Joe Biden is the first challenger to defeat an incumbent US President since Bill Clinton in 1992.
This is good news for those worried about the Trump Administration’s corruption, voter suppression, disregard for the rule of law, and its attempted coup.
However, while Donald J. Trump will be leaving office on 20 January 2021, American democracy is still in peril. Trump was both an accelerant and a symptom of the rot in American democracy. He was not the cause.
For political and structural reasons, the long term challenges may be even greater now.
Trump’s attempts to overturn the election have not come close to working. BUT there are knock-on effects. First—buoyed by a powerful conservative media complex—large proportions of Republican (GOP) voters believe his claims.1
This makes Joe Biden an illegitimate president in the minds of Republican voters, though this is not a new phenomenon.2 The second impact is to further delegitimize elections amongst a core group of voters whose commitment to democracy is tenuous at best.
A number of Republican legislators and officials at the state level have signalled they are willing to aid Trump’s attempted coup. In Pennsylvania, 8 GOP legislators have filed calling the universal mail-in ballot provisions unconstitutional and looking to throw out millions of mostly democratic votes.3 Despite no evidence of fraud, Republican canvassers in Wayne County, Michigan refused to certify results, relented, then tried to take back their acceptance under party pressure.4
Democracy is not imbued in the souls of free people–or a set of institutions as many Americans insist–but is instead something that needs continual work to be realized.
Top Michigan lawmakers agreed to meet with the President and stay at his hotel5 while he lobbies them to throw the election to him.6 Decisions by Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania Legislatures NOT to count mail-in ballots until after election day ballots intentionally opened the door for Trump’s claims.7
Few Republican Senators and Congresspeople are speaking out on this issue and many of those who seem to support Trump’s attempts. The GOP congressional delegation from Georgia asked for investigations into Trump’s baseless claims of fraud.8 Lindsay Graham, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, lobbied the Georgia Secretary of State to throw heavily democratic mail-in ballots.9 Graham potentially committed a federal crime. As a result of the Georgia Secretary of State, a Republican, is receiving death threats.10
The GOP House caucus seems to come around to Biden’s win not because Trump’s actions are corrosive to democracy but because his tactics will not work.11 Trump is not alone in this.
These actions are not just aimed at keeping Trump in the White House and/or assuaging his ego12 but as a reason to crack down even further on the right to vote going forward. And if the election were closer, it is hard to believe that Republicans wouldn’t have been ok with attempting to overturn a Biden victory.
There are also structural reasons to worry about American democracy. First is gerrymandering—the combination of new technology and the outcome of the 2010 midterms means that the Republican Party was able to make it very hard for Democrats to win the House of Representatives despite getting more votes. Democrats did win the house in 2018 and 2020 due to an unpopular president and gerrymandering being less effective over time. But the gerrymandering of state legislatures (it is basically impossible for Democrats to win in Wisconsin,13 Michigan,14 and Pennsylvania15 despite repeatedly getting more votes) means that once again Republicans will control redistricting following the 2020 census.
The Senate favours rural areas that, currently, are heavily Republican. It has been forecast that by 2040, 70 per cent of the population will live in states with 30 Senators and vice versa.16 This is a deeply troubling trend that could mean Republicans hold the chamber for a generation or more while receiving a minority of votes. Thus, Democratic Presidents may not be allowed to appoint judges and cabinet officials. In addition, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a history of forcing gridlock because he has, correctly, surmised that it helps Republican electoral prospects. This means that needed institutional reforms are unlikely.
Third—the Electoral college gap is widening. The popular vote margin and the margin in the tipping-point state in the Electoral College grew from roughly 2 to 3.5-4 points between 2016 and 2020. If this gap persists, then the Democrats would have to win the popular vote by 4 per cent just to have a shot at the electoral college going forward. Such a margin is on the high end for recent Presidential elections.
These issues have always existed but they are now more acute as they all favour one party. Maybe the electoral college gap fades away in the short term (Barack Obama actually enjoyed an electoral college advantage in 2008 and 2012).17 But the problem is that we will see at least one of a)minority rule or b) increasing attempts to effect politics outside of democratic institutions and practices.
These factors combine with two others. One problem is the Supreme Court and the judiciary write large. The problem here is not the policy priorities of the 6-3 conservative Supreme Court. It is that those same justices have voted for voter suppression. They have overturned much of the Voting Rights Act because it was working18 and in a recent opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh signalled that he was willing to throw a very close election to Trump.19 These justices have blocked most attempts to counter gerrymandering. Senate approval and the undemocratic nature of that body only make the unelected branch of government even more political.
Second, voters and elites are not only polarized but they tend to dislike the other side more than they like their own, what is called negative partisanship.20 As a result, the pool of swing voters21 has shrunk22 and lawmakers now fear primary challenges more than general elections.
Polarization and Negative Partisanship are not symmetrical,23 the effects much larger among Republicans. As a result, the party has responded to losing the Presidential popular vote in 7 of 8 elections by finding non-democratic ways to hold power as opposed to reaching out. The lack of trust resultant from negative partisanship means both sides think the other is subverting democracy, which is why this post seems so partisan. There are democracy supporting and democracy sceptical parties right now.
Joe Biden’s victory turns the heat down on these issues, allows people to relax and not think about politics. It also prevents the Department of Justice and the Intelligence services from being used to serve Trump’s personal interests. But the larger challenges persist. Democracy is not imbued in the souls of free people–or a set of institutions as many Americans insist–but is instead something that needs continual work to be realized.24
That work must continue.