The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting societies across the world. In both Europe and North America, schools have been closed, people have been ordered to work from home (while taking care of their children), and in some places curfews have been implemented, the right to assembly curbed, and even parliaments suspended. Several U.S. state primaries have been delayed, and there are even worries that elections could be cancelled or at least postponed. American political scientists have therefore petitioned for measures to be taken to ensure that the November U.S. presidential election will take place, even if people may not be able to go to the polling booths to vote in the usual way.
If our societies enter a prolonged state of emergency due to COVID-19—and that seems almost unavoidable now—all other popular events, from sports to music to theater, will no longer be possible. What is it about elections, the modern popular event par excellence, that makes them so different that they deserve to be held even in this situation, provided it can be done in a way that limits physical contact?
As the petition notes, “[i]t is widely understood that elections are the heart of modern democracy.” This might come as a surprise to some. For decades, bare-bones electoral definitions of democracy have been criticized by public intellectuals and scholars who have come to expect more of democracy than merely a way of handling power transfers or government turnover. Among other things, democracy is often seen as inseparable from individual freedom, the rule of law, or even social rights, and it is sometimes construed as a way of ensuring high levels of public participation in the policymaking process or rational deliberation about societal problems.
There is no shame in expecting a lot of democracy. The problem is if these expectations make us forget the essentials. The great contribution of modern representative democracy is its ability to substitute electoral competition for raw power, or more precisely to prevent violence from becoming the arbiter of political conflicts.
Two recent examples showcase this. Last year, Denmark had a parliamentary election. It was called by a center-right coalition government that had been in place for four years, but it was won by the Social Democrats, whose leader, Mette Frederiksen, formed a new government on June 27, 2019. The December 2019 British general election, meanwhile, paved the way for a second Johnson ministry, after the Conservatives won their biggest majority since 1987. In both instances, the losers—former Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn—gracefully conceded defeat.
We are so used to elections deciding who takes charge of government that we no longer stop and wonder in amazement about this. Considering the stakes—the control of the public sector, with all that this implies in a modern welfare state, where (in many European countries) government expenditure accounts for about half of GDP—it is remarkable that the losers readily accept the verdict of the polls. In his 1942-book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, the Austrian economist Joseph A. Schumpeter identified this ability of elections to decide government as the hallmark of modern representative democracy. Schumpeter construed democracy as a regime form where governments call elections knowing that they might suffer defeat—and where they nonetheless abide by the results. Political scientist Adam Przeworski later described this as the regularly repeated combination of “ex ante uncertainty” and “ex post irreversibility”—or, in a word, the “institutionalized uncertainty” that is democracy.
As in so many other cases, Karl Popper formulated this insight best. In one of the entries included in his memoir, All Life Is Problem Solving, he notes, “There are in fact only two forms of state: those in which it is possible to get rid of a government without bloodshed, and those in which this is not possible. . . . Usually the first form is called ‘democracy’ and the second ‘dictatorship’ or ‘tyranny’.”
Democracy in the Schumpeterian or electoral sense solves a first-order problem of political communities: the preservation of civil peace during power transfers. Only because this first-order problem is solved does it become meaningful to consider second-order problems such as individual liberties, social rights, good government, or public participation and deliberation.
History illustrates this vividly. All other political systems have struggled when it comes to the transferal of public authority from one ruler to the next. The number of great realms that broke down following the death of their rulers is legion. The most famous example is probably Alexander the Great’s Empire, which was torn apart in succession wars between his generals upon his death in Babylon in June 323 BC. The empires of Charlemagne and Genghis Khan both disintegrated in struggles between their grandchildren. Likewise, the problem of succession has been singled out as a key cause for the fracture of the great Caliphate of the Abbasids, centered on present-day Iraq, in the ninth and tenth centuries and the (lesser) Caliphate of Córdoba in the Iberian Peninsula in the 11th century. In both cases, the symptoms of lurking breakdown were frequent ruler successions that created very short average reigns and an almost permanent political instability.
Even polities that have in other respects proven remarkably stable were regularly thrown into chaos during power transfers. The Roman Empire saw its share of civil wars unleashed by the death of emperors, as did its progeny, the Byzantine Empire. In both cases, the reason was the same: Neither the Romans nor the Byzantines succeeded in devising a constitutional mechanism that could tackle the succession, and military power therefore normally settled who would wear purple. The Byzantines even developed a theory that legitimized this. The idea was that God’s will was—ex post—revealed by who was the strongest contender for the throne. Might makes right, as the saying goes.
The Ottoman sultans practiced a more fratricidal version of this theory. In a context of polygamy, Ottoman sultans would normally have many sons. Rule passed within the family, but no constitutional mechanisms decided which of the many sons would inherit. The result was that the sons would often fight it out after the death of their father, and the victorious son would sometimes execute his surviving brothers to hinder future attempts to rob him of this power. Mehmet III, who has the dubious honor of holding the record for fratricide in Ottoman history, executed 19 of his brothers at his accession.
While these conflicts did not tear apart the Roman, Byzantine, or Ottoman Empires, they did create repeated spikes of violence and instability, not only during successions but also in anticipation of future turnovers, as would-be rulers and elite groups attempted to bolster their position and gather strength for the coming storm. When it is not institutionalized, uncertainty tends to create havoc.
These chaotic successions contrast with what is probably the smoothest solution to the problem of power transfer devised before modern representative democracy: hereditary kingship. In medieval and early modern Europe, the institution of primogeniture (eldest-son-taking-the-throne) provided stability in a world of high mortality where rulers were relatively weak and rebellion by high nobles and high clergy was a permanent risk. The principle of primogeniture meant that it was clear who the successor was (by definition, a monarch could have only one eldest son), and that this successor was a generation younger than the ruler. Recent research has demonstrated that the death of kings in medieval and early modern Europe would often spark civil wars but that the principle of primogeniture mitigated this risk.
Nonetheless, even in the context of hereditary kingship, successions often proved conflictual. A recurrent byproduct of primogeniture was the establishment of minorities where the new ruler was underage and therefore ruled via protectors or a regency. Famous examples include Henry III’s minority in England from 1216 to 1227 and Louis XIV’s minority in France from 1643 to 1651. These minorities almost always weakened royal power, and they would often incite civil wars. For instance, Henry’s protectors, led by the magnate William Marshal, had to fight and win the First Barons’ War to ensure the Plantagenet succession, and to bolster their standing they reissued what became known as the Magna Carta three times during Henry’s minority. Louis’s minority was dominated by the ferocious civil war known as the Fronde from 1648 to 1653, just as the previous French Wars of Religion had begun in 1562 in the context of Catherine de’ Medici’s regency for her underage son Charles IX. It is telling that medieval and early modern European intellectuals would often cite Ecclesiastes 10:16: “Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child.”
Even hereditary kingship was thus not a bulletproof solution to the problem of power transfer. Nor are today’s authoritarian systems, whether they are structured around parties (as in the People’s Democracies in the former Eastern Bloc), families (as in the Gulf monarchies), military juntas (as in the many Latin American military dictatorships during the 20th century), or personal rule (as in many dictatorships in Africa during the Cold War). Take what are arguably the three most important autocracies still standing. In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s eventual retirement is bound to create political instability, unless he somehow manages to designate a successor who can elicit broad support both among the elite and in the population.
The People’s Republic of China uniquely seemed to have devised a nondemocratic system of leader rotation—based on fixed term limits—that systematically groomed future leaders and forced old leaders to regularly retire. But the current President Xi Jinping has jettisoned this system to stay in power. While this is proving relatively unproblematic in the short run, it means that all bets are off when it comes to Xi’s eventual retirement. The Chinese development shows just how difficult it is to create clear rules of succession in authoritarian states where institutions are not independent of the powers that be. Another example of this is Saudi Arabia, where in June 2017 King Salman broke with the hitherto observed succession principle of agnatic seniority (in which the king’s oldest brother takes the throne) by appointing his 32-year-old son Mohammed bin Salman as Crown Prince. This required a de facto purge within the Saudi royal family, and there is reason to suspect that we have not heard the last of the simmering conflicts over the inheritance of the House of Saud.
The recurrent problems of leader succession in authoritarian states serve as a reminder about the beauty of democracy. To be sure, modern representative democracy did not emerge as a peaceful engine of leadership succession from one day to the next. As American political scientist Daniel Ziblatt points out in his book from 2017, Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, the great challenge for modern democracy was to make the defenders of the old regime reconcile themselves with the risk that they could lose power at elections. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, democracy was still an unstable regime form in much of the Western world, just as it is today in many new democracies.
But over time, a more pragmatic attitude to politics emerged. The result was widespread acceptance of the key rule of Schumpeterian democracy: “Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose.” The population and elites have become habituated to this principle in old and battle-proven democracies, such as those of Western Europe and North America. This is illustrated by the fact that we find no example of a Western democracy that has broken down after an uninterrupted period of, say, 20 years with alternations in government via elections. This did not even happen during the dark days of the Interwar Period, where democracy had to face a string of mutually reinforcing crisis, including the Great Depression after 1929.
Indeed, the acceptance of losing power at elections has today become so ingrained in Western democracies that it is virtually impossible to imagine that a candidate would be able to successfully rally his supporters based on a refusal to concede defeat, even in ideologically polarized societies such as the United States. And if this were attempted, the strong and independent institutions that we find in old democracies would surely rise to the challenge.
We are living in a world where what the German-American international relations scholar Hans Morgenthau termed the animus dominandi—the human “lust” for power—has been tamed, or at least domesticated, by institutions that regulate government turnover. This is the real wonder of democracy, and the key reason for the political stability that has characterized Western Europe and North America for generations, and which is arguably making headway in many other regions of the world as a consequence of the large-scale democratization that has taken place since the 1970s.
But for democracy to work its magic, we need regularly repeated elections. In the context of the present public health crisis, the danger is that we have come to take for granted the wonder of democracy: its ability to tackle power transfers without bloodshed. Even, perhaps especially, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, we must not forget the essential importance of elections for modern representative democracy.
Let us end by going back to the political scientists’ petition. It concludes its call for ensuring that the November presidential election can be held with a both striking and heartening historical observation: “In the entire history of the United States, there has never been a missed election. Elections were held during the Civil War, during World War I, and during World War II.” Now is not the time to ruin this flawless historical record.