Make the midterms a referendum on the rule of law

As is the case with most U.S. federal elections, Tuesday’s midterms will be decided on the basis of domestic concerns, ranging from health care and taxes to immigration and the economy.

However, there is another matter on the ballot that is deserving of equal attention: the American position regarding the rule of law and the strength of democratic institutions, both within our borders and beyond.


The bill of health for democracy and the rule of law around the world makes for grim reading. Established democracies such as Poland, Hungary and Italy are back-sliding in increasing numbers while autocrats, or wannabe autocrats, are regularly taking victory laps in places like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Philippines.

For decades the United States was the bulwark and leading light for efforts to expand the democratic franchise. As a result, the world experienced exponential progress in reducing poverty, threats of war, deprivation and disease.

This has not been true in recent years.

As the US has backed away from defending democratic and rule of law values internationally while adopting the rhetoric and tactics of autocrats at home – think “enemies of the people”; think “fake news”; think attacks on the Justice Department – it is no wonder that opportunistic leaders willing to undermine the rule of law to bolster their positions of power have capitalized on this moment. This is true for Mohammad bin Salman, appearing to convey a brutally clear message to future critics through the killing of journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi. It is also true for Vladimir Putin, appearing to settle scores for past betrayals through the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer and double agent Sergei Skripal earlier this year.

By relinquishing its role as a powerful voice for and example of democratic values, the U.S. leaves a wide-open window for the worst behaviors of autocrats around the world.

What’s more, our flirtation with the autocrat playbook has not served to benefit our own democracy. While segments of the economy are doing well, and unemployment remains down, these are dark times in the minds of many Americans. The country is holding unconscionable numbers of children in detention camps separated from their parents; significant hostilities persist across lines of class, race, gender and sexual orientation; and hatred and vitriol have infiltrated our politics like never before. The latter now appears to have incited recent efforts to simultaneously target prominent political critics – politicians, actors and media – with deadly explosive devices.

These are not signs of democratic health.

The upcoming midterms, however, provide an opportunity to begin addressing this imbalance in our politics, and broadly demonstrate our commitment to democratic values.

This is not a matter of simply electing more Democrats or more Republicans. No single party has a monopoly on our democratic values, and no single party gets a pass on failing to defend the most basic elements of the rule of law in our country. 

Rather, the election provides an opportunity to choose candidates, from either party, who will defend and promote the rule of law and the institutions of democracy both here and abroad. Considerations of who we are as a nation, the values we stand for in the world more broadly, and the principles on which we choose to govern ourselves should inform who gets our vote on this incredibly important election day. 

As we cast our ballots, it’s critical that we remember the importance of the rule of law, even as we consider the range of concrete issues that regularly touch our lives. Otherwise we all may find ourselves one day in a country that we don’t recognize, that isn’t governed by “we the people.”

Ulysses Smith is a U.S.-based lawyer and Director of the Business and the Rule of Law Program and a Senior Research Fellow at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law in the United Kingdom.