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Where Are the Defenders of Democracy?

The dangers of disparaging and distrusting our democratic system.
September 1, 2020
Featured Image
A voter leaves a polling booth at the Ward Five Community Center during the New Hampshire primary in Concord, New Hampshire on February 11, 2020. - Democrats voted Tuesday in a high-stakes primary in New Hampshire as leftist Bernie Sanders and young challenger Pete Buttigieg battle for pole position in the race to challenge President Donald Trump in November. A light snow fell in the northeastern Granite State's capital as voters known as politically astute and independent-minded headed to the polls in town halls, fire stations or school gyms. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP) (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)

From the point of view of investment in democracy and democratic norms the Democratic and Republican National Conventions could not have been more different. On every day of their convention, Democrats professed allegiance and commitment to democracy. They urged voters to turn out and vote as if the survival of our political system were on the ballot. Former President Barack Obama warned his listeners that they needed to act to “give our democracy new meaning.”

Among Republicans, by contrast, the word “democracy” was barely uttered. They focused on other things during their convention last week. As Vice President Mike Pence put it on the RNC’s first day, “Last week, Joe Biden said ‘democracy is on the ballot’—and the truth is, our economic recovery is on the ballot. Law and order are on the ballot. But so are things far more fundamental and foundational to our country. . . . [including] our highest ideals of freedom, free markets, and the unalienable right to life and liberty.”

This difference reflects a sad fact of contemporary American life: Democracy itself has become a partisan issue and many members of both political parties have serious doubts about it. American beliefs about democracy now are filtered through a partisan lens.

During the last few months, politicians from both parties have contributed to this worrisome situation. They have sowed doubts about whether the 2020 election will be conducted in a genuinely democratic fashion. They have accused their opponents of seeking to subvert our political system. They have raised questions about their own willingness to adhere to norms that have historically governed the conduct of American elections.

Evidence suggests that many Americans have gotten the message. They now share those doubts and are more invested in the success of the political party with which they identify than in the health of the democracy itself.

President Trump deserves the brunt of the blame in this regard. He has carried on a concerted effort to discredit voting by mail, insisting against all the evidence that it will lead to massive fraud. In addition, he has refused to say that he will accept the results of the election should he lose. Recently he even insisted that the only way he can lose the election is if the result is rigged and encouraged an audience of his supporters to think he might serve 12 more years. (His defenders will inevitably call this remark a joke, but of course joking is a routine part of his gaslighting.)

Democrats have added to the uncertainty by claiming that the president himself is rigging the election. Thus in July former Vice President Biden predicted that Trump “is going to try to indirectly steal the election by arguing that mail-in ballots don’t work.” Hillary Clinton echoed Biden’s sentiment when she said at the DNC that Trump would try to “sneak or steal” his way to a second term in office.

She followed up those remarks by saying, “Joe Biden should not concede under any circumstances, because I think this is going to drag out, and eventually I do believe he will win if we don’t give an inch, and if we are as focused and relentless as the other side is.”

Republicans responded in kind, alleging, among other things, that Democrats don’t want to play by the same electoral rules that they insist Republicans must follow.

Each side accusing the other of trying to cheat or steal the election. Each side discussing not conceding defeat. An American nightmare is unfolding that could make the 2000 election debacle look tame by comparison.

In this atmosphere, Americans now worry that our elections are neither secure nor a reliable register of popular preferences. In a large survey of the general population conducted in late July, 46 percent of the respondents said they have little or no confidence that the November election will be conducted fairly and the results will be reported accurately.

A Pew poll conducted in April found a stark partisan divide on this question: 75 percent of self-identified Republicans said they were somewhat or very confident that the election will be conducted fairly and accurately, compared to just 46 percent of Democrats who reported feeling that way. And 87 percent of the Republican respondents predicted that anyone who wants to vote will be able to do so, compared to just 43 percent of Democratic respondents.

Partisan divides also characterize a range of other attitudes about the conduct of American elections. For example, another Pew survey conducted last January found that 81 percent of the Democratic respondents favored a constitutional amendment to insure that the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote would become president, compared to 33 percent of the Republican respondents.

In an older Pew survey, from 2018, 84 percent of the Democrats said that “everything possible should be done to make it easy for every citizen to vote,” compared to 48 percent of Republicans.

To make matters worse, members of each party regard the other’s commitment to democracy with suspicion. The January Pew survey found that majorities of both parties do not believe that the opposing party is committed to insuring that we have fair and accurate elections.

Americans now think about democracy in terms of what it can do for the party with which they identify rather than having an independent attachment to it. Recent research confirms that political polarization and partisan tribalism provide the framework through which citizens evaluate and assess democratic norms.

As the political scientist Alexandra Filindra recently noted,

Citizens do not have a principled or ideologically constrained approach to democracy any more than they have a principled approach to governance and policy. . . . Rather, they are prone to understand democracy through the lens of group memberships.

This tendency is exacerbated when political leaders, like President Trump, associate partisanship with patriotism and argue that people who affiliate with the opposing party endanger the American way of life itself, a repeated refrain during the Republican convention.

That sentiment provides yet another reason why Americans should worry that democracy will not survive this year’s apocalyptic political contest.

Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is associate provost and associate dean of the faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is the author of The Death Penalty on the Ballot: American Democracy and the Fate of Capital Punishment.