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Why a Defender of Democracy is Feeling Worried — and Optimistic
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Q & A

Why a Defender of Democracy is Feeling Worried — and Optimistic

Michael Abramowitz of Freedom House says Trump is shattering democratic norms, but that our country's institutions are resilient.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor in Chief of The NY Jewish Week.

An anti-Trump, pro-democracy protest in Washington, D.C. on November 4, 2020. (Geoff Livingston/Flickr Commons)
An anti-Trump, pro-democracy protest in Washington, D.C. on November 4, 2020. (Geoff Livingston/Flickr Commons)

Freedom House, the Washington-based nonprofit founded in 1941 to support and defend democracy, is best known for its annual Freedom in the World report, which lately has declared that democracy and pluralism are “under assault” around the globe.

In recent weeks, with President Donald Trump refusing to accept the results of the 2020 election, they have been sounding a warning about the United States. In a statement Nov. 6, Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, said that “President Trump’s repeated claims of widespread fraud are grossly irresponsible and have yet to be supported by any facts. It is time for American public figures to defend the electoral process, to reject outlandish conspiracy theories, and to support the counting of every valid vote.”

Abramowitz has been president of Freedom House since 2017; before that, he was director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Levine Institute for Holocaust Education. He led the museum’s genocide prevention efforts and later oversaw its public education programs.

The Jewish Week spoke to him Thursday about the state of American democracy and the kind of damage that can be done by a president sowing distrust of American institutions.

I go back and forth between real fear about the breakdown of our democracy and public trust and hope that the system is self-correcting and that a normal politician like Joe Biden will set things right. How are you feeling at the moment – optimism about the system or pessimism about the cracks that are showing?

I am a congenital optimist, so I do feel optimistic that things are going to sort themselves out. You see every day in the paper or the op-ed pages more comments from senior Republican officials saying that this is over. You had Karl Rove today in the Wall Street Journal, former Presdient Bush a a few days ago. I think it is becoming increasingly clear that there will be transition and that Biden will take office on January 20.

Nevertheless, one has to be concerned about some of the actions of the past few weeks. I’m a former political reporter, and in my lifetime I’ve never seen a president seek to sow the seeds of the myth that there was widespread fraud in the election, and undermine the faith of our fellow citizens in the electoral system. We have a tradition of graciously conceding defeat and the peaceful transfer of power, and I am worried about that being shattered right now.

You told The New York Times that “[w]hat we have seen in the last weeks from the president more closely resembles the tactics of the kind of authoritarian leaders we follow.” What in the many countries that you monitor is the best analogy for what is happening now?

Michael Abramowitz (Freedom House)

It’s a little dangerous to use analogies to other countries because the United States is a strong democracy with strong rule of law and institutions. That is the big difference between what is happening here and in Turkey, Russia or Belarus. That being said, in Belarus you have a dictator, not a democratically elected president like President Trump, who clearly lost the election there and is now trying to hold on to power, despite protests in the street. Really it is a tactic of authoritarian leaders. You saw it in Serbia, or with Marcos in the Philippines, in the face of evidence that their leaders lost.

In the U.S., it is the sitting president in a very established democracy who is accusing others of rigging an election. The president is perfectly entitled to pursue his legal options, but the unsubstantiated allegations of widespread fraud without evidence is very damaging.

What will be some of the costs of spreading lies about widespread voter fraud? How do you quantify that?

At Freedom House over the last 10 years we have documented the steady erosion of the strength of U.S. democracy. There is no question that even before Donald Trump the U.S. was on a slow erosion, and I imagine that when we do this year’s report we’ll see a further erosion. That’s really a concern.

What are the markers of this erosion?

Things like equal justice under the law, disparate treatment of people in the criminal justice system, the treatment of asylum seekers, efforts to go after the media or go after whistleblowers. And concern about the influence of money in politics.

Given what is happening this year, it’s not giving away much to say I would be surprised if our next report showed we had an improvement.

And again, what are the costs of that erosion, at home and abroad?

The declining trust in institutions is a big issue. We did a survey with a number of other institutions about U.S. democratic practice and found widespread distrust of institutions and the media. One thing I would be concerned about is distrust in the electoral system. If people believe that elections are not producing an accurate, fair outcome, then that is a concern.

The 2020 election was pretty well done from an administrative point of view. A largely orderly election in the midst of a pandemic was not a foregone conclusion even a few weeks ago. But the larger story is one of trust and confidence in institutions.

The United States is supposed to be the global role model of functioning democracy. Have you seen examples of other countries who have taken their cues from Trump to defend their own anti-democratic practices?

Definitely. The United States has been an imperfect democracy. We had slavery, we had Jim Crow, but the great thing is that it is self-correcting, thanks to its institutions and systems in place. And the U.S. has been a global model for democracy and people have looked to us for examples of how we run elections, and a strong First Amendment, and protecting free speech. There is so much to be proud of.

Global democracy is under pressure and it is absolutely vital that the United States be a strong beacon for democracy.

But you see it right now in the press overseas, the schadenfreude from countries like China, which are taking glee in what they are perceiving as our problems — which is rich coming from a country which is commiting crimes against the Uighur people.

Global democracy is under pressure and it is absolutely vital that the United States be a strong beacon for democracy.

But what if we aren’t? If we have a system of checks and balances, and two arms of the government are either ideologically or expediently unwilling to stand up to the executive’s power, who can people turn to? Who are the adults here?

Not to sound Pollyanna-ish but there is a resiliency about American democracy. There were protests. There were judges who checked the excesses of the current administration. Even impeachment was a process – the House looked at the evidence and the Senate acquitted. So I feel like there is a lot to be proud of in our democracy. We have things to be worried about, but American democracy has had other crises before, including the Civil War and the Great Depression, when people thought we would go the way of fascism or communism, but we’ve endured. But we can’t be complacent about this, and when you see things happening around the election it is important that people speak out.

To switch gears, you were previously director of education at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and led the museum’s genocide prevention efforts. What lessons from Holocaust education do you bring to your current job monitoring democracy around the world? What connections do you make?

I definitely think that my experience at the museum informed my thinking about democracy. It has to. Remember that Germany was one of the most advanced democracies in the world when Hitler took over in 1933 and five or six years later became a country capable of executing a genocide against Jews and other people. That’s a very sobering fact. If it happened in a country as advanced as Nazi Germany it could happen anywhere.

What gives an organization like Freedom House influence? I am thinking of the line attributed to Josef Stalin: “How many divisions does the pope have?” What levers do you depend on to hold governments accountable, and what is the current state of that leverage?

A lot of influence derives from the fact that we are seen as a nonpartisan and dispassionate documenter of the facts. We call out undemocratic practice where we see it – in Russia, Turkey, Venezuela or the United States. We not only look beyond our borders but here at home when it comes to human rights.

And we do try to work in a bipartisan fashion. We have veterans of Republican and Democratic administrations on our board. Freedom of speech or expression are universal values that draw support from across the spectrum. And governments do pay attention to what we say. Leaders of governments that have done poorly in our scores call me, at the foreign ministry level, and that tells me they are paying attention. A lot of our influence stems from those reports. We try to stay tethered to the facts and not be ideological.

That’s one way to answer the question. I think our job is easier when the United States is strongly supportive of human rights and democracy.

Is there any chance that we are overreacting, that Trump is incapable of undermining American institutions, and we would be wiser to shrug off his threats and not give him the attention he craves? Are we being trolled?

I don’t think so. One would have to be sober about it all and not try to be overly alarmist, but I think what is happening in the last couple of weeks has been quite concerning and people are right to be speaking out and be reminding ourselves of the potential dangers. At the end of the day, democracy is fragile and one has to be totally dedicated to try to defend it.

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