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26 October 2022

Is American democracy in danger?

In the first episode of Owen Bennett-Jones’s new Radio 4 show, the journalist investigates Russia’s attempt to meddle in the US elections.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Democracy is in crisis. And not just in the UK. Forget Liz Truss’s demise as prime minister and the Conservative Party’s chaotic scramble to replace her and consider, for a moment, the US and whether its electoral systems are fit for purpose. In five 15-minute episodes running across a week, Owen Bennett-Jones explores the threats to the ability of America’s political process to deliver fair results: from the “Stop the Steal” movement and voter suppression to security flaws in electronic voting machines.

[See also: From Jeffrey Dahmer to Adnan Syed: can true crime as entertainment ever be ethical?]

Episode one is entitled “Russia, if you’re listening” – a reference to a comment made by Donald Trump before the 2016 presidential election, when he called on Moscow to release more of Hillary Clinton’s emails. That Russia has attempted to meddle in American elections is not in doubt: in addition to the emails it released to WikiLeaks, in 2016 it also conducted a social media trolling campaign to target certain demographics, while hackers broke into voter registration databases in multiple states. It is not clear how far they got in their cyber attacks on US electoral infrastructure but, as Bennett-Jones and his guests explain, that’s not necessarily the point. The attacks themselves “could be enough to sow confusion and mistrust in the electoral system”.

[See also: My Name is Leon: a horribly preachy drama]

All of this raises a conundrum for those who care about democracy. Clearly there are vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. But there is also a risk that the very act of drawing attention to them could undermine faith in the democratic process. Dispute the integrity of an election, as Trump did, and the entire system falls apart. In January 2021 Trump supporters were so convinced the election had been “stolen” they stormed the US Capitol; today, around two thirds of Republicans still believe Joe Biden is not the legitimate president. With all the threats to a free and fair presidential race in 2024 – analysed throughout the series – what incentive would the losing side (whoever they are) have to honour the result?

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The Threat to American Democracy
BBC Radio 4, weekdays from 31 October, 1.45pm

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This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder