By Dan Sally
If January 6 has taught us anything, it’s that a small group of people can make big problems for democracy. Nearly 160 million Americans voted in the most recent presidential election with more than 81 million casting ballots for Joe Biden, yet a crowd estimated to be in the neighborhood of 0.001% of the US population was able to delay the peaceful transition of power for the first time in American history by storming the Capitol.
In the 2000 presidential election, an even smaller group of people created an even bigger problem for democracy, when a margin of around 1,000 votes forced a recount in Florida, leaving its 25 electoral votes and the fate of the presidency in limbo.
In the ensuing weeks, the recount in Florida would be overseen by a Republican Secretary of State under a governor who happened to be the brother of the very Republican presidential candidate in question, George W. Bush. The decision to stop the recount, which would hand the presidency to Bush, would be decided in the Supreme Court, where the case was overseen by a Chief Justice appointed by a Republican administration wherein Bush’s father was serving as Vice President under Ronald Reagan.
At the time, then-Democratic candidate Al Gore could have easily contested the election as corrupt or partisan. He had won the national popular vote by 500,000 and lost Florida by a margin in the hundreds.
Instead, he conceded, saying “partisan rancor must be put aside” for the good of the nation.
In reflecting on the events of January 6, I couldn’t help but ask why – in 2020 – with a popular vote margin of 4.4%, an electoral vote margin of 74, after review in over 60 courts and multiple Republican state officials, was this the election that ended in violence?
For some, it would be easy to say “Trump” and move on, but political figures move in packs. There’s no reason to believe Trump would have been successful in promoting the narrative of election fraud if he didn’t have a party apparatus backing him, nor should we believe Al Gore wouldn’t have continued the fight if there were enough political will from his own party.
In looking at the changes this country has experienced over the last 20 years, the causes to this problem become clear, as do the solutions.
The Number of Competitive House Districts has Decreased
In 2000, approximately 30 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives were deemed competitive. This meant almost 150 members of the House had the novel problem of having to worry about someone from another party threatening their chances of reelection. By 2020, analysis by the Cook Political Report showed this number had declined to 7 percent.
Analysis of why this has happened points to a number of factors. While gerrymandering is part of the problem, equally important is the fact people have geographically sorted themselves by partisan lean—meaning we’re more likely to live near people who think like us and less likely to live near people who don’t than we were 20 years ago.
This has impacted American political discourse in two ways. The first, and most obvious one, is that primaries have taken the place of the general election in many districts. This has resulted in a minority of the most partisan voters deciding who gets sent to Washington.
The second, is what political philosopher Bob Talisse refers to as “belief polarization”—a phenomenon where people who gather in like-minded groups become more extreme in their ideas, less willing to compromise with the other side, and more likely to punish members of their own group who deviate from the norm.
In his book, Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side, Talisse writes, “As the shift initiated by belief polarization involves an escalation of confidence in our beliefs, we also grow more inclined to engage in risky behavior on behalf of our ideas. All the while, our views of those outside our group grow more intensely negative.”
In short, all but a handful of district races are decided in the primaries, and those voting in the primaries are more politically extreme and more likely to view the opposing side as a threat to democracy.
This means elected officials cooperate with the other party at their own peril. Studies show elected officials have been responsive to this, with the rate of cooperation between members of opposing parties declining precipitously over the last 60 years and, with that, legislative output.
It also means that a vast majority of voters feel unrepresented, and those who do feel represented feel their party is engaged in a battle against an opposing party looking to undermine democratic rule. In such an environment, it’s not surprising that allegations of voter fraud escalated to the point that it did.
Consolidation of Media and the Death of Local News
In addition to reduced competition in Congress, competition in the media has suffered as well, with most news outlets being owned by a total of five companies nationwide. While the consolidation of media into fewer and fewer companies had been an issue since the 1980s, the advent of the internet accelerated the problem by cutting into newspaper revenues—the primary sources of local news coverage.
Local newspapers not only provide a layer of transparency to local politics—the politics the average citizen has the most influence over—but also highlights issues community members can unite under that don’t fall along partisan lines. Research by Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University showed that a decline in local media results in an increase in political polarization.
With more Americans getting their news from national media outlets, the issues discussed have become national in nature. As a result, a party structure that was once based on the grassroots has given way to a top-down, nationalized form of politics, where candidates run on or against the parties’ national standard bearers, as opposed to their own local brands.
The result has been a disconnect between voters and their politics, where fewer voters associate with either major party and those that do have expressed their frustration by supporting disruptive, populist candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
An Unusual President in an Unusual Time
Regardless of your politics, no one can deny Trump was a highly unusual president. His norm-busting ways frustrated his opponents while delighting his supporters.
Trump was also known for breaking tradition as a businessman. In his first bankruptcy in 1990, he convinced his creditors to allow him to live on an allowance of $450,000 a month. During the 2008 financial crisis, he invoked the force majeure clause on his outstanding loans—wording designed to release debtors from liability in the instance of natural disasters such as earthquakes and tornadoes.
He was also masterful in the use of media to shape his image and communicate with his followers. His ability to control the 24-hour news cycle with one outrageous tweet proved a useful tool for distraction. His detractors could spend the whole day further justifying their opinion that he was unfit for office, and his supporters got satisfaction from watching Trump get under the other side’s skin.
If Trump had pushed the idea of voter fraud after losing by 7 million votes in 2000, the Republican Party at the time would have shut him down. There were still enough offices either party could lose across the country where it was better to accept the loss in the interests of preserving faith in elections.
In 2021, a reality show politician met reality show politics, and January 6 was merely the season finale. The media was primed for theatrics, the parties and their versions of reality were too far apart to reconcile, and a president who once structured a monthly allowance of 6x the median annual income as part of a $3.4 billion bankruptcy had millions of Americans questioning the validity of a decisive loss.
Add the stress and uncertainty created by the pandemic, and the population was primed for conflict.
American Democracy Needs a Reboot
It should be clear there’s no “one cause” for the polarization and distrust that created the environment where January 6 could occur. Among the list above, you could also cite declining trust in public institutions, a rise in income inequality, and the larger economic changes brought about by globalization.
You could also cite any number of policy remedies to address these issues, but it would be unlikely any of these would pass, given Congress hasn’t officially passed a federal budget once this century.
The key driver behind all of the above is that Americans are increasingly disconnected from politics. A decline in competitive districts means parties need only to compete for their own members to win. A decline in local media means these parties’ agendas are often driven more in response to national wedge issues than local concerns.
Where the primary disconnection between elected officials and voters is accruing in the voting booth, we should look at reforming elections as a way to reverse course. While America’s plurality, winner-take-all system of elections worked in years prior, the changes the country has experienced over the last two decades has put elections in the hands of a smaller and smaller plurality.
Changing America’s system of elections to one that reflects the political diversity of the country and engages a larger group of voters can be done at the state level via reforms such as mixed-member proportional representation and ranked choice voting. Both would reintroduce political competition, require that candidates understand their voters at a local level, and give voters more control over who represents them in Washington. I hope that’s something that more than 0.001% of the U.S. population can agree with.
Dan Sally serves on the Digital Strategy Council of Rank the Vote and is host of the podcast ‘You Don’t Have to Yell’, which discusses today’s most pressing issues without the partisan spin.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.