The United States has faced an arguably unprecedented combination of factors, both domestic and international, throughout 2020 that have created the present day political climate that will shape the election season, and the proceeding presidential term. With the presence of the Coronavirus pandemic and a long history of systemic racism and a host of other structural issues reaching a climax of riots, peaceful protests, and the exposition of systemic problems within law enforcement, it appears that Americans have reached a point of questioning the democracy that they live in, many for the first time ever. Though the birth of these issues can be traced back many years, even centuries in some cases, this year has certainly seen the perpetuation of these conversations and subsequent unease within the nation, between political parties and in the United States’ relationship with other members of the international community. Through the increasing polarization, lack of commitment to a legitimate and peaceful transition of power by our nation’s leaders, the democracy of the United States is backsliding, and characteristics of authoritarianism are increasingly prevalent. As a result of all of these factors, citizens of the United States have become increasingly concerned about the security of the presidential election and are likely to distrust the results. The combination of President Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and this distrust of election results among the citizens will potentially surmount to an anarchic November and remainder of the year for the United States.
To begin, arguably the most pressing concern for the future of American democracy is election security. The right to free and fair elections is fundamental to the existence of democracy, and there is legitimate fear among citizens and government officials that the election may not be secure this November. The threat of both domestic forces and international infiltration of the ballot boxes are two legitimate fears discussed frequently.
In the first presidential debate of the 2020 election cycle, President Trump posed the idea that there needs to be a greater law and order presence at the ballot boxes to prevent fraudulent activity from taking place. This encouragement of other citizens to engage with other voters actively, and potentially aggressively, can be tied to voter intimidation and manipulation and further compromises the idea of voter security. There has been considerable concern surrounding international intervention in this election as well, further instilling a sense of fear into the voters.
When the citizens of a democracy begin to believe that their voice in the electoral process has become fraudulent and unreliably presented, the realization of the lack of other democratic processes becomes clearer. This is a point when what may initially be referred to as stealth authoritarianism transforms into tangible interferences with the democratic values of a nation that are noticeable to the citizens whose rights are being manipulated. This aspect of backsliding is increasingly dangerous because if citizens perceive an election to be fraudulent and illegitimate, then it becomes easier to slip into other forms of democratic erosion, as citizens view democracy as illegitimate.
According to an NPR poll conducted in January, many Americans have confirmed this distrust in the electoral system. While there are partisan differences in what is perceived to be the main threat to the election’s security, such as the controversial topics of mail-in ballots and foreign interference with the election, one out of every three of the individuals polled by NPR believe that the results of the 2020 election will be inaccurate, regardless of who wins. In addition, seventy seven percent of Americans anticipate some form of foreign intervention in the electoral process this year. Following foreign intervention, the next greatest concern of the American people regarding the 2020 election is voter fraud, which fifty two percent of Americans anticipate.
This issue is further exacerbated by the potential scenario of President Trump refusing to concede the election, as he has yet to verbally commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Should this occur, there is great concern among the American people that both parties and their supporters may mobilize in riots or other forms of chaos, creating anarchy following the election.
Peaceful and legitimate transitions of power are vital to the existence of democracy. Citizen must also perceive the results of elections to be valid and legitimate, as the perception of democracy is often what sustains citizens commitment to the ideals and requirements of democracy. Transparency is valued in democracies, specifically in the minds of American voters. It mobilizes activists and entire generations of citizens to invest in government and remain active in the electoral process. A little bit of concern over the results of elections may serve to further mobilize communities. However, the amount of concern over the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential election presents concerns about the stability of the nation following the election, regardless of who wins. Without the commitment to a peaceful transfer of power and with the current polarization and distrust among the American people, the days following the 2020 presidential election will shape the future of the United States. The American people and leadership must collectively work to maintain the democracy of the United States, especially during this election season.
Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27(1): pp. 5-19.
Ewing, Philip. “Election Security Boss: Threats To 2020 Are Now Broader, More Diverse.” NPR, NPR, 22 Jan. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/01/22/798186093/election-security-boss-threats-to-2020-are-now-broader-more-diverse.
Fessler, Pam. “American Distrust Of The Voting Process Is Widespread, NPR Poll Finds.” NPR, NPR, 21 Jan. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/01/21/798088827/american-distrust-of-the-voting-process-is-widespread-npr-poll-finds.
Hasen, Richard. “Perspective | Democrats May Not Trust the Results of the Election If Trump Wins.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 10 Sept. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/09/10/trump-win-fair-election/.