After the 2020 election and, presumably, the end of the Trump presidency, the United States is left facing both a polarized electorate and a polarized legislature. Republican lawmakers have been unwilling to rebuff Trump’s attempts to undermine a free-and-and-fair election, potentially risking democratic both in Washington and throughout the country. The Republican party has accepted and enabled anti-democratic tendencies, potentially risking the electoral norms that underpin our democracy. In 2016, the Trump campaign attacked electoral norms by making unfounded claims of voter fraud, encouraging voter suppression, and threatening to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power . However, these anti-democratic tendencies were not tempered by establishment Republicans. Instead, polarization in both the legislature and the electorate has not only neutered both the will and the ability of Republican lawmakers to reign in Trump’s anti-democratic tendencies, but has prompted them to enable Trump’s rejection of the 2020 election results.
What’s wrong with polarization?
There are two different types of polarization, party polarization and electorate polarization. Party polarization is marked by political parties that are far apart on both ideology and policy that often take antagonistic or uncooperative stances to governing. Party polarization is often underscored by electorate polarization, with the two parties appealing to different demographic groups or areas within the nation. Electorate polarization, or polarization on the public level, can prompt political tribalism and homophily, with intense feelings of distrust to members of the opposite political party. Both facets of polarization produce partisans who are more willing to accept would-be autocrats and will degrade democratic norms in order to advance their party goals. Due to the prioritization of party over democracy, polarization may act as a precursor to democratic erosion.
Polarization in 2020
Elite polarization poses significant challenges to the future of American democracy. In response to Trump’s repeated refusals to accept the results of the 2020 election, prominent Republican lawmakers have echoed his claims of voter fraud and election-rigging that have, thus far, been unsubstantiated.
Exit polls from the 2020 election reflect a deeply polarized electorate. Hardly any voters defected from their parties to vote for the other candidate, approximately 94% of Democrats and Republicans voted for their respective candidate. Similarly, 95% of Biden voters and 92% of Trump voters voted for the same party in 2016. 93% of both contingents claimed that they would be “concerned or scared” if the opposing candidate were elected. A Pew Research study found that approximately 90% of both Biden and Trump voters thought the opposing candidate would lead to “lasting harm” in the United States. These responses underscore Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik’s claim that electorate polarization raises the stakes of elections to the point that voters, in making a choice between prioritizing democratic or partisan interests, may be pushed to sacrifice democratic principles . Electorate polarization further degrades democracy because the public no longer acts as a check on politicians who threaten democracy, instead prioritizing their partisan interests. These exit polls reveal that, despite Trump’s loss, the electorate is significantly polarized, presenting significant challenges to democratic cooperation.
Exit polls also reveal an electorate split sharply along demographic lines. Demographically polarization can be seen when party differences map onto demographic ones. People who lived in cities preferred Biden, while those in rural areas preferred Trump. 76% of White Evangelicals voted for Trump. The electorate also split strongly along racial and ethnic lines. 41% of White Americans voted for Biden, while 87% of Black Americans, 65% of Hispanic or Latino Americans, and 61% of Asian Americans voted for Biden. With demographic polarization, political identities become entrenched along racial, ethnic, and regional lines, further driving voters away from reconciliation and into partisan enclaves. A polarized electorate lacks the cross-cutting cleavages that Lipset argues complement a two-party system and make it democratic .
Polarization in Washington has come into relief following Trump’s electoral loss, with prominent Republicans sowing distrust in the American electoral system and, in turn, normalizing Trump’s antidemocratic behavior. While, previously, polarization manifested in the blocking of judicial candidates and government shutdowns, the American political elite is split on whether or not the accept the results of an election deemed secure by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. To prevent the rise of an autocrat, democratic norms act as guardrails, and these democratic norms are weakened by polarization . However, Republican lawmakers have signalled their unwillingness to abide by these norms. The actions of Republican lawmakers not only threatens democratic norms in Washington, but coincides with 70% of Republican voters believing that the 2020 election was not free and fair. Although we cannot yet determine which came first—elite distrust or mass distrust—these trends serve as a troubling sign for the future of American democracy.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the highest ranking Republican, has publicly approved of Trump’s moves to contest the results of the election in the courts and has not acknowledged Biden’s victory. Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, has followed Trump’s claim that the election was conducted improperly. Senator Lindsey Graham urged Trump not to concede, insisting that he would weaponize the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate the election. Notably, Republican figures have made use of language which implies that their unwillingness to accept the results of the election is, itself, democratic. These moves fit with the trend identified by Lieberman et. al. of the decline in congressional bipartisanship . Republican party elites are signaling a prioritization of their partisan interests over the sanctity of American elections.
While we cannot yet discern whether electoral or elite polarization has prompted the rejection of democratic norms by Republican party elites, the mistrust that the Republican party has sown in the 2020 election is a reflection of both mass and elite polarization. Furthermore, in failing to condemn Trump’s anti-democratic rejection of the election results, the Republican party has solidified this sort of behavior as presidential. The consequences of the distrust sown in this election are yet to be seen. However, along with the previous degradation of democratic norms, the Republican response to the 2020 election may prove disastrous.
- Robert Lieberman et al., “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis,” Perspectives on Politics 2018, pp. 1-20
- Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requirements of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Review, 1959
- 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