Leaders of the G7 in Biarritz, France, last year. The better democracy's social outcomes, the stronger its base of support
Leaders of the G7 in Biarritz, France, last year. The better democracy's social outcomes, the stronger its base of support © EPA-EFE

The most famous quotes in praise of democracy do not make a principled case for it. If, as Winston Churchill claimed, it is the worst form of government bar all the others “that have been tried”, then verifiable outcomes are what matter. “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” found the economist Amartya Sen, implying, once more, that utility is the test. Popular self-rule is to be preferred because it allows for better results, not because it is right in and of itself.

Keep this in mind as the most important democracy of all goes out to vote. Donald Trump is a threat to this system of government, yes, but not in the way that is most often alleged. The US president is not an autocrat in the familiar sense. When the coronavirus pandemic gave him a chance to hoard power, he did almost the opposite, bemoaning even mild incursions into personal freedom. He has more often denuded the unelected or “deep” state than he has turned it on the masses. He remains uninterested to the point of boredom in the awesome potential of his office.

No, Mr Trump’s principal threat to the cause of democracy is governmental incompetence. It promises to tarnish the worldwide reputation of the system as the one that works. If the idea takes hold that China has controlled the virus and avoided a recession, while the US remains beset by both, the signal to the rest of the globe will be unmistakable. Autocracy is the strong horse.

It will not matter that several multi-party democracies have fared well against the virus. With respect to Germany and New Zealand, the US experience has an outsized effect on global sentiment. After all, the world’s disillusionment with democracy, as tracked by the political scientist Yascha Mounk and other scholars, has coincided with lots of individual countries thriving handsomely under the system.

What did the reputational harm was the botched war in Iraq, the 2008 financial crisis, a slow recovery and other troubles that trace disproportionately back to the democratic US. To adapt what Thomas Jefferson supposedly said about France, everyone has two countries, their own and America. Events here are followed abroad with unique and sometimes weird assiduity.

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The global fate of democracy is on the ballot in next Tuesday’s presidential election, then, but not because a second Trump term would bring a police state or the suspension of universal suffrage. More likely, it would mean more failure to fix problems of collective action, as well as more social division on the streets and more political torpor in Washington. If so, a second term would be a kind of anti-advertisement for democracy. For countries that sit on the long spectrum between multi-party competition and outright dictatorship, a shuffle in the latter direction might come to seem only prudent.

That is a lot of countries. In 1945, democracies were in the minority. Their number did not overtake that of autocratic and “mixed” systems until near the end of the 20th century. In other words, most of the world has relatively shallow experience of democracy, if it has any at all. It is liable to change systems if an alternative proves itself as a surer source of prosperity and order. China’s rise from middle-income to rich status would do it, especially if it coincided with a malfunctioning US.

And so an election that is often framed in terms of fundamental values is better understood as a practical matter. If Joe Biden defeats Mr Trump, there will be much talk of “healing” and the re-moralisation of public life under the benign Democrat. But the most useful service he can perform on behalf of democracy is to govern well, starting with the crusade against Covid-19. Nothing would do more to shore up confidence in the system within and (crucially) outside the US.

This point will remain true long after both men have departed. The gravest challenge facing democracy in this century is the possibility of superior outcomes in the non-democratic or part-democratic world, not this or that rogue leader. Democracy’s rival is no longer an unworkable Soviet dogma, but a pragmatic superpower that is only nominally communist.

To see it off, the west has to think of governance as a kind of permanent referendum on the efficacy of democracy itself. The better its social outcomes, the stronger its base of support. Appealing to some innate human thirst for self-mastery is not enough. The dark implication of Churchill’s otherwise droll line is that, were a system to come along that outperforms our own, we should cave to it. A President Biden would have to ensure that proposition is never tested.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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Letters in response to this column:

Britain deploys ‘one-eyed’ approach to democracy / From Graham Allen, Convener, the Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy, London SW1, UK

Measuring autocratic outcomes is a fools’ game / From Stuart Miller, Arlington, VA, US

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