When an elected leader takes office through democratic means but won’t leave office when they lose an election or due to term limits, democracy is in trouble. This presence of anti-democratic forces active in electoral democratic systems is a major weakness, as Jacques Derrida and Jacques Ranciére have both argued. Yet the problem is very common, as any quick historical review shows: Duvalier in HaitI; Ahmed Sèkou Tourè in Guinea; Mussolini in Italy; Hitler in Germany.
So when a U.S. president recently declared he would not leave office if he loses the vote, and repeatedly invites his followers to elect him for “12 more years” or “for life,” this problem seems to have arrived through the front door of one nation that some identify with democracy. So how does a democratic nation respond?
The past few months have seen an outpouring in the United States of organizing to prevent a sitting president who loses the election from refusing to leave office. This organizing was fully in gear before President Trump was declared the loser of the presidential election on November 7, four days after the Tuesday election.
Since many citizens in the United States are ignorant of the global history of elected leaders not leaving office and the common experience of coups by elected officials, one group even developed a dashboard website to gauge “Is This a Coup?” Because ignorance, confusion, and chaos are common techniques used by autocrats, clarity on what constitutes authoritarian activities and coups is important to the process.
The organizations working to prevent full-blow autocracy in the United States have a wide range of different approaches. There are a number of organizations committed to nonviolent civil action, such as ChooseDemocracy.US, Frontline Election Defenders, which is a collaborative effort of Movement for Black Lives and the Working Families Party, and a group who wrote the “Hold the Line Guide.” They have used long-established non-violent civil action training practices and English-language scholarship in their trainings, such as the work of Gene Sharp at the Albert Einstein Institute, George Lakey, Stephen Zunes, and others.
These organizations have attempted to appeal to a wide range of citizens by emphasizing the integrity of the electoral process, and even sending “Election Defenders” to polling places to provide accompaniment and de-escalation for voters who had been threatened with harassment and even gun-carrying thugs at some polling places. These groups have been careful to maintain non-partisan political positions, even though in the post-election period their work clearly supports Biden’s efforts to take office after winning the popular vote. Because of the gap between the popular vote and the electoral college vote in two recent U.S. elections, 2000 and 2016, where the president was not determined by who won the popular vote, the official state electoral college declarations at this point remain in play. During the interim period between the election and the state electoral college declarations, there will continue to be efforts to change the electoral college process in favor of the sitting president, and these organizations continue to mobilize their participants to ensure that the electoral college reflects the popular vote.
Other groups have been more expansive in their fight against a possible coup, working with organizations that have often supported particular political parties, such as labor unions, and even with groups with declared party affiliations. One such impressive large coalition of organizations, ProtecttheResults.com, includes as its partner organizations SEIU, a prominent labor union, and Republicans for the Rule of Law, as well as the Black Lives Matter PAC.
Because violence often gives autocrats reason to crack down and use police, paramilitary, and military force, most of these organizations have carefully avoided advocating violent modes of resistance. Some movements have emerged from long But the debates over the use of violence in radical organizing continue to surface in the resistance to a possible coup attempt in the United States.
It is also clear that provocations by individuals affiliated with white nationalism and white supremacy resulted in violence at some protests this summer, however. President Trump’s efforts to paint the Black Lives Matter protests as violent has also served his election campaign goals while provoking widespread fear and even increasing gun ownership in the United States.
Other social sectors in the United States are not convinced that elections will bring the social equality that is democracy’s main selling point. Long histories of unregulated domestic violence against women, state violence against black, Indigenous, and other racial groups, and the rapidly expanding wealth gap in the United State remain reason for some to focus their work in areas besides elections.
Some democratic organizing requires work not around elections but towards self-subsistent, autonomous governance. These approaches include mutual aid organizing in Black, Trans, and other communities; Zapatista and other forms of autonomy; food justice and other subsistence oriented community building. For these organizations the election process is only a sideshow to their attempts to produce equality within organizations and local spaces.
President Trump does have at his disposal not only all the power of the executive branch, such as the power to replace military leadership and send the Attorney General to do his bidding, he also has the expansive powers of a declared domestic state of National Emergency, which he declared in February, 2019. So his attempts to remain in office will not be concluded until the January inauguration, and the impacts of his erosion of electoral processes will have long-term effects.
Only time will tell whether the efforts to oppose a coup by a sitting president will be successful in the United States. Similar efforts have been successful in other countries, such as in 1978 in Bolivia and 1961 in France and in 2004 in the Ukraine. But sitting presidents have also been successful at changing popular vote tallies and outcomes in order to remain in office, as seen in Mexico in 1988, Belarus in 2019, and on many other occasions. Whatever happens in the present U.S. electoral cycle, there is little promise that it will bring the equality that democracy promises.