The president’s son calls for an ‘army’ of 50,000 to ensure ballot security at the polls. Armed militias take to the streets and white supremacist gangs stand by to intervene, while drivers – 69 since the beginning of the summer– plough into peaceful crowds gathered to demand racial justice. This is the United States on the eve of the 2020 presidential election.

With an unprecedented number of absentee ballots expected to be cast, key states unprepared to handle the influx, a post office accused of political machinations and misinformation rife, polls suggest that many Americans will not view the outcome as legitimate, whoever wins.

Five weeks before polling day, the first presidential campaign debate turned into an ugly, chaotic encounter in which Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger, called Donald Trump ‘the worst president America has ever had’. The president, probably already infected with COVID-19, soon revealed his diagnosis, further disrupting his campaign.

Rachel Kleinfeld
Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where she focuses on issues of rule of law, security, and governance in post-conflict countries, fragile states, and states in transition.
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In the best-case scenario, results from the election will emerge over a week rather than on election night, while partisan anger grows. But there are already more than 200 cases challenging election rules. Such legal challenges could mean that results in key swing states aren’t known by December 8, the date on which states must select their delegates for the electoral college which chooses the president. After that, the world’s third largest country is in legal near-wilderness, with an armed, angry population facing each other in the streets.

How did the United States come to this? Democracies rely on two mechanisms to settle differences: a healthy society, and institutional crash barriers. Both have long-standing problems and have deteriorated in recent decades. President Trump has lit the match – but he is an arsonist who happened upon a pile of brushwood in a drought-dry forest.

Acute polarization


The United States is an old democracy whose strong norms have been crucial to constraining political conflict. Election law from the 18th and 19th centuries and an extraordinarily decentralized system of 13,000 electoral jurisdictions have long struggled to administer increasingly contested, litigious elections.

One of the causes of contestation stems from the reality that the United States is also a relatively new democracy, which has only attempted to integrate African-American voters since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This means that America also faces the sort of ethnically polarized politics that plague many newly democratic states that gained independence in that era.

Many democracies are polarized along a single fissure. The US has particularly acute polarization because partisanship is reinforced by other identities, leaving few shared spaces to fall back upon. Racial, religious, ethnic, and geographic identities – even sports and shops – largely break along party lines. Unsurprisingly, the parties, whose political centres once had considerable overlap, now have no common ground.

As polarization has increased, trust has decreased. Trust is a society’s immune system – it allows a community to rebound and fight off external threats. It has been a feature of American success noted by observers since de Tocqueville. But social trust follows trust in government, and both have fallen since Watergate and the Vietnam War. Today, trust is at a near-historic low of 17 per cent. A particularly acute warning sign of what happens when trust evaporates is the record number of guns sold since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The growing sense that fellow citizens are enemies bent on harm, not simply people with ideological disagreements, allows polarized democracies to self-immolate, as occurred in Hungary and Poland.

Parties and their most ardent partisans see themselves in a fight to the death. Every issue now yields a ‘Flight 93’ moment, as a famous, anonymous article termed the 2016 campaign, a time when patriots must storm the cockpit and throw out terrorists intent on flying the plane into our country’s most sacred institutions. Except that the terrorists are fellow Americans, and ‘patriots’ are the ones dismantling democracy.

Weak institutions

Institutional crash barriers can protect democracy at moments when society itself is at an impasse. In the United States, the institutions intended to find solutions across differences have been faltering for decades.

The Supreme Court is now seen as more partisan. Parties have weakened while partisanship has strengthened, as Julia Azari, a political scientist, has written. Since 2010, Republicans have largely relinquished their gatekeeping role, one reason President Trump could gain a nomination after being shunned in 2000.

Congress is intended to serve as a check on executive power and a place where policy goals can be reconciled. It has been failing in that role for the past quarter century, becoming more partisan and less mindful of its institutional role. This has occurred for a variety of reasons, one of which, as Frances Lee, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton, has pointed out, is the increased competition in Congress. No longer the preserve of one party, a Congress that could be controlled by either has no reason to ‘give in’ to a proposal that could help opponents.

Finally, many newer democracies have strong electoral commissions that lower tensions by implementing elections with professionalism. The US is at the opposite extreme. A weak, partisan election commission decides on violations after the fact, and often after an election has been won. Administering elections is the responsibility of states and is devolved to thousands of cities and counties where human and financial resources are scant.

The ramshackle process with which the most powerful office on the planet is selected would be impossible to conjure, were it not true.

Weak institutions and polarization have bred more bare-knuckled politics. For decades, common wisdom held that presidential candidates should cater to their base during primaries to win their party’s endorsement, then swing towards the centre to reach the mass of voters in the general campaign. Costas Panagopoulos, a professor of political science at Boston’s Northeastern University, has found that since 2000 campaigns no longer follow that logic. Polarization means that there are too few independent voters to fight over. Instead, elections are now won by getting out one’s base, and keeping the other side’s voters at home.

That opens the door to dirty tricks – and both Democrats and Republicans are accused of using misinformation to suppress opposition voters. But Republicans have a more systemic incentive. Like the Jim Crow-era Democrats, who controlled the South through the mid-1960s, many Republicans believe that if all voters were enfranchised, demographics would spell their doom as a party. While this belief is unfounded – Latinos, the fastest growing demographic, include Catholics, Evangelicals, and Floridian Cuban refugees, among others, who generally lean to the right – it informs electoral tactics that undermine democracy.

Gerrymandering, registration obstacles, and other forms of voter suppression had been held in check by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required a federal commission to clear voting alterations in many states. In 2013, however, the Supreme Court excised key portions of the Act. Within 24 hours, Texas introduced a requirement for ID checks that deter urban voters who may not have a driving licence and other generally Democratic demographics.

Ensuing efforts have led many African-American voters and their progressive compatriots to worry about systemic disenfranchisement that casts democracy itself into doubt.

Electoral threats

On top of these structural challenges rest the growing number of electoral threats that have built up over the past decade: an ageing volunteer force of election workers; poorly managed polling places; long lines in some districts; antiquated machines; misinformation from foreign and domestic sources, or a combination of the two; fears of foreign interference with election rolls or voter registration databases; and vulnerable cyber-infrastructure. Despite bipartisan commissions and technical expertise, many of these problems are unresolved. Partisan gridlock, thousands of election bodies and the sheer complexity of some of the problems have foiled many attempted improvements.

The coronavirus pandemic is making nearly all of these threats worse.

With a majority of US election workers aged over 60 and among those most at risk from coronavirus, it is a fair bet that many will remain at home on election day. As volunteers, they cannot be fired for doing so. The need to close and consolidate polling places could exacerbate long lines. Queues and COVID-19 disproportionately affect poor minorities, which could further discourage voting.

To reduce the threat of spreading the virus on election day, or fear of the virus dampening turnout, states have been making moves to increase absentee voting. Thirty-four states now allow absentee voting for any reason, and seven have made the changes recently.

This is the right call for enfranchisement. But it requires a huge and sudden shift in voting arrangements, and while Congress hasn’t coughed up enough money to assist the change, state budgets are in freefall from the pandemic. A lack of workers and machines to count absentee ballots, and laws in some states that counting such ballots cannot begin until the day of the election, mean that voters won’t know the outcome of the presidential vote on election night as usual.

These challenges, in and of themselves, could make for a messy election, but should not be a long-term threat to our democracy.

Technical challenges can be corrected. And, in fact, electoral issues that do not clearly benefit one party are being addressed – for instance, organizations are actively recruiting younger election workers.

But polarization has politicized most technical fixes – such as Trump’s erroneous but self-fulfilling prophecy that absentee ballots will harm Republicans – while deepening each challenge.

Red mirage

Problems are likely to be interpreted in the worst light. The left is likely to see nefarious politics behind ballots whose signatures are challenged as fraudulent, and post office regulations that appear to slow down the delivery of election mail. The right may believe that they are witnessing a stolen election during the expected ‘red mirage’, the term for election results that lean towards the Republicans – the red party – on election night as early tallies arrive from sparsely populated rural and suburban in-person voting which are followed much later by larger numbers of slower postal ballots that favour the Democrats.

Lawyers from both parties are already fighting electoral rule changes and are poised to challenge ballot counts. Because the law in this arena is thin, courts may look to legislators and public opinion when making their decisions.

The sheer number of cases and the slow reporting of the election week results are likely to leave a polarized electorate primed for fraud and with the sense that the election was illegitimate.

Trump and violence

This is the environment framing President Trump’s rhetoric on fraud and violence. Combined with his law-and-order campaign message and deployment of federal law enforcement to Democratic cities, he seems to have a strategy in mind.

If he appears to have lost a contested election, he can paint the result as fraudulent, then fight in the courts and in red states.

If he appears to have won, he can paint the likely left-wing protests as threats to the Republic, send in federalized National Guardsmen or law enforcement agencies to maintain order, and hope that the threat of disorder leads any Democratic challenge in the courts to be decided in his favour.

Lawyers from both parties are already fighting electoral rule changes and are poised to challenge ballot counts. The sheer number of cases is likely to leave a polarized electorate primed for fraud.

In either case, the United States is likely to have protesters and counter-protesters on the streets during November. Anger between citizens is already boiling.

Public health officials across the country are facing threats. In localities that experienced local COVID-19 lockdowns in March and April, there was a 21 per cent increase in internet searches for violent white supremacist content.

Militias have been increasingly active thanks to this administration’s demands for border security and the momentum of the Second Amendment movement in favour of gun rights.

Extremists on the left pose less of a threat, according to the US Department of Homeland Security, but violence from that radical fringe is also real. Meanwhile, government suppression tends to increase violence. With 18,000 local law enforcement jurisdictions, and anger building over the hot summer lockdown, the likelihood that some will go too far is high.

Despite these dire realities, it is hard for many to imagine that the United States will not muddle through. The world is used to America getting things right after exhausting all other possibilities. But democracies are in recession all over the world, and the United States has not escaped this fate. Hopefully, it will pass this electoral test, but its path to restoring its social contract, the key to recovery, will be long.

This article was originally published by Chatham House.