People who doubt Biden was the rightful winner in 2020 also have a lower opinion of American democracy
by Brendan Hartnett (Class of ‘23)
The United States is in the midst of a critical juncture for liberal democracy. Its trajectory towards democratic recession accelerated under former-President Donald Trump, who reflected the characteristics of those who have led the autocratization of Eastern Europe. Declining faith in the legitimacy of the 2020 Presidential Election prior to its taking place, followed by the refusal of many Republicans to accept free and fair election results, an integral component of even procedural democracy, set the stage for the January 6 Capitol insurrection. The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol led to increased discussion concerning the illiberalism of the Republican Party and the future of liberal democracy in the United States.
Since, Republicans have implemented voter ID laws and blocked the passage of the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voter Rights Advancement Act, leading many to conclude that the Republican Party is a party of illiberalism, and a threat to the United States’s long-standing democracy. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of the New York Times best-seller How Democracies Die, argued that “Unless and until the GOP recommits itself to playing by democratic rules of the game, American democracy will remain at risk.”
In response to this growing concern of illiberalism, I investigated attitudes concerning the interpretations of 2020 Presidential Election results and opinions on democracy. To do this, I employed Bright Line Watch’s Public Wave 15, a survey conducted in June 2021 asking 2,750 Americans questions regarding democracy and if they believe that President Joe Biden was the rightful winner of the 2020 Presidential Election.
In total, 55% of respondents claimed that Biden was definitely the rightful winner of the 2020 Presidential Election and 20% of respondents claimed that Biden was definitely not the rightful winner. Broken down by party identification, about 90% of Democrats claimed Biden was the rightful winner, compared to about 35% of independents and 10% of Republicans. Despite no statistical evidence to suggest systemic fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election and officials determining it was the most secure election ever, nearly 50% of Republicans responded that Biden was definitely not the rightful winner of the 2020 Presidential Election. Meanwhile, 20% of independents and less than 5% of Democrats claimed that Biden was definitely not the rightful winner.
As accusations of illiberalism have been leveraged against Republicans, including research finding Trump voters are predisposed to authoritarian mind-sets, I wanted to analyze the extent to which Republicans valued democracy as a form of government compared to Democrats and independents. I would expect that not only those who accepted the results of the election, but also Democrats would view democracy as more important than Republicans — both due to Republicans’ failure to accept free and fair election results, and because of the use of a Republican-led democratic threat in Democratic mobilization prior to the 2020 Presidential Election. To explore how those who did not agree that Biden was definitely the rightful winner of the 2020 Presidential election differ in their perspectives on democracy from those who don’t, I divided my respondents according to their beliefs about the 2020 election result. Due to a lack of evidence supporting their beliefs, those who said that Biden was either “probably,” “probably not” or “definitely not” the rightful winner of the election were grouped together.
Democrats who stated that Biden was definitely the rightful winner of the 2020 Presidential Election believed that democracy was important to a greater extent than all other groupings. Republicans who believed that Biden was definitely not the rightful winner believed that democracy was important to a lesser extent than Democrats who believed Biden was definitely the rightful winner, and Republicans who believed Biden was definitely the rightful winner of the 2020 Presidential Election. Independents assigned the least value to democracy of all respondents — both compared to those who agreed Biden was definitely the rightful winner of the election, and those who did not. This could be explained by the fact that independents, not connected to the mainstream parties which dominate in elections, feel discouraged and under-represented in American politics, leading to discontent with democracy. Further, the inability for independents and third parties to win in single-member districts could result in independents feeling a lack of efficacy in U.S. democracy, leading to them assigning limited value to the system.
The above graph reflects respondents’ average rating of respondents when asked how democratic the United State’s political system is. Higher numbers indicate respondents think the U.S. is more democratic. There is significantly less variation between groups concerning their assessment of democracy in the United States than when asked about the importance of democracy. The difference between those who do and do not definitely believe Biden was the rightful winner of the 2020 Presidential Election was insignificant for both Democrats and independents. Meanwhile, Republicans who accepted the results of the election had more favorable evaluations of democracy compared to those who did not — as well as when compared to Democrats. This could be because Republicans, having accepted the results of the 2020 Presidential Election, feel as though issues facing the polity are minimal, given that they accept the results of the election but they also align politically with Republicans who do not. Once more, independents evaluated the state of U.S. democracy more critically than partisans
Furthermore, the public rated the state of U.S. democracy as worse off than do experts who were surveyed in Bright Line Watch’s Expert Wave 15 (June 2021). Of 321 academics, the average rating of U.S. democracy was about 70 on the scale of 0–100, significantly higher than the averages across all groups surveyed in the public survey. Given the prominence of discussion concerning democratic recession among academics, it is surprising the public views American democracy less critically than do experts.
These findings provide insight into the current state of democratic affairs in the United States. First, the polarization surrounding the legitimacy of the 2020 Presidential Election results lends credence to accounts of democratic recession in the United States. Undeniably, accepting the results of free and fair election results is a necessary component of the democratic process. Second, whether someone thinks that Biden was definitely the rightful winner of the 2020 election impacts how important they think democracy is creates a predicament for democracy, given that those who do not accept the results viewed democracy as less important. This indicates that for these respondents, the democratic process is likely not as important as having their preferred candidate selected as leader — something they long for at the expense of democracy. Finally, we see that independents are dissatisfied with U.S. democracy, likely due to the two party structure that dominates, which can only be resolved through structural changes to the election system to do away with first-past-the-post. Despite all these issues, one ounce of hope remains: experts in the social sciences who are familiar with democracy, surveyed in Bright Line Watch’s Expert Wave 15 (June 2021) do not believe that our democracy is as fragile of a place as the public believes.
Will the United States return to a beacon of democracy, or will it follow the competitive authoritarian countries of Central Eastern Europe in undertaking democratic recession? That’s up to voters and politicians.