump’s repeated assertion on Wednesday that Democrat-led states are resorting to foul play in counting mail-in ballots only raises the prospects of opposing public protests that could descend into the kind of confrontations we’ve seen during racial justice agitations earlier this year.

The U.S. has long lectured other countries — especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America — about their electoral flaws. So it’s no doubt tempting for many around the world to gloat over the cracks in American democracy revealed by the 2020 election. Twitter is filled with memes that reflect this sentiment. But to do so is shortsighted for those who believe in democracy — America’s wounds are likely to return to haunt multiple other proud nations and societies in the coming months and years.

For all its flaws, America has served as a model for pro-democracy advocates from around the world for centuries, whether they’re fighting against feudal monarchies or authoritarian regimes. The U.S. has had continuous, elected governments for 244 years — longer than any other nation. There’s never been an attempted military coup against the federal government — a boast other major democracies, from France to Japan to Brazil, can’t make.

Transfers of power in the U.S. have always been peaceful. That makes America a precious example to the world that electoral democracy can be self-sustaining — that it isn’t just a blip in the long journey of humankind’s evolution.

It’s little surprise that American democracy and the country’s constitution have for decades inspired leaders from multiple nations. Former Mexican President Benito Juárez, a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, saw the U.S. as a model worth emulating. Filipino national hero José Rizal saw America as a constitutional example to follow as his country prepared to shed Spanish colonialism. And Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen, who led the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of republican China at the start of the 20th century, spent time in the U.S. while in exile. And it was at Columbia University that the principal author of India’s constitution, Bhimrao Ambedkar, studied.  

To be sure, America’s own approach to global democracy has largely been opportunistic. The U.S. has facilitated or actively supported coups against democratic governments in multiple countries over the past century — Iran (1953), the Congo (1961), Brazil (1964) and Chile (1973) are just some of the major instances when America decided democracy was inconvenient.

Yet its domestic track record as a democracy has given the U.S. rare authority to challenge others to get better. And while — like any other country — America’s foreign policy aims aren’t altruistic, they’ve often strengthened the hands of pro-democracy activists elsewhere.

That reputation today is under stress like it’s never been before. A long post-election tussle, street violence and chaos threaten to forever rob America of that unique halo it has enjoyed. It would give autocrats and despots around the world a unique stick with which to beat demands for democratic transparency.

It doesn’t have to go that way. Let’s be clear: Momentary similarities aside, Tanzania and Ivory Coast don’t have democracies that are even superficially comparable with America’s. U.S. institutions, including its courts, have largely stood the test of time.

By voting in record numbers amid a pandemic, American citizens have reaffirmed their trust in democracy. Will that faith be rewarded? One way or the other, the U.S. will set an example yet again for younger, fledgling democracies. What it chooses could echo globally for years to come.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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