On November 7th 2020, Joe Biden was declared 46th president of the United States. The election saw a record turnout rate of over 65%, amounting to over 160 million Americans. In the hours that followed the announcement of the results, thousands of people took the streets, celebrating, dancing, and chanting. The moment was one of big relief and satisfaction for many, but also one of frustration and discontent for others, many of which protested the results, claiming it was fraudulent. While the president elect amassed the greatest number of votes in US history with 79 million votes, the person with the second largest number of votes is none other than his contender, Donald Trump with 73 million votes. On one hand, these numbers show that political participation has never been so high. On the other hand however, they also show that polarization has never been so high. Moreover, the polarization we see today, is not just a regular, healthy competition between two parties.
The way people were celebrating gave the impression that something was won, like a struggle or a battle, and that the enemy was defeated. When a group celebrates, they celebrate for having achieved a particular goal, the goal to win and defeat the other team. However, while we would agree this attitude is appropriate to some sports competition between two teams, it doesn’t sit right in politics at all, and in my view will erode democratic norms in the long run. This is because the main focus of an election should not be the results but the means by which the election took place, and whether they were free and fair and follow Robert Dahl’s requirements for true democracy. To see one side dancing and cheering as if some battle was won was provocative and exclusive toward the millions of voters of the other party, and a significant portion of the electorate. Nonetheless, the losing side’s reaction was nothing of democratic either. It was especially disheartening that virtually every single person contesting the results were Trump supporters, which shows not only how many people blindly follow Trump’s discourse, but most importantly how little respect, millions of Americans have for the democratic process. The fact that people were not protesting the integrity of elections but more the fact that their preferred candidate did not win, is certainly a sign of declining support for democracy and therefore radicalisation of the people. In addition, Trump’s tweets that the elections were necessarily fraudulent unless he won them and that « We will never let them (steal the elections) », confirms his populist and authoritarian tendencies.
Moreover, the political cleavages we see today are not between Republicans and Democrats anymore, but between Pro-Trump and Anti-Trump supporters. While people did cheer for Biden’s victory, the electorate at large seemed much more focused on whether Trump would serve a second term. Seeing many people wave flyers with « Trump/Pence out now! » written on them and soaring support for movements such as refusefascism.org, revealed how people voted out of dislike for Trump rather than in support of Biden. For one this is concerning as, if people are participating only out of fear of another candidate winning or vote for the lesser of two evils, then the entire two-party system must be reconsidered, as a democracy should above all represent the people’s interests. More alarming however, is the growing inter-party hostility and this « Us vs Them » dynamic both parties are showing, whereby each side views the other as an existential threat that must be defeated. We see this on the left with people calling Trump supporters uneducated, fascists, and white supremacists, and on the right with people characterising Trump opposers as communists and radical revolutionaries. 2019 findings by the Pew Research Centre show that both parties view each other more negatively overall compared to 2016, and that almost 50% or more view the other party as either close-minded, immoral, or unintelligent. In addition, people on both sides view members of their own party more warmly and members of the other party more coldly.
In her chapter on Identity-based democracy, Lilliana Mason discusses this notion of increasing partisan bias that we see developing in Americans today. Another apparent phenomenon in people today is what she calls « social polarization » whereby entire racial, religious, and cultural identities become aligned and associated with certain parties, making both parties even more distinct and alienated from each other. The Black Lives Matter movement is an example of how race-related issues have become heavily politicised, as the public consensus seems to now be that it is incompatible to be a Republican and to support BLM at the same time. It also seems like the entire movement has been claimed by the Democratic party. This has certainly caused Republicans to reject the movement out of loyalty which, in the long run, will exacerbate racial and ethnic cleavages.
Is Biden a cure or a curse for democracy?
There is no doubt that Biden’s campaign is less divisive than Trump’s, and that things look more promising for democracy than if Trump had been reelected. The bigger question now is whether Democrats are willing to work with Republicans on policy or if there will be strong political gridlock. While Democrats do have the executive power and have a slight majority in the House of representatives, it is important to remember that Republicans are leading in the Senate, in addition to the 6-3 conservative majority in the Supreme Court. Therefore Democrats and Republicans alike must both compromise with each other as otherwise, this polarisation will continue to grow. Biden’s speech post election results was certainly positive, and to hear him say words such as « progress », « listen to each other », and « They are not our enemies, they are Americans », gives me hope that democracy can be restored. It it also an undeniable achievement that the first woman and person of colour, Kamala Harris, will be serving as vice president. This is in itself a significant contribution to making America more diverse and inclusive and is leading us in the right direction.
I really enjoyed your analysis of the height of polarization in the United States! I am also concerned by the increased hostility and polarized tensions between the Republican and Democratic parties, and particularly liked your analysis of the celebrations on election day. I agree that much of the celebration was for Trump’s loss, which just so happened to be Biden’s win. Even preceding the actual election, a lot of the rhetoric surrounding the Democratic platform was related to “Settle for Biden”, which is a sentiment that I have heard consistently since Biden’s nomination as the Democratic candidate. This is discouraging to the health of our democratic system, and though I agree that Trump’s loss can only strengthen our democracy and Biden was a necessary choice, I am disheartened that the electorate at large does not see this as win for democracy, but rather as a loss for Trump, to your point. I would further question whether or not we would have seen the same celebration if the results had been the opposite, though I suspect they would. I am curious to see what support for Biden will look like once he takes office. I agree with a lot of the chatter I have heard surrounding the personnel and beginning political choices he will make, and am hopeful that he will work with both sides in office and empowered to do so. Lastly, I also have been encouraged by the fact that Kamala Harris will be Vice President in January, which is definitely something worth celebrating in the streets. I was also excited to see that Biden’s communication staff is largely made up of women, which is a promising sign of future personnel choices.
Hey Winston! I really enjoyed your article. Most of the news we read today about the Trump Administration is terrifying, so this piece was a nice change. I do think that democracy can be restored, but I do not think that this will happen under Biden. Biden has already started his attempt at uniting the American people, but the far-right has no interest in acknowledging a Biden presidency. Biden has already tried to unite minority groups in the U.S., which is a very nice change from Trump and his sexism and racism. However, we saw that white women love Trump, as did the Latinx population in Florida. Political polarization is so incredibly strong right now, which will make Biden’s presidency a difficult one.
Polarization in the Unites States is a huge contributor to democratic erosion. The 2020 Presidential election results shows the severity of this problem. You make an excellent point that the current state of affairs as it relates to party polarization far exceeds that of healthy competition. Party members are willing to abandon all rationale, logic, legality, immorality, jobs, careers, family, friends, and religion- all to cast full/ uncompromised support of their party. I agree with the notion that things just do not feel right about way American politics continues to unfold. I can clearly see the effects of democratic erosion the way Nancy Bermeo explains the subtle incremental forms of democratic backsliding by political actors. Where small isolated instances of abuse of power and political savviness are ignored and brushed under the rug end up being a blatant disruption to the entire political process when aggregated together.
In addition to the political actors, the civilian actors are increasingly more violent and disruptive to the democratic process. There is no longer a platform where individuals have the right to vote for the candidate of their choosing free from personal and professional backlash. Voters are bullied and shamed and even threatened by companies and landlords to vote a certain way or they would face layoff and evictions. Elections are slowly, but surely backsliding away from the free and fair practices.
I really enjoyed your post. And I hope going forward our political actors will see the dangers of party polarization and genuinely work for the American people and not continue to gridlock the process. Diversity is another measure of hope as more minorities (ethnic and women) continue to grow. Representation is a great cure for democratic erosion.