In this pandemic election, Americans stepped up and voted in record numbers to make their voices heard. The result is a testament to democratic resilience. And yet our democracy remains in precarious health.
Even now, when President-elect Joe Biden’s victory is clear, President Trump continues to issue false claims of stolen votes and rigged counting while pursuing lawsuits that deny the election’s decisive outcome. Some of his most fervent supporters, including elected officials, have repeated these dangerous claims, refusing to accept the people’s democratic judgment. These desperate moves are reminiscent of the actions not just of autocratic rulers abroad but also of scenes from the United States’ own history.
We should not delude ourselves that Biden’s election spells the end of the contemporary crisis of American democracy. That crisis results from forces much larger than Trump, and to which his own political success is attributable. It stems from the convergence, for the first time in American history, of all four of the threats that endanger democracy the world over: political polarization; conflict over who belongs as a full member of the political community; rising economic inequality; and the concentration of power in the nation’s top leader. History reveals that American democracy, time and again, has proved to be fragile in the face of these threats.
Even one threat alone — political polarization — wreaked havoc during the tumultuous 1790s, as political leaders grew fiercely divided over competing visions of the nation’s future and Americans chose sides as Federalists or Republicans. As the nation braced for the presidential election of 1800, each saw the other as an existential threat to the future of the republic. When the election resulted in deadlock, Americans feared civil war, the disintegration of the republic, or a return to monarchy.
The federal government, which had until then been controlled almost entirely by the Federalists, prepared to put down an insurrection, while the states controlled by the Democratic-Republicans prepared to resist violently if Federalists refused to cede power. The nation lurched with anxiety for three months, waiting for the House of Representatives to meet and decide the outcome. When it finally convened, it took five days and 36 votes until one Federalist broke the impasse by switching his support to the Republican Thomas Jefferson. Remarkably, Americans’ worst fears were not realized; the ruling party accepted defeat and the nation managed its first peaceful transition of power.
Again in 1860, a deeply divided election took place, this time in the combined presence of three threats: polarization, conflict over membership and economic inequality. Until the 1850s, white Southern elites had played along with elections and representative government as long as they could preserve the enslavement of African Americans. But as resistance to slavery grew, this trade-off became untenable.
When the new territory of Kansas sought statehood, proslavery forces repeatedly disrupted elections with fraud and violence, and soon both pro- and anti-slavery camps were holding their own elections and refusing to abide by the other’s results. The constitutional crisis that ensued was soon replicated nationwide.
As slavery divided the parties and the nation, the 1860 presidential election devolved into two separate contests between different pairs of candidates in the country’s two regions. Abraham Lincoln, who argued that slavery and democracy were incompatible, won decisively but with no southern support. Seven states promptly seceded from the union, and one month after Lincoln’s inauguration, Confederate artillery opened fire on Ft. Sumter and the nation plunged into bloody civil war.
Now we face all four threats simultaneously in an unprecedented confluence, though these threats have been rising for years.
Political polarization raises the stakes of political conflict. Democracy works well when citizens’ affiliations intersect in different ways, as when we associate with people of different political views in places of worship, neighborhoods, workplaces and civic organizations. But when these groupings overlap and reflect similar political views, as has been occurring in the United States in recent decades, politics becomes a battle of “us versus them.”
If the party that stands to lose determines that it must win at all costs, democracy can be shattered. Republican Party officials who bolster Trump’s claims of fraud while stoking anger among their base are risking this outcome.
Conflict over who belongs as full members of the political community intensifies political battles. In the United States, divisions over race — between those who seek greater equality for all versus those who wish to restore or preserve white dominance — have long marked our history. Now these divides have become mapped onto the party divide, fueling an extremely volatile politics.
High and rising economic inequality proves dangerous because the rich fear that if the poor and middle classes gain power, they will face higher taxes, so they may be willing to sacrifice democracy if that protects their material interests. Economic inequality has been soaring since the 1970s, making the United States among the most unequal of nations, with the affluent even more politically organized.
The concentration of executive power provides leaders who claim the mantle of popular authority with the means to override democratic principles in pursuit of their own political or personal goals. Over the 20th century, the power of the presidency grew dramatically, heightening the opportunity for ambitious presidents to exploit power in such ways.
During Trump’s presidency, with all four of these threats raging, the four central pillars of democracy have each endured damage: free and fair elections, the rule of law, the idea of legitimate opposition and the integrity of rights. Now, with the support of a party that has abandoned its commitment to these pillars, Trump is trying to convince his supporters that Biden’s victory is illegitimate, and already 70% of Republicans believe the election was not fair. This deepens the already acute crisis of our democracy, and we hover on a dangerous precipice.
Trump’s defeat at the ballot box is a crucial first step away from that precipice, though the four threats — which he exploited and intensified — will rage on even when he is gone. Each has taken on a life of its own, making them extremely difficult to tame. The fractious election will not lessen our disagreements over policy matters. But by bolstering the foundations of democracy — sound elections, the rule of law and broadly enforced voting rights — we can make it possible to carry on peacefully as one nation and protect democracy from further damage.