In recent weeks, President Trump lost re-election and subsequently refused to concede. He claimed he won and levied unsubstantiated accusations that the election was stolen. Against this backdrop, the effects of polarization on the perceived legitimacy of American election results have become clearer. Meanwhile, a recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll indicates that the proportion of Republicans believing the election to be free and fair fell by half (from 70% to 35%) after the election was called for Joe Biden, while Democratic skepticism was assuaged following a win at the polls (rising from 52% to 90%). I argue that this indicates that partisan polarization colors Americans’ understanding of the legitimacy of their elections, and that this is a warning sign for a once-healthy democracy. Working from the findings of Graham and Svolik (among others), I outline Americans’ strong but fickle affinity for democratic values and the overriding lure of partisanship. Drawing on Müller, I connect Manichean language to polarization, and polarization to the delegitimization of opposition victories. I conclude by outlining the dangers of this deep division as America marches into the 2020s.
Democratic values are widespread but fragile in the United States, and are highly influenced by partisanship. In “Democracy in America?”, an article on polarization, partisanship, and American democratic values, Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik find that Americans commit to democracy in the abstract while often leaving antidemocratic behavior unpunished at the ballot box. When choosing between an antidemocratic co-partisan and a pro-democratic candidate with opposing policy preferences, the Graham-Svolik experiment found that Americans tend to still support their ideological ally. They found that only about 3.5% of voters would shift away from antidemocratic candidates in real-world simulations, a phenomenon exacerbated by polarization . Democratic values are often secondary to partisanship.
While Graham and Svolik focused on the impact of partisanship on voters’ preferences, the last two weeks speak to the impact of partisanship on the legitimacy of democratic systems as party affiliations seem to impact citizens’ interpretations of their electoral systems. Despite no evidence of systemic fraud, the Morning Consult poll indicates supporters of the losing faction lost faith in this year’s democratic institutions, while supporters of the winner gained faith. The same survey found that 73% of Republicans and only 39% of Democrats believed the 2016 election, which Republican Donald Trump won, was free and fair—partisanship here, too, correlates with opinions of an election result’s legitimacy. This complements the Graham-Svolik study, indicating that partisanship rules both when choosing candidates and when interpreting election results.
Independent voters’ views on the election’s legitimacy also vindicate Graham’s and Svolik’s research on polarization. Independents thought the 2020 elections were free and fair before (49%) and after (57) the election, with an increase after it was called. Like how ideologues are more likely (according to Graham and Svolik) to sell out democratic principles in the interest of having their favored candidate win and centrists were more likely to punish antidemocratic candidates, this polling indicates that independents maintain more stable faith in America’s electoral institutions while partisans’ judgments are more influenced by whether their side prevailed.
This fragile commitment to democratic norms ties to the increasingly Manichean terms in which political candidates are presented and deepens polarization. In What is Populism?, Jan-Werner Müller grounds his understanding of populism in antipluralist sentiments sourced at a “moralistic imagining of politics” . Müller points to how the logic of populism provides that “if the populist politician fails at the polls, it is not because he does not represent the people” . Rather, either the “majority has not yet dared to speak”—or it wasn’t allowed to. That latter explanation points to the effectiveness of President Trump’s complaints of “stolen” elections, and the poll’s reflection of an electorate questioning whether verifiably free and fair elections were, in fact, free and fair.
Americans’ fickle faith in the 2020 election underlies a general distrust of the country’s electoral systems that stretches deeper than any one election. Two weeks before Election Day, 68% of Republicans and 66% of Democrats had at least “a lot” of trust in America’s electoral system. One week later, after the race was called for Biden, trust levels fell to 34% for Republicans and rose to 78% for Democrats. Whereas the results for the “free and fair elections” question point to American’s thoughts on the 2020 election in particular, this question illustrates the erosion of faith in the most fundamental institution of American democracy more generally.
As the 2020s wear on, these divisions over the reliability of American democracy heighten the risk of further democratic erosion. When Robert Lieberman, et al., identify struggles over civic membership as a key component of contemporary American polarization, they recognize that it may lead to a “leader who will draw the definition of who ‘the people’ are in a way that mobilizes resentment and licenses disenfranchisement” . President Trump’s rhetoric around “the silent majority” vis-à-vis the “radical Democrats” creates a moral framework in which some citizens are part of “the people,” while others are radical and illegitimate political actors. As Lieberman, et al., note, Trump’s “inflammatory rhetoric [and] discrediting of political rivals” has deepened polarization .
Maybe these trends will die away. But recent attacks on the integrity of American democracy have, perhaps, primed Americans to believe that (as Ziblatt and Levitsky put it in How Democracies Die) “the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite” . Against a backdrop of widespread, partisan doubts regarding the legitimacy of electoral democracy, polarization may deepen and a more potent populist could emerge.
 Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik, “Democracy in America?: Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States,” American Political Science Review 2020.
 What is Populism, Jan-Werner Müller, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, 19-20.
 Ibid, 27.
 Ibid, 27.
 Robert Lieberman et al., “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis,” Perspectives on Politics 2018, 5.
 Ibid, 4.
 How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Crown Books 2018, 22.