We should be celebrating the fact that 154 million people voted in the presidential election. This is far more than in any other election—136.7 million voted in 2016—and the percentage of eligible voters who voted in November was reported to be the largest in a century. We should be thrilled that so many people got involved and demonstrated civic engagement. We should be rejoicing because these numbers indicate our democracy is strong.
Do you feel that joy? Yeah, me neither. Instead, there have been probably more discussions of the weakness of our democracy than celebrations of the just-demonstrated strengths of our system. Much of this reaction has been fueled by the cries of voter fraud and resultant suits and pressures led by the president. It is astonishing how many people believe such claims based on “proof” that wouldn’t make it into a Marvel comic book.
Even if the fraud conspiracies are baseless and laughable, they harm us. Democracy requires not just a good election, but a trust that elections have been honest and fair. That trust is being undermined. Indeed, undermining that trust seems to be the goal of many. But let’s hold off on the funeral bunting for democracy. It is natural when a side loses to look for causes other than its own merits for the loss—the referees, bad weather, sickness, or injury. (This is generally true, but not for Bears, Jets, and Mets fans. They know it is always the team’s fault.) Of course, it is different and more dangerous this time because it is the president seeking to undermine our elections. Still let’s not yet assume that Trump and the Trumpistas have the power to shift in a few years what has survived for centuries. Let’s wait a bit. There is a danger to our democracy, yes, but perhaps it will dissipate after January 20 if Trump leaves office peacefully. (Or perhaps we are not supposed to say that conditional clause out loud.)
There is, however, another more subtle danger to democracy coming out of the election. Perhaps you have some friends like I do who should have been ecstatic as the result of the election, or at least happy, or at least relieved. Their guy had won the election, or if Joe Biden was not really their guy, Donald Trump, their real concern, had lost. But they can’t surrender to the good feeling. They keep asking, “How did Trump get 74 million votes?” They say that they can’t grasp how so many people could vote against their own and the country’s interest. How can democracy survive, they feel, if so many people vote so wrong?
This attitude, too, is a danger to democracy. If I view your vote as so wrong as to be irrational, I am in an important sense dismissing its legitimacy. Instead, I should concede that it is hubris for me to “know” how you should vote. Instead, it should be clear to me that some people assess what is in their and the national interest differently from how I would. Of course, since these people did not win, I can dismiss them and claim that they are incomprehensible without seeking to understand them. In that case, I, too, like the president, am acting as an autocrat that will subvert democracy.
But my friends asking about those 74 million votes may feel a deeper dismay than is warranted. Trump did get eleven million more votes than he did in 2016, but, of course, Biden got fourteen million more votes than Clinton did four years ago. Trump also got a higher percentage of the vote this time around, but it wasn’t much more. He got 47.2% of the total vote in 2020 and 46.1% in 2016. Biden, however, got the majority with 51.1% while Clinton got only a 48.2% share four years ago.
We can say that both Trump and the Democrats did better. The third parties, however, did worse. In 2016 they got 5.7% of the total vote; this year only 1.7%. Thus, that third-party share dropped 4%. Trump’s share increased by 1.1% while the Democrat’s proportion increased 2.9%. Almost three out of four of those third-party votes went to Biden. Trump did not make much of a foray into new territory.
My friends, however, believe that Trump has worked a dramatic change in the country. Perhaps. But consider 2012. Obama got 51.2% of the vote, and Romney received 47.2%. Those are precisely the same percentages obtained by Biden and Trump. Perhaps what we are seeing is not a Trump-driven radical transformation of the country, but the powerful, enduring effects of partisanship. Looked at this way, Trump is just the most recent – and most toxic — manifestation of that divide, not something truly new.