NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE E arly in 2016, the political scientists Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels published Democracy for Realists. There they argue that American elections are often decided not as informed referenda on ideas or on the performance of a governing party. Instead, feelings of group identity and belonging profoundly shape American elections. Many pundits and writers across the political spectrum found this a fascinating argument. Democracy for Realists won plaudits from Steven Pinker, Ezra Klein, Jamelle Bouie, and NR’s Kevin Williamson, among others.
In addition to this marquee argument, Achen and Bartels also conclude their book with a discussion of what they take to be some of the real strengths of democratic governance. They offer five key defenses of electoral democracy: Elections provide “authoritative, widely accepted agreement about who shall rule.” Elections encourage the turnover of power. “Electoral competition also provides some incentives for rulers at any given moment to tolerate opposition” and thereby diffuses social conflict. Democratic citizenship can cultivate certain valuable virtues. Finally, “reelection-seeking politicians in well-functioning democracies will strive to avoid being caught violating consensual ethical norms in their society.”
However, some of these stabilizing tendencies have been strained by the increasingly dogmatic polarization of American political life since November 2016.
Achen and Bartels point to the 2000 presidential election as an instance of how elections settle questions of power. George W. Bush lost the popular vote and won Florida (and the presidency) by only a few hundred votes. The victory in Florida was characterized by hotly disputed standards for counting ballots, confusing ballot designs, and allegations of voter purges. The vote count in Florida was ultimately resolved only by the Supreme Court in a controversial 5–4 decision. Yet, despite all this, Achen and Bartels argue, the results of the 2000 election were broadly accepted as legitimate. Yes, a “few Democratic partisans continued to grumble that the election had been ‘stolen,’” but political life went on. The idea that President Bush was “selected, not elected” might have bounced around some partisan echo chambers, but even Al Gore seemed to accept his loss.
Compare that to the present. Since 2016, one of the hallmarks of elite American discourse has been to challenge the idea that an election does provide an authoritative resolution of who should hold political power. The number of voters who decided the election in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin might have been able to fit in the Rose Bowl, but that’s still much bigger than the Little League championship-size margin of 2000. Nevertheless, many of Trump’s most strident opponents continue to cast doubt on whether the election was legitimately decided. Compared with Al Gore’s moving on from 2000, Hillary Clinton has promoted theories that there was something suspect about the result of the 2016 election. Nor is this confined to the presidency. Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, refused to concede that she lost her race against Brian Kemp. While she said she “acknowledged” the result, she also insisted that she really “did win” and that the election was not “free or fair.” Many media outlets and top Democrats have elevated Abrams as a voice, even as she challenged the legitimacy of the democratic process.
Perhaps surprisingly, Donald Trump also has argued that the 2016 election was somehow corrupted. Candidate Trump raised doubts about whether he would accept the election results in November 2016, and President-elect Trump claimed (without evidence) that millions of illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton.
Heading into 2020, both the president and many of his opponents have laid the groundwork for discounting the legitimacy of the results — whether it’s ballot fraud, voter suppression, or foreign interference. The increasingly vitriolic polarization of American elites combined with the pandemic’s disruption to the voting system could cause the battle over vote counts to be fierce indeed after November 3. Washington power players recently convened to stage a simulation and examine various election outcomes, including what might happen if President Trump refuses to accept defeat once the votes are counted. However, at this meeting, John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chair and a longtime pillar of the national Democratic establishment, reportedly floated the idea that Joe Biden might not accept the results of the election if he loses in the Electoral College.
Reinforcing these attacks on the legitimacy of American elections is an increased hostility to the idea of legitimate democratic contestation (points 2 and 3 for the defense of democracy in Democracy for Realists). Intense negative polarization has helped convince partisans on both sides that no quarter can be given because they are only one election away from total annihilation. Saving America requires grinding the other party into dust. The idea that one party is a threat to American life has long circulated in talk radio and Internet message boards, but it has gained a new respectability in the Trump era. In a recent article in the New Republic, a staff writer called not just for the electoral defeat of the Republican Party but for its extinction. In his 2019 book RIP GOP, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg hoped that demographic change would lead to an “end of politics” in which one-party hegemony would allow for political transformation (though Greenberg does suggest that a newly “relevant” GOP could someday rise from the ashes).
Achen and Bartels argue that politicians who seek reelection will abide by conventional norms, if only for the sake of ambition. As they put it, “no president will strangle a kitten on the White House lawn in view of the television cameras.” Little did they know that, in the 2016 primary, Donald Trump would joke that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing any voters. Intense negative polarization can lead to a doom loop for public norms. Seeking to rally his or her base, a politician might fling insults at factional opponents. Fearing what the other side might do if it has power, a party coalition will ignore some of the gravest transgressions of its own side. If strangling a kitten can trigger your opponent, why not do it?
The president has eschewed many norms of courtesy. He continually inflames cultural controversies, as his recent query about delaying the election indicates. The constant turmoil of the White House has hampered its ability to fulfill the routine functions of governance, and the coronavirus pandemic has placed further pressures on the administration’s disjointed decision-making processes. A burn-it-all-down fever has also overtaken many of Trump’s opponents, who themselves have embraced all manner of insults and performative outrage. Nancy Pelosi’s dramatic shredding of the State of the Union text is an apt partner for the president’s Twitter feed.
Increasing polarization and partisan hostility, then, risk undermining some of the strengths of a democratic system. However, the push and pull of democratic life might end up reinforcing some of those virtues.
The chaos of the Trump White House and the president’s courting of controversy have exacted a major political price. Unlike any of his modern predecessors, President Trump has spent essentially the entirety of his presidency with a net-negative approval rating. That low popular approval and the internal turmoil of the administration have significantly curtailed the president’s power within the federal government. In driving away independents and Republican-leaning suburban voters, the president has given Joe Biden a sizable political opening.
Moreover, despite the desire that some partisans have for post-political absolute rule, the American body politic has continually reinvented itself. Promises of a permanent partisan majority (whether in 2004, 2008, or 2016) are often unrealized. For those interested in securing a constitutional republic, aversion to one-party rule is a valuable sentiment. Electoral competition sharpens a political coalition and forces it to evolve to respond to the challenges of the time. For instance, the economic dislocations and disappointments of the high neoliberal era have helped push at least some Republican politicians to break with an outmoded agenda. (It’s at least an open question whether a refusal to lean into this task of reform has helped further pull down the polling numbers of both the president and congressional Republicans.) Moreover, political contestation helps resist the incessant lure of centralized power. The most recent period of extended one-party hegemony, the era extending from the New Deal through World War II, saw many important achievements, but also strains on constitutional checks and balances; no president held such a magnitude of power for as long as FDR.
However, it is not clear that political contestation alone can restrain the tendency toward institutional pyromania. Policy steps and cultural reassessments might also play a role. Concrete reforms could make the counting of votes less contentious; for instance, states without an infrastructure for doing mass mail-in voting might be better off promoting more early in-person voting during the pandemic, and the federal government could provide funds to help keep state voting infrastructures from getting overwhelmed.
Achen and Bartels point to some evidence that partisan rationalizations and misperceptions can be found even more frequently among citizens who are politically engaged than among those who are not. A similar point might also apply to negative polarization. Many of the most prominent theories for why the 2016 election was illegitimate have been formulated and promoted by entrenched political actors. The current culture war is — like many other culture wars — an elite-driven phenomenon. Partly as a struggle within elite ranks, those with significant cultural and political perches have often given fuel to inherent factional tensions.
Stable democratic governance depends on patience, compromise, and the acceptance of loss. If members of a losing faction nevertheless remain invested in the institutions of a given democratic order, they will accept momentary losses as a way of shoring up those institutions over a longer term — and creating the possibility of victory in the future. Meanwhile, to secure democratic stability, a winning coalition must also accept the possibility of loss in the future. This in part means resisting the temptation to transform existing civil institutions into a mere apparatus of a partisan machine and abiding by certain constraints on power (such as longstanding protections for minority parties). Those norms are, of course, in tension with the politics of apocalypse and emergency that has become so fashionable.
If social identity plays an important role in elections, it might also have a bearing on the stability of the democratic process. Securing some of the virtues of democracy might involve citizens seeing themselves not only as members of a given faction but also as participants in a common democratic order.