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First CEU Democracy Institute Event Offers Reflections on the 2020 American Elections

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On the heels of the American election, the recently established Democracy Institute at Central European University (CEU) hosted its first event, Democracy in America: Reflections on the 2020 Elections, to discuss the broader implications of the election and how the outcome impacts democracy in the U.S. and worldwide.

The digital event on November 17, organized by CEU Professor and Co-Director of the Democracy Institute, Laszlo Bruszt, brought together CEU Rector and President, Michael Ignatieff, in conversation with speakers, Stephen Holmes (New York University), David Runciman (Cambridge University) and Nadia Urbinati (Columbia University). Here, they discussed aspects of the election including the mutual incomprehension across party lines, the role of loser’s consent in Trump’s defeat, the historical significance of a single-term presidency as well as facets of institutional reform.

“What does this election tell us about the state of American democracy?” Ignatieff asked, opening the discussion. Each speaker shared perspectives about the potential after-effects of Trump, the deep division in America, and challenges to structural reform, leading to a general consensus which Ignatieff summarized: “Trump is gone, but it seems the institutional paralysis remains.”

“He’s gone from the White House but not from the country,” noted Urbinati, who also pointed out how social and economic chasms don’t necessarily disappear with the election. “Will there be Trumpism without Trump?” Holmes provoked, describing a democratic election as “a collective self portrait of a country.” He spoke of a widespread sense of relief that the voice of Trump will be diminished, thus diminishing permission for traits such as bullying and racism, however he also emphasized the continued existence of a deep and mutual incomprehensibility of two political sides. “How much trouble can he cause out of office?” echoed Runciman later in the discussion. While it is too soon to know how Trump’s presence post-election will manifest, the speakers discussed lingering division in the country and the implications of Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the election as key aspects shaping the post-election landscape.

“Loser’s consent is crucial to the legitimization of democracy,” Ignatieff maintained, pushing the conversation further: “Can democracy handle this level of mutual incomprehension and reluctance to loser’s consent? Can it handle the contestation of the basic facts from which democratic argument needs to proceed?”

In addition to emphasizing the educational divides in America, Runciman noted the fraught role of education more generally in representative democracy around the world. “Having a university degree is basically an entry requirement for being a politician now,” he said, adding, “If the factor of whether or not you went to university is a divide in our politics, then our representative institutions are deeply unrepresentative and that is going to feed resentment.” He sees the increased voter turnout of the U.S. election to be driven not so much by engagement, but more a factor that both sides really didn’t want to lose.

As the discussion shifted to the international dimensions of democracy, speakers shared ideas about what the election does for the cause of democracy worldwide, particularly as democracy has been in recession during recent years. “Democracy doesn’t just come in just one American size, it comes in all kinds of models. Is it possible that we’re witnessing a slow recession of America as the guiding democratic model for what used to be called the ‘free world’?” Ignatieff asked. Holmes, speaking to the current cluster of authoritarian leaders, also noted, “I think there is a symbolic importance to the first of the strong men being taken out of office.”

“How do we exit gridlock?” Urbinati commented, as she emphasized the great possibilities available through pluralized forms of democracy. Further noting the robust experiments in democracy outside the national government, Runciman predicted that enormous skill will be needed for the political coalition building of 21st century politics. He maintained that some of the changes are going to require a broader imaginative palette of democratic options. In considering democracy in relation to, for example, the issue of climate change, he thinks that democracy may include strategies from street politics and civil disobedience, to deliberative assemblies between scientists and citizens. “The hardest thing is institutional reform,” said Runciman. “And without it American democracy is stuck.”