When Joe Biden was announced the President-elect of the United States, sitting President Donald Trump promptly filed multiple lawsuits in states regarding how elections were held and how ballots were counted… all of which have come up unsuccessful for him. Moreover, investigations into instances of voter fraud and ballot-count manipulation have yielded no evidence of electoral wrongdoings that favor the Democratic Party. However, despite the election being, by all observable means, fair and legal, Trump is still insisting that the election was illegitimate. Given that the likelihood of mass voter fraud is low and that there is no evidence that any remarkable voter fraud has occurred in favor of Biden, do Trump’s accusations become democratically corrosive?
A largely agreed upon mainstay of strong democracies is free and fair elections, meaning elections that are not tainted by illegal activities like voter fraud or political intimidation and violence at the polls. This indicates that Trump’s accusations of voter fraud mean more than just a bad election. His accusations imply that US democracy itself is fracturing and fracturing quickly. However, since there is no evidence that voter fraud has actually occurred, it seems that Trump’s warning of a fracturing democracy is not a serious assertion. I argue that this is not the case and that Trump’s continued accusations of voter fraud, while not a sign of irreparable democratic damage, may still result in difficult hurdles that the United States must get over if it wants to maintain its democracy.
Voter fraud on a large and public scale would be devastating to not only democracy itself but also democratic culture. Thus, it is important to call it out when it happens, and equally important to refrain from falsely calling it out when it does not happen. One of the many reasons free and fair elections are a mainstay of democracy is that free and fair elections help the people trust the democratic process. The people must believe in democracy for democracy to remain stable. If the people do not believe in democracy, free and fair elections no longer have value, and if free and fair elections no longer have value, then there is no democracy. Trump’s accusations of voter fraud when there is no evidence of voter fraud will cause his supporters to lose faith in free and fair elections, which has damaging implications for the quality of US democracy. Once the quality of US democracy becomes questionable, then the US has ostensibly fallen into the trap of democratic erosion. Thus, Trump’s flippant accusations of voter fraud are and will continue to be damaging to democracy in the United States.
One could argue that Trump’s behavior is not unheard of in a losing candidate. For instance, the 2000 US Presidential Election was so close that Al Gore demanded a recount in Florida. The US Supreme Court ended up deciding that the recount was unconstitutional, and George W. Bush was subsequently elected president.
While the Bush v. Gore election is a good example of a close and hard-fought election, it is not the same as what has unfolded in the 2020 election. For one, Gore conceded the election at first, but once he realized the election was going to be decided by Florida, and that the lead in Florida was a difference of a mere few hundred votes, he rescinded his concession. No state has had as close of a count in the 2020 election, and Trump still refuses to concede. Furthermore, Gore only filed a lawsuit for a Florida recount. Trump, however, has filed lawsuits in six states: Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin. Thus, Gore’s accusation of voter fraud did not allege widespread voter fraud across multiple states. Trump cannot say the same about his accusations. Trump’s widespread cry of voter fraud has much larger and much more serious implications for the quality of democracy in the United States, and these implications are what make Trump’s behavior unprecedented. Trump’s flippant accusations undermine the legitimacy of US elections and peg him as an autocratic personality. For this reason, his behavior should not be seen as normal because it is not normal for a healthy democracy. His behavior is directly corrosive to US democracy.
The consequences of Trump’s autocratic tendencies are likely to continue to affect US democracy long after he leaves office. He has established a culture of distrust for the democratic process by crying voter fraud when there is none, and this distrust will take time to disintegrate. In order to heal US democracy, President-elect Joe Biden will have to rekindle trust in free and fair elections. If he or his future successors fail, US democracy will continue to fracture until it eventually falls apart. Dahl, Robert Alan. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2007.  Lipset, Seymour Martin. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” The American Political Science Review 53, no. 1 (1959): 69-105. Accessed November 18, 2020. doi:10.2307/1951731.  Lust, Ellen, and David Waldner. “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science, 113, 21, no. 93 (May 2018).  Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York, New York: Broadway Books, 2019.
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