Is American Democracy Dying?

Vindman, Kasparov and Applebaum discuss the dangers of a second Trump term

When Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified at the Trump impeachment inquiry in November, affirming that the president had pressured the Ukrainian leader to investigate the Bidens, the officer delivered his remarks in uniform. But soon, following 21 years of service, he retired that uniform: a soldier’s career had ended because of courage.

Vindman discussed this troubling precedent in American democracy with another figure known for defying the powerful, the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist Anne Applebaum moderated their conversation, organized by the Renew Democracy Initiative:  

Applebaum: Tell me how your family felt about these events. It must have been surprising for parents born in the Soviet Union to see their son in a position like this, actually in conflict with the leader of the government.

Vindman: My father came to the United States in 1979 at the age of 47 with us small children, and he’d spent the bulk of his life living in an authoritarian regime under communism. For him, in spite of living in the United States for nearly 40 years, his mind immediately went back to what the cost would be in an authoritarian regime. The risks of speaking out like this in the Soviet Union, in Russia, would be probably my life. Minimum, jail; probably, my life. Here, we still have the opportunity to vote, we still have that opportunity to shift course. As much damage as President Trump has done, we still have the opportunity to wrestle back our democracy and save it. But that’s not necessarily where my father’s mind was. And some of what he said was borne out frankly. Because I did lose my position, and was kind of coerced into leaving the military.

Applebaum: Garry, was it possible to be a whistleblower in the Soviet Union? Tell us a little bit about what happened when you objected to the nature of the Russian government.

Kasparov: It depends on the period of Soviet history. Obviously, under Stalin you could be a whistleblower for probably a few minutes, and that would be the end. After Stalin, there was some kind of relaxation. But still, we knew that anyone who was critical about the Soviet system had to face some very tough choices. Even people like the academic Andrei Sakharov—very famous—had to face the price for dissent. I opposed the system [but] I was lucky. I was a rising star and eventually I became world chess champion at age 22, at a time where the Soviet regime was already in decline. It was not yet collapsing, but it was Gorbachev—they paid more attention to the international response. Going after the youngest world champion in history who was critical of the Soviet regime could hurt their international status. That’s why I can take credit for being critical, but I have to say that it was not the same courageous step for me as for Sakharov, Sharansky, Solzhenitsyn, Marchenko and many, many others who opposed communism from the early days. As a matter of fact, it was far more dangerous for me to take a stand against Vladimir Putin.

Applebaum: Garry, when you hear Alex’s story—somebody who was a public servant, who sought to enforce the law, and who was effectively punished for enforcing the law by his superiors—does that ring alarm bells for you? Does it remind you of systems that you knew in the past?

Kasparov: Oh, absolutely. [After the 2016 U.S. election,] I could feel the real threat to American democracy. I was not under any illusions. I knew American democracy was much stronger, resilient. It’s not Russia; it’s not even Hungary or Poland. It’s an established democracy with 200-plus years of democratic conditions. But I warned Americans—I can just point at my tweets at the time—that soon with Donald Trump, we’ll discover how much of the American democratic system is based on honor, on traditions, on certain political rules that are not written in the law books. I also wanted to warn the American public that democracy doesn’t die overnight. It’s not about tanks in the streets. It’s about the gradual disappearance of checks and balances. And that’s what Trump was very good at. I could see him doing it, one by one. Many of our Republican senators who voted to acquit Trump will be sorry later on. And I’m afraid that we haven’t seen the worst. That’s why I think these elections will be a very important turning point in American history.

Vindman: Our constitution is not likely to change anytime soon. It’s built to not change significantly—it takes a really significant effort by politicians to do that. But that’s not where the changes are occurring. They’re occurring, as Garry alluded to, in the undermining of norms and customs and practices. Russia itself has a pretty strong constitution. But the country is not governed by the constitution; there’s not a rule of law that unfolds in accordance with the constitution. And what we’re seeing now is basically an attack by the president and his proxies on the foundations that make America strong. I experienced it first-hand with regards to the Department of Defense, where you now have close consideration by senior military and civilian officials of what happens if you run afoul of the president. And people are starting to hunker down and consider, “What happens to me, what happens to my career, what happens to the years I put into service if I prove to be disloyal?” And those are the kinds of things that frankly in a 4-year administration have been eroded, but in an 8-year administration could really be severely undermined, and really change the base of the United States.

Kasparov: The election of 2016 normalized Trump’s political style and the election of 2020—if, God forbid, Trump is re-elected—will normalize his political practice. It’s not about a new constitution. It’s about preserving the spirit of this foundation left by the Founding Fathers for us. And when I’m hearing, most likely a new Supreme Court judge (I’m referring to the Amy Coney Barrett hearings) not answering directly the question about peaceful transition of power? It’s amazing. She was asked a simple question; it’s not a gotcha. She said whatever about beautiful traditions, but she did not answer directly that this president must commit to the peaceful transition power. And she’ll be sitting in the Supreme Court for the next 30-plus years; she’s just 48. So that tells you that Trump is succeeding in eroding the very foundation of the political system by incorporating people here and there that have, let’s say, a very relaxed view about the fundamental issues of our democracy.

Applebaum: Tell us what you think some of the remedies are?

Kasparov: The whole idea of RDI [the Renew Democracy Initiative] is to make sure that the political center is revived, because so far it has been decimated. It’s very important to make sure that the new technology, social media, and all these tools that allow individuals to be very vocal about their position, will not propel fringes on both sides to take control of the political parties. I think that probably, eventually, we have to think about expanding the political system in America, because I can hardly see these two parties surviving this crisis. The Republican Party already, as we understand, has split, with so many traditional GOP [voters] openly supporting Biden. And I think that Democrats will go through a similar process because I can hardly see what will bring together Biden supporters and [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] supporters in the long run. But it’s not just about creating new political parties. It’s finding the way to organize people at the grassroots to work together on important issues on a municipal level. People are more reluctant to be aggressive and radical when they talk about their neighbor. Right now, America is badly divided. And one election—though it’s so important—cannot solve the much bigger problem of our country’s divide. Saving your king from being mated in two doesn’t mean that you win the game—you still have to work for the endgame. And I believe the real work starts [a day after the U.S. presidential election], on November 4th. 

Vindman: I saw a statistic from a reliable source that voter participation is going to be an unprecedented 70% in this election. That is much, much higher than it has been in previous elections, probably higher than it has been in decades. To me, that means that people are starting to wake up to the risks and dangers that our democracy’s experiencing. They’re starting to shake off this basic idea of complacency and that our democracy, after 240-plus years, is strong enough on its own and does not need to be nurtured, and that it takes active participation.

Applebaum: Garry, could you talk a little bit about how this election will impact other countries?

Kasparov: One cannot overestimate the importance of this election for all American alliances around the world. It could have both direct material effects but also psychological effects. So naturally, it will embolden Putin if Trump is re-elected. And we can expect more Russian aggression against neighboring countries. I would not be surprised if Putin, with Trump in the Oval Office, would be so arrogant and resolute as to test NATO’s Article Five [that the alliance considers the attack of any member-nation as an attack on them all]. So the consequences for Europe could be devastating. But it’s not only the direct impact of Trump, the cutting of political, financial or military aid to American allies. It’s also about the demoralization of democratic forces around the world. Trump’s admiration for dictators is well known; he doesn’t hide it. I’m afraid that it would be a very depressing mood for all pro-democracy forces—and whether we would recover from another 4 years of this growing darkness, God knows.

[Oct. 15, 2020. Condensed and edited for clarity.]

This article represents the views of the event participants, not necessarily those of Persuasion.