Darren Whiteside / Reuters

What to Know

The world is in the midst of a democratic recession. That’s the conclusion of the political scientists Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas in their book, How to Rig an Election. Antidemocratic leaders have developed a toolkit of election-rigging practices they can use to manipulate votes, which allows them to hold elections—but keep their office no matter what. That practice is essential to understanding the increasingly uncompetitive nature of so much of politics worldwide, even in democracies.

Some of those deceptive strategies came into sharper focus this week. Two countries, Cambodia and Zimbabwe, held elections that didn’t seem very free or fair. The methods used in those countries—and, to some extent, even in the United States—illustrate the art of election rigging. Here are three essential lessons about how the powerful tilt the playing field in their favor.

  • Elections are rigged long before the vote. Cambodia ensured any vestiges of independent media were stomped out months before campaigning started. The strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Communist allies have ruled the country since 1985. For an authoritarian state, however, it had an oddly flourishing media scene. The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post were allowed to operate independently, at least until the country’s opposition started to pose a real threat to the ruling party. Then, all of a sudden, the Daily had tax troubles and issues with its operating license. The Post was sold off to an owner who fired journalists critical of the government. Other outlets were closed or chased out of the country. Journalists who remained got the message. Said one, “We know that we are not going to win if we confront directly with the government, so we are not going to do it.” By the time Sunday’s election rolled around, no one was left to publish complaints about Hun Sen’s 80-percent margin of victory.

  • Violence is best used sparingly. Sure, a dictator like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad can scorch the earth to stay in power, but many leaders would prefer not to be shunned in the clubs of world leaders. The trick is doling out violence in just the right amount to cow one’s opponents. Doing so during the vote, with international-election monitors assembled, isn’t ideal. So the fact that at least six people were killed after Zimbabwe’s military took to the streets this week is a sign that its leaders weren’t getting the result they wanted in the election. The regime wanted to allow enough democracy to bring in foreign investment, but not so much that the opposition would actually win. So far, the violence has occurred on a much smaller scale than a crackdown during Zimbabwe’s 2008 election. There’s an important lesson here, according to Cheeseman and Klass. Having cracked down once, a government can ease up afterward to appear reformist, but it can also “shake the matchbox,” or remind its opponents that it has the power to burn the place down if necessary. Now that the incumbent, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has been declared the winner, the message to the opposition is clear: Accept that, or face worse consequences.

  • The best interventions are the most invisible. Last week, a court allowed a lawsuit to move forward challenging the Trump administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Asking about citizenship risks skewing the data as millions of noncitizens might avoid the process. The census determines the allocation of seats in Congress among the states, and Republicans have long seen influencing that distribution as essential to maintaining their control of government despite the minority of votes they usually receive nationally. But the venues for these disputes—the courts and legislatures, instead of the streets—indicate how effective the current Republican strategy is. There’s no obvious time or place to protest changes to a census that only happens every 10 years, which weakens opponents of census rigging’s leverage.

Indefensible idea: America was never meant to be a democracy. That’s the argument Yascha Mounk grapples with in a March 2018 essay.

To some degree ... the unresponsiveness of America’s political system is by design. The United States was founded as a republic, not a democracy. As Alexander Hamilton and James Madison made clear in the Federalist Papers, the essence of this republic would consist—their emphasis—“IN THE TOTAL EXCLUSION OF THE PEOPLE, IN THEIR COLLECTIVE CAPACITY, from any share” in the government. Instead, popular views would be translated into public policy through the election of representatives “whose wisdom may,” in Madison’s words, “best discern the true interest of their country.” That this radically curtailed the degree to which the people could directly influence the government was no accident.

Of course, that doesn't mean you have to be happy about it.

What's next: Taking the three countries in reverse order, in the United States the census is likely to stay in disarray for the foreseeable future. The agency in charge of it doesn’t even have a printer lined up for its paper forms. More important, once an issue becomes politicized in the U.S., it’s not likely to normalize on its own. Even once issues like what questions are on the survey are resolved, partisans will have reason to object to the way the census is eventually conducted. In Zimbabwe, the autocrats’ dilemma is that any further violence will come at a cost to legitimacy, but it may need to cow its opponents to stay in control. Either way, the odds of a reborn democracy are slim. And as for Cambodia, a sign of things to come is how closely the once-independent press has aligned with the government. Rather than acting as a check on power, The Phnom Penh Post is questioning the defeated opposition. What to do about that opposition now, an editorial asked? The ominous answer: “A democracy must protect itself against what threatens it.”

What to Expect

Notes on the news to come


Next week, NASA will launch a research probe the size of a car toward the sun. Scientists hope it will help them uncover a number of mysteries about the star. Among them: Why is the solar corona, the outer atmosphere of the sun, hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun? “It's a bit like if you walked away from a campfire and suddenly got much hotter,” said one scientist. To find the answer, scientists plan to, in effect, walk back into the campfire. —Karen Yuan


Summer backpackers will rejoice as large swaths of Yosemite National Park are slated to reopen to the public on Sunday. Significant areas of the park have been closed since the Ferguson Fire ripped through Yosemite Valley in July, producing large amounts of smoke. This has been the longest closure at Yosemite since 1977, and it has dealt a significant blow to park tourism. Summer is the park’s busiest time of the year, with more than 30 percent of Yosemite’s 4 million annual visitors coming in July and August. Over the past few weeks, Half Dome, perhaps the park’s most recognizable landmark, has “completely disappeared” behind a wall of thick, black smoke. —Caroline Kitchener


Later this month, a Jordanian prince will exit his office in the United Nations for the last time, and autocrats everywhere will breath a sigh of relief. “I have irritated, I think, all governments over the course of [my] four years,” said Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the head of the independent UN office in charge of human rights. Annoying autocrats is, of course, a necessity of being an international-human-rights official, and al-Hussein’s departure poses the pointed question of whether he was a particularly prickly man, or if prickliness of any kind has become impossible for a UN official to have on the job. Al-Hussein certainly thinks it’s the latter. He could have asked for another term, but to do so, he wrote in resignation, would require “bending the knee.” —Matt Peterson


Foreign students may find their stay in the United States a little more complicated starting Thursday. Buried in an 11-page memo issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in June, a new policy will affect international students who “unknowingly violate” the terms of their U.S. visa. It’s relatively common for many students to violate the terms of their visa by working a part-time job or leaving school early, without realizing what they’re doing. Before next week, that kind of mistake meant that the student was “violating status,” but not “unlawfully present.” After this week, those kinds of visa violations will shift the student’s immigration status, making them eligible for a 10-year ban from the United States. —Caroline Kitchener

30 Years Ago

We are alone, period. Perhaps there is no sounds of breathing on any other world, no matter how many stars stretch out to the barricade of existence. And there never will be. The prospect assigns to our existence two poles of possible meaning. One is that life is a fluke—attractive but without inherent significance, like a splatter of paint that forms a pretty pattern. The other is that human life is precious beyond words. If Earth is the sole home to life, then the cosmic enterprise can be invested with higher purpose only if we prosper and learn to treat one another properly. If we blow ourselves up, the whole of creation will be rendered pointless.” —Gregg Easterbrook, August 1988

What’s New

Updates on your Masthead membership

One thing you should know: That $15,000 ostrich jacket Paul Manafort bought? It reflects no one else’s bad taste but his own: As a bespoke piece of clothing, it was made just for Manafort. But the price tag aside, at least one leading menswear enthusiast had praise for it. “I’d wear it. An ostrich hoodie is so ridiculous it’s nearly sublime.”

Where you can dive in: The Masthead’s debate about progressive strategy is still going strong. Would Democrats be better off rallying the base or going for the center? The forum thread is now 350-plus posts long. Feel free to add one yourself, or, if that many posts is too much to handle, read our recap of the debate so far.

What’s coming: Our summer book club kicks into high gear next week, when we’ll bring you Atlantic writers’ takes on Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom and Tara Westover’s Educated. Until then, see you around The Atlantic.

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