While the polarization of modern American politics was displayed in the nearly partisan impeachment of President Donald Trump, the current democratic primary race to decide who will face Trump in the 2020 elections demonstrates just how extreme American polarization is and how high the stakes are for Democrats. This tension between the Democrat and Republican parties is at an extreme, revealing America’s unfortunate progress toward democratic erosion. While each party wants to defeat the other in every election, there is a clear sense of urgency to defeat Trump unlike before.
On Friday, February 7th, seven Democratic candidates went head to head in the New Hampshire debate. As things began to get heated between candidates Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, candidate Tom Steyer asserted himself into the conversation. He states that “[e]verybody on this stage is better on economic justice and health care than anybody in the Republican Party and a million times better than Donald Trump. That is not the question in front of us today.” The question Steyer refers to is who has the capabilities to beat Trump. His statement relays the message that the platform of Democratic candidates is not as important at this stage in the race as their ability to garner enough support to win the general election. He points specifically to minority communities, as Trump struggles in those areas, making them even more important for the Democrats to attain.
Steyer’s by all means necessary attitude to defeating Trump exposes the lack of mutual toleration between the Democrats and Trump. Mutual toleration is “politician’s willingness to agree to disagree.” When an opponent does not have mutual toleration of the other, they believe the opponent does not have the right to fairly compete due to their disregard for constitutional rules. Trump’s impeachment and failure to follow many norms, such as refusing to reveal his tax returns, makes a clear case for believing he would go further and break more rules, perhaps becoming a threat to democracy. Ironically, this can lead to authoritarian measures to prevent the so-called dangerous candidate from attaining power. While mutual toleration may not be eroded enough to form an authoritarian government from the Democrats in this specific election, it is clear mutual toleration has decayed to an unprecedented extent, which could have dire effects on the future of American democracy.
The lack of mutual toleration is not one-sided in this election, however, as President Trump has already begun to attack the legitimacy of potential opponents. This is shown by his nickname for Elizabeth Warren, Pochahontas, and his investigation into the life of Joe Biden and his son. Trump’s lack of toleration is more dangerous than the Democratic candidates, as he holds currently holds the presidency, granting him legitimacy to enforce barriers that could prevent the Democrats from gaining power in the name of protection against authoritarianism.
The attitudes of Democratic candidates are not the only ones that display the urgency to win the 2020 elections, but the Democratic voters as well. In a Marist poll, 58% of Democrat voters said they would rather have a candidate more likely to defeat Trump than one that aligns with their views. When asked if they would rather have a more electable candidate than one who inspires them, the number increases to 61%. While elections are meant to be competitive, these statistics demonstrate a fear that certain candidates will not have a competitive chance against Trump. Joseph Schumpeter describes democracy as, “making the people itself decide issues through the election of individuals who are to assemble in order to carry out its will.” In a fully democratic system, the voters support who they believe will transform their country in a way they desire. However, in the current American political system voters are voting not for policy, but to increase competitiveness in elections.
The polarization between Democrats and Republicans today is incentivizing voters to vote to defeat the opposing party, not who they believe will do the best job running the country. Robert Dahl claims that the ability of citizens to formulate preferences and signify their preferences is essential to democracy. While siding with one party over another is a preference in itself, many Democrats feel as though they have lost the ability to express their preference for policies and signify them within the election. The loss of policy preference felt by many voters is a small, almost undetectable sign of democratic erosion within the United States. The polarization between the Democrats and Republicans that can be seen through the current Democratic primary uncover a lack of mutual toleration and way to signal preference in voting that are contributing to a slow erosion of democracy in America. Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapters 5 and 6.  Schumpeter, Joseph. (1943). Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers.  Dahl, Robert. (1972). Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Political polarization is definitely one of the most frustrating parts of elections in the United States. Even back in 2016 with the Democratic primary and the meddling that took place with that. Instead of letting voters choose the delegate they believed in the most. It became an us vs. them issue and choosing “between the lesser of two evils,” which didn’t work out in the Dems favor. I definitely think it’s interesting to see how even in the Democratic primary there’s still this level of infighting. Especially since it’s the Democrats who have the laundry list of people vying for the nomination this time around. In an ideal world, there would be more competition and more discourse.
I agree that putting electability over authenticity has been a major issue in the democratic nomination process for the 2020 election. Now that Bernie Sanders has exited the race, clearing the path for Joe Biden’s nomination, I wonder how your stance on this issue has grown or evolved. Do you think that the COVID-19 pandemic has also pushed this particular issue to the back-burner, and how do you think democrats should move forward in the coming election considering all that has happened in the couple of months since you published this post?
I see the form of democratic polarization on both sides as a net good for democracy in the sense that it allows for a broader range of beliefs and more options. I do however agree that the transfer of policy to electability preference is more troubling because it does not guarantee that the candidate that wins, does have the best policy. Now with that being said I do acknowledge that said candidate wouldn’t get to the candidacy without at least having some good ideas. Yet the problem and worry that I have is that this would become the normal of democratic elections. Where instead of voting for policy in future elections but on how candidates would simply beat the other guy, and then bases would lose steam on policy and work or the next election.