Our November 9 discussion centered around the recent 2020 election. Our emphasis was how the election process enhances — or detracts from — the survival of democracy.
The 2020 presidential election has been hotly contested, but there have been others that have caused Americans to wonder if their democracy was on the brink. The 1824 presidential election was decided by the House of Representatives when none of the four candidates received a majority of the electoral votes. There have been four other times when the eventual winner lost the popular vote (1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016).
A small contingency can sometimes make the difference. In 2016 many “rust belt” voters were workers who had previously been lifelong Democrats. When they lost their jobs or were forced into positions with reduced pay and benefits, they switched to Trump based on promises that he would remedy their situation. But again in 2020, many of these voters felt ignored and switched back to the Democratic candidate.
But the election in the “swing” states still was close, with a margin of less than 1% for Biden in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The popular vote was not as close, in which Biden prevailed by about 5 million votes, or 3%. Democrats lost seats in the US House of Representatives and did not take over the Senate as polls had predicted, so there is much soul searching going on among them. There clearly is something missing in their understanding of a vast number of Americans.
From the viewpoint of the survival of democracy, the main issue of our time is whether the US President honors the traditions that have enabled our 240-year-old republic to survive. To many of us, in this election the US has just been pulled back from the precipice of autocracy into which many other previous democracies have descended, including Russia, Poland, Venezuela, and the Philippines. Now many wonder if Trump will concede his defeat. While it is legitimate for a candidate to contest an election when a legal issue arises during or after the election that could affect the election's result, as was the case with the Bush v. Gore in 2000, the Trump campaign doesn't appear to have this issue. The decision to litigate the election if Trump lost was apparently made before the election.
For democracy to survive, there needs to be a commitment at the top to the principle of universal respect. The president needs to serve the US Constitution rather than his or her private interests. But our current president has repeatedly used his office as a conduit for personal gain. He is benefiting by foreign visitors staying in his hotels and his own family has formed the core of his paid advisors. In the mode of autocracy, he has fired over 100 advisors who have dared question him. Many voters were turned off by the negative tone of Trump toward anyone who disagreed with him, even some of his own party. Some have remained compliant as democracy has gradually been eroded and may not notice if we altogether lose it.
We discussed what makes people stay with a candidate regardless of moral failings or the degree of divisiveness inspired by that candidate. Is our innate tribalism a factor in turning a blind eye to leaders once we have committed ourselves to them? Is there a “father figure” element — or blind trust — to our letting others do our thinking for us? Is “group thinking” — simply believing what those around us or those we admire believe — a factor?
Democracy — Greek for “government by the people” — requires us to commit to the principles of equality and fairness if we are to move forward rather than regress. This takes soul-searching on the part of each of us as to whether those who would lead us are committed to these principles. Yet the “Better Angels of our Nature” (Lincoln) often seem to remain buried beneath the surface. Only by civil discourse and returning to acknowledging the needs of all Americans will we be able to move our democracy forward.
Your comments and thoughts always are welcome.
Also, don’t forget to look at our blog site: renewingdemocracy.org
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.