THE GOOD NEWS from the 2020 election? Record turnout. Nearly 67 percent, 155 million Americans voted. That is the highest turnout since 1900, when William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan.
Faith in the power of voting is vital to democracy. We should celebrate so many Americans believed their votes mattered enough to stand in lines, sometimes for hours, to cast ballots during a pandemic. As it turns out, hyper-polarization is good for political engagement since voters perceive so much to be at stake.
The bad news? The nature of today’s polarization is threatening our democracy.
Let’s begin at the end. Compared to other recent elections, the 2020 presidential contest was not that close. Joe Biden won with a popular-vote margin of almost 5 percent and a 306-to-232 advantage in the Electoral College.
Despite this, Donald Trump refused to concede, claiming wide-spread election fraud. The Trump campaign lost more than 60 court cases challenging the results, many before judges Trump appointed. The president’s claims were rejected by his Department of Justice and his top election security official at the Department of Homeland Security, who declared 2020 “the most secure election in American history.”
Undaunted, the former president launched a last-ditch effort to stop Congress from certifying the election. On January 6, a mob stormed the US Capitol and tried to hunt down the vice president of the United States, the speaker of the House, and members of Congress.
For inciting an insurrection, Trump was impeached a second time by the House of Representatives. Seven Republican senators voted with all 50 Democrats to convict the former president. The remaining 43 Republicans quibbled over whether a former president could be tried for impeachment after already leaving office. So, Trump narrowly escaped becoming the first president in history to be impeached, convicted, and barred from future office-holding.
Still, there is no question, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said, “that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day … American citizens attacked their own government because they had been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth—because he was angry he’d lost an election.”
How should we understand such extraordinary events?
First, Trump’s loss was no surprise. The campaign took place amid a pandemic that has cost half a million American lives, and an economic recession. Despite the zeal of his supporters, Trump consistently trailed Biden in national polls. Though he styled himself a populist, he was never popular. He lost the 2016 election by 3 million votes, never rose above 50 percent public approval during his presidency, and lost reelection by 7 million votes.
Whatever one makes of Trump’s legacies regarding policy and in redefining the Republican Party (neither of which are insignificant), his presidency will be viewed by historians as a fiasco. He was the only president ever to lose the popular vote twice, be twice impeached, and suffer the ignominy of senators from his own party voting to convict him. Like Nixon’s Watergate, the January 6 insurrection will forever stain his presidency.
Looking beyond Trump, what is most striking about 2020 is just how little changed during the last four years, or the previous twenty for that matter. Election margins have remained close, voters polarized, and the red-blue map mostly unchanged.
Congressional elections are a better indicator of those trends. In 2020, Democrats retained control of the House of Representatives, but lost 24 seats. They now have a slim 11-seat majority (222 to 211). Republicans meanwhile lost 5 seats in the Senate, which is now evenly split 50-to-50. This gives Democrats the narrowest margin of control, relying on the vice president to break tie votes.
During the past two decades, partisan control of the Senate has flip-flopped five times, control of the House has changed hands three times. Red districts are getting redder, blue districts bluer. In 2020, just 16 out of 435 districts backed a presidential nominee from one party and a House candidate from the other party. Only 4 percent of districts “split” their tickets, the smallest number in 70 years.
The fissures in American politics are not just about policy, they have become deeply enmeshed in race, class, religion, and anxieties about identity. The US Capitol attack, the riots last summer over police brutality and racism, the armed protests at state capitols over COVID-19 restrictions, and the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, all indicate that identity-driven politics is leading more Americans to shed democratic constraint in favor of more violent political tactics.
A recent survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute found bipartisan agreement that the American system of democracy is failing. Nearly seven in ten (69 percent) agree that American democracy serves the interests of only the wealthy and powerful—70 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Republicans. Moreover, a majority (56 percent) of Republicans, 35 percent of independents, and 22 percent of Democrats now say they would support the use of force to prevent the decline of their traditional way of life.
These are red-flag warnings. American democracy is in serious trouble.
Americans have been divided before (including in 1860, when Lincoln’s election was met by southern succession). What is different this time is how protracted the divisions have become. Ideological polarization, close elections, and divided government have become the norm since the 1980s. The only other time we remained divided so deeply for so long was during the Gilded Age between the mid-1870s to early 1900s. That too was an era when the nation experienced persistent divided government and close elections, including two where the winner of Electoral College also lost the popular vote.
Social divisions back then were also remarkably like those experienced today. Industrialization created steep economic inequalities. Americans were divided by race and class as reconstruction ended in the South and millions of ethnic, working-class immigrants moved into urban areas. There were religious divides over the acceptance of Catholics and Jews, and gender divisions as the women’s temperance and suffragist movements gathered steam.
Today’s partisan divides also mirror that period. Political parties were tribal, defined by ethnic, class, and religious divides. Populist demagogues like William Jennings Bryan claimed to represent the “silent majority” against corrupt elites, and peddled conspiracy theories like the anti-Semitic Gold Conspiracy. Campaigns were moral crusades where opponents were demonized.
Trump’s populist rhetoric, his refusal to concede an election, and his embrace of conspiracy theories have echoes from this period. In 1876, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes refused to concede to Democrat Samuel J. Tilden despite losing the popular vote by 3 percent. The election was eventually resolved in a backroom deal in Congress, the compromise of 1877, which gave Hayes the presidency in exchange for ending reconstruction.
For historical perspective, you may wish to read more about the Gilded Age, starting with Eric Foner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (Harper & Row, 1988); Richard Hofstader’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Reform (Vintage, 1960); and Michael Kazin’s The Populist Persuasion (Cornell University Press, 1995).
Today, too, populism and partisan polarization are symptoms of deeper political challenges that the nation confronts. How should we deal with the destabilizing level of inequality created by globalization and technology? What should we do about the disappearance of middle-class jobs? How should we address climate change, the legacy of race discrimination, or the role of immigration in a society where demographics are rapidly changing?
Addressing these challenges is not easy. What we must avoid is transforming them into contests over identity. For pluralist democracy to work, people must view politics as a process of finding compromise and common ground, not an existential struggle between “us” and “them.” The astute political observer Michael Gerson notes, policy differences and ideological conflicts can be negotiated. “But if partisan differences become expressions of identity—rural vs. urban, religious vs. secular, ethnic vs. white, nationalist vs. cosmopolitan—then losing an election threatens an entire way of life.”
Elections reflect who we are at a moment in history, a mirror inviting us to consider whether we like what we see. 2020 was just one more in a long line of elections, which, by itself, will neither create nor end whole ways of life.
But it is an inflection point. One that could lead us toward a different style of politics if we chose.
Biden ran a campaign committed to “restoring the soul of America” and healing our national divisions. Whether you voted for him or for someone else, we should all wish the new president success in his effort. Our democracy may depend on it.
Cornell Clayton is director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service and Claudius O. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Washington State University.
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