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Can American Democracy Recover after Trump?

One of democracy's keenest analysts assesses the American electorate and lays out a plan to solidify its vital center.

Larry Diamond

On January 20, 2021, Joseph R. Biden, Jr., will take the oath of office as the forty-sixth President of the United States. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not put Trump’s presidency back together again. But President Trump nevertheless seems intent on burning the house down before he leaves rather than handing it over to his opponent in any kind of functional—not to mention civil—fashion.

Trump continues to insist that “This was a RIGGED ELECTION!” absent any confirming pattern of evidence. He retweets a wildly baseless and malicious claim that one type of voting machine “deleted 2.7 million Trump votes nationwide.” Even as the mounting electoral margins in multiple close states now push the prospect of reversing his Electoral College defeat toward the realm of mathematical fantasy, he still refuses to allow the federal government to brief the President-elect on intelligence threats and the course of the raging pandemic, or to ask the General Services Administration to grant office space and resources for the transition to begin. All of this is doing grave damage to our national security, our public health, and our political culture. Yet Trump seems determined to end his presidency as he waged it: a bitter, vengeful, polarizing demagogue, whose first and last calculations are about himself.

It is tempting to think that January 20 will bring a kind of democratic liberation from this toxic and deceitful narcissism. Many Democrats—and democratic scholars and civic leaders of diverse politics—had hoped that a decisive electoral verdict on November 3 would enable, if not “a new birth of freedom” in America, then at least a new beginning of political reform. Now, with an election verdict that was remarkably status quo save for the rejection of Trump personally, and with a presidential vote that Trump will go on claiming was rigged, all of this is in doubt.

Even with Trump gone, our democracy is going to remain in serious trouble. One of our two great parties will likely remain in some degree of thrall to his authoritarian mindset. And that party will likely still control the Senate. Moreover, if Democrats do not learn the lessons of their disappointing electoral performance in 2020, their time in power may be brief indeed—as brief as just two more years in a House majority—and the hopes for a new era of political and social reform could be squandered.

What Happened?

It is important to begin with a clear-eyed analysis of what happened. For a party that was presumed to be on its way to a decisive White House victory, a gain in House seats and state legislative houses, and a reclaiming of the Senate, the Democratic Party did stunningly poorly. Save for defeating the incumbent President (no small feat, to be sure), in net terms it lost House seats (seven as of this writing, with more close races still to be decided), leaving House Democrats with “the slimmest majority in decades.” There remains a chance that the Democrats will pick up both of Georgia’s Senate seats and thus win a razor-thin Senate majority (depending on Vice President Harris to break tie votes). But the odds of that are long, and Democrats lost a number of Senate races—in Maine, North Carolina, Iowa, and elsewhere—where they were seen to have good prospects of defeating incumbents. On election day, the political forecasting site “538” gave Democrats a 75 percent chance of winning the Senate. So much (again) for the polls.

One can argue that the country has rejected Trump—his incompetence, instability, and indifference to governing. But even that political interpretation can only go so far. Biden’s popular vote victory was impressive, 5.6 million votes more than Trump (at this writing) and probably headed toward over 6 million. Currently, this represents a 3.6 percent margin of victory nationally, and it may top 4 percent when all mail-in votes are counted. Biden will thus have won the popular vote by twice the margin of Hillary Clinton’s in 2016, with an absolute majority of the votes, and with the largest number of votes by far in American history. Since FDR’s crushing defeat of Herbert Hoover in 1932, no presidential challenger to an incumbent has won a larger percentage share of the popular vote, and only Ronald Reagan won a larger popular vote margin.

Biden’s victory also solidifies Democratic dominance over national presidential preferences. As Ronald Brownstein observed recently in The Atlantic, “Democrats have now won the most votes in seven of the past eight presidential elections, something no party has ever done since the formation of the modern party system, in 1828.” The problem remains, however, the distribution of those votes, as I explain below.

In the Electoral College, Biden’s margin (306 to 232) equaled what Trump deemed a “landslide” for himself four years ago. But how “solid” was that victory? Look at the minimum number of votes that would have had to change for a different Electoral College outcome. In 2016 that margin of victory for Trump was a little under 78,000 votes across Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. In 2020, Biden’s total margin of victory across Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin was only about 45,000 votes. If those three states had gone to Trump, each candidate would have had 269 electoral votes, and Trump would have won the presidential election in the House of Representatives (which, under the terms of the Twelfth Amendment, would have voted not by individual member but by state delegation).

Despite Biden’s decisive popular vote victory, we came frightfully close to electing to the White House, for the third time in the past six elections, the loser of the popular vote. Increasingly, the Electoral College poses a grave challenge to what most people around the world see to be a basic democratic principle: that even if a political system does not simplistically ensure “majority rule”, neither should it empower a losing minority to rule.

Behind the Numbers

Normally, the party that wins the presidency celebrates and rallies around a common agenda, while the party that lost the presidency divides and gropes for explanations. This year the roles are reversed. Privately (and occasionally publicly), many Republicans think they have a simple answer to their presidential defeat: Donald Trump. However, even with Trump and all his failures and outrages, a Democratic nominee further to the left than Biden would probably have lost the election. And absent the coronavirus pandemic, with its devastating effect not only on public health but on the economy, Trump would probably have defeated Biden. But the pandemic happened, and Trump failed miserably to combat it. Why, then, did the Democrats perform well below expectations, both in the presidential race and especially in other races around the country?

No doubt, many swing voters worried that the Democrats were moving too far to the left. Some held on to Trump for that reason and others split their ticket, backing Biden for president but Republicans down ballot. A November 11 USA Today editorial attributed the outcome to “Democrats’ unique talent for pigeonholing themselves as too far to the left on social and economic policies…. [M]any voters heard only ‘defund the police’ and ‘Democratic socialism.’”

Biden himself is instinctively moderate, but I think future analysis will show that swing voters feared the rising power and energy of the progressive wing within the Democratic Party, and specifically the prospects of weakening local law enforcement and damaging the economy with higher taxes. The median voter in America may have gotten exactly what she wanted: a new president to end the dysfunctional psychodrama in the White House, but a Republican Senate (and Supreme Court) to check the potential broader ambitions of a new Democratic administration.

A second factor was the old-fashioned ground game, supercharged with the new era of big data and data analytics. As Karl Rove wrote in 2019, after Barack Obama’s campaigns propelled the Democrats toward superior use of social media, the Republicans created a massive and highly sophisticated new Data Trust for the 2016 campaign cycle. It gave them a significant edge targeting “social-media messages, video sharing, direct mail and walk-and-phone programs for voter registration, persuasion and turnout.” This “was a big reason why Donald Trump won the 2016 election,” and it may help to explain why Republicans registered so many new voters in the 2020 campaign cycle.

As Nate Cohn speculated back in July 2019, the approaching surge of new voters was by no means certain to be of net benefit to the Democrats, especially in Midwestern battleground states where it might comprise many non-college-educated whites who heavily favor Trump. In addition, unintimated by the virus, Republicans pursued an active, in-person ground game of door-to-door canvassing and in-person rallies, while Democrats relied more heavily on online appeals. While it didn’t carry Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, or Nevada for Trump, this ground game probably got him closer than he otherwise would have drawn. In Georgia, by contrast, Democrats appear to have had the organizational advantage, with Stacey Abrams’ New Georgia Project registering hundreds of thousands of new voters.

A third factor may have been fears—not least among many working-class and lower-middle-class voters—that a Democratic administration would shut down the economy in the face of the pandemic. One of the many tragedies of Trump’s massive failure in the face of the coronavirus is that he squandered a “golden hour” of early response when decisive and nationally coordinated but temporary measures might have elicited broader support, and when a culture of mask-wearing and a system of more robust testing and contact tracing might have contained the spread of the virus. Now much of the public is weary and fatalistic in the face of the virus, and it is harder and harder to persuade them (even on the liberal Stanford campus) to take obvious and public-spirited preventive measures.

One reason why Trump ran somewhat better among black and Latino voters in 2020 than in 2016 was because of his handling of the economy and his vow not to shut it down in the face of the pandemic. Another reason, it appears, is the interaction of race and gender, with Trump narrowing the gap some among black and especially among Latino men. It seems Trump made his biggest gains among Asian Americans. One suspects that most minorities who voted for Trump were voting for his economic policies and performance, not for his utterances on race.

This raises the fourth issue: race. As America becomes a more racially diverse society—and by 2045, one where whites are no longer a majority of the population—racial anxiety is increasing. After he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly lamented that the Democrats had lost the South to the Republicans for a long time to come. The statement has been the subject of historical dispute, but LBJ was pretty savvy, and he had to know there would be an electoral backlash. The South did turn on Democrats in a major and long-lasting electoral realignment in 1968. But something else happened, too. Beginning in 1968, and in every presidential election since, Republicans have won the white vote nationwide. In recent years writers like Arlie Hochschild, Katherine Cramer, and J.D. Vance have penetratingly portrayed white lower-middle-class angst.

In the Trump era in particular, the Democrats’ huge deficit among white voters—an estimated 20 percentage points in 2016 and 17 points in 2020—has led to much speculation about a cultural or status backlash by the dominant racial group against rising minorities who have been increasing in numbers and status. The phenomenon has its parallel in the rise of populist anti-immigrant parties in European democracies (even very liberal ones, such as Sweden), but only in the United States did it bring to power a right-wing demagogue who trafficked in open hostility to immigrants and more specifically in oblique (and sometimes overt) signals of encouragement to white supremacist groups.

Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris argue that the cultural backlash is in reaction not just to gains by racial minorities but to other progressive value changes, for example, toward greater gender equality and equal rights for the LGBT community. They conclude: “Less educated and older citizens, especially white men, who were once the privileged majority culture in Western societies, resent being told that traditional values are ‘politically incorrect’ if they have come to feel that they are being marginalized within their own countries. As cultures have shifted, a tipping point appears to have occurred.”

No one can read (as everyone should) Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, and fail to be moved by how powerful and enduring our racial divisions remain, and how much those in the lower rungs of the dominant racial caste fear the loss of this one guarantee of privilege. One does not need to condone any expression of racist sentiment, not to mention white supremacist mobilization, in order to appreciate that many Americans are deeply anxious about where they stand economically and socially and existentially insecure about their futures. It does no good to dismiss them all as “a basket of deplorables.” Unless and until Democrats can find a language and program that speak to rural, working class, and less educated whites—that offer real hope of a better economic future and empathy and respect for them as individuals—the Democratic Party will be hard-pressed to forge a new political majority. For only if it can win over at least some portion of these voters can it overcome the substantial structural advantages the Republican Party enjoys in American democracy today.

Structural Unfairness

It is by now obvious to most people without a partisan stake in the matter that the Electoral College gives the Republican Party a built-in advantage in presidential contests. This is somewhat true as well in the Senate, which overrepresents the thinly populated states. However, Democrats dominate some of the less populous states such as Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Hawaii. The key implication here is that to win Senate seats in less urban states like Maine and Montana, Democrats need more centrist candidates (and sometimes the good fortune of having them run in less nationally polarizing midterm elections). Thus, the bias in the Senate is more against the left wing of the Democratic Party than against the Democratic Party per se. The more important and underappreciated fact is the Republican advantage in House and state legislative races.

As Jonathan Rodden has shown in his pathbreaking 2019 book, Why Cities Lose, the persistent and growing concentration of the Democratic vote in cities gives Republicans a structural electoral advantage in congressional and state legislative contests, since their vote is more “efficiently” spread out across rural and suburban districts. This also underlies their advantage in the Electoral College, which overrepresents more rural states. In House races, Democrats pile up huge and inefficient majorities in urban districts while Republican votes are more dispersed across the remaining districts.

This urban-rural gulf, Rodden shows, is not just a phenomenon of American politics but is a major line of deep partisan division in other democracies. In those democracies that share with the U.S. the electoral system of “first past the post,” which gives legislative seats to whoever wins the most votes in a single-member district—Britain, Canada, and Australia—the result is similar: “polarized battles pitting voters in cosmopolitan and postindustrial city centers against exurban and rural traditionalists,” and a significant political advantage for conservative parties that corner the rural vote.

In the United States, gerrymandering exacerbates this problem. However, the underlying structural unfairness is rooted in the combination of geography and the electoral system of “first past the post”; hence, it carries over to our peer Anglophone democracies that do not have partisan gerrymandering but do elect their Members of Parliament in the same way we elect our members of Congress. Switching to a system of proportional representation for the House would largely overcome this structural unfairness by ensuring that the partisan distribution of House seats in a state is reasonably proportional to each party’s share of the popular vote.

In 2019 Virginia Congressman Don Beyer reintroduced a bill to do just that. His Fair Representation Act would create multimember districts of three to five members in most states and use proportional representation along with ranked choice voting (RCV, on which more below) to determine the winners. To neutralize partisan gerrymandering, the bill would also require that Congressional districts be drawn by nonpartisan, independent commissions, not the state legislatures. It is telling that all of the bill’s cosponsors are also Democrats.

And so here is the dilemma, vividly exemplified even in a year when Democrats recaptured the White House. As an urban, cosmopolitan, left-of-center party, Democrats enter our regular national electoral contests with a structural handicap. The most straightforward way to overcome that would be to: 1) eliminate the Electoral College by Constitutional amendment or by adopting the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact in states that account for at least 270 electoral votes; 2) eliminate partisan gerrymandering; and 3) make legislative elections fairer by adopting proportional representation for House and state legislative elections.

The first two of these are popular with the American people. In its most recent poll on the subject, Gallup found (as it has with remarkable consistency since 1944) that a substantial majority of Americans, 61 percent, favor a Constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College and determine the presidential election with the national popular vote. A similar proportion, 63 percent, would like to see the Supreme Court rule out extreme gerrymandering. And on the latter front, public pressure is building. A growing number of states has moved to require some kind of bipartisan or independent commission to draw district boundaries; with a 65 percent “yes” vote, Virginians just adopted a state constitutional amendment to do so. But eliminating the Electoral College (especially by Constitutional amendment) and instituting proportional representation remain distant reform prospects.

Is the United States then stuck with these antiquated and deeply unfair institutional arrangements? Not entirely. In addition to the progress in eliminating gerrymandering, there is growing political momentum for other reforms that would make our democracy fairer, more democratic, and less polarized. Other progress is coming for now almost entirely from the state and municipal levels, but that is how the last great era of political reform at the turn of the 20th century began. A growing number of cities, including five in this electoral cycle, has adopted ranked choice voting—a method that enables voters to rank the candidates in order of preference rather than voting merely for a single one. If no candidate gets a majority of first-preference votes, the one with the lowest number of such votes is eliminated and the instant run-offs continue until one candidate gets a majority (or wins the final-round tally).

Ranked choice voting increases competition by allowing voters to vote for independents and third-party candidates without fearing that they will be wasting their votes on a “spoiler” candidate. It gives voters more choice and more control. And it also prizes moderation, since the winner must win a majority and therefore appeal to a broader electorate, including voters who ranked other candidates as their first choice.

Like many political scientists, I think it offers our best achievable prospect for making elections fairer and less polarized. Once RCV is adopted, with its greater incentives to moderation and diversity in our electoral process, other democratic reforms may become more achievable. For this reason, I consider RCV to be the “master reform,” the Archimedean lever that can lift us out of our partisan stalemate and into a more productive and creative political era.

Unfortunately, Massachusetts voters just defeated a ballot initiative to implement RCV for all primary and general elections for state office and the U.S. House and Senate. But by a narrow margin, it appears (we still await the final count) that Alaska’s voters have adopted a “top four” version of RCV that has attracted keen interest among reformers. This voter initiative, Measure 2, would create a non-partisan blanket primary (replacing the current separate party primaries) and then send the top four finishers to the general election, whose winner would be determined by RCV. Such a system would make it much more difficult for party militants to knock off a moderate incumbent—like, for example, Senator Lisa Murkowski—in a low-turnout party primary, which is virtually the only kind we have in the United States. It would generate widespread voter interest and, municipal experience suggests, less negative, more civil campaigning.

Alaska’s Measure 2 would also eliminate Super PAC dark money in the state’s political campaigns. Another voter initiative for campaign finance reform, Oregon’s Measure 107, amends the state constitution to limit and require disclosure of campaign contributions and spending, and to require that political ads disclose who paid for them. It passed with 79 percent of the vote.

The Way Forward

As Joe Biden prepares to assume the presidency in two months, it is imperative that Democrats—and more broadly, democrats—grasp the urgency, the severity, but also the possibilities of the situation in which America now finds itself. Unless Democrats pull off a miracle by winning both Georgia Senate races on January 5, gridlock is set to continue. Progress toward a more perfect union will move slowly at the federal level. There are things that a Biden Administration can do to enhance democracy and social justice by executive order and administrative discretion, but getting bigger stuff done is going to require building coalitions from the center out.

Separate and apart from the structural unfairness of our institutions, the message of the 2020 election is that the United States is a center-leaning country politically. Even in the deep blue state of California, which voted decisively to restore voting rights to convicted felons who had served their terms, voters defeated measures to raise property taxes on businesses, to repeal the constitutional ban on affirmative action in public employment and education, and to widen local government authority to impose rent controls. On the whole, Californians revealed themselves to be more libertarian than “progressive.”

If Democrats are going to win the Senate in 2022, they will have to hold on to Senate seats in purple states like New Hampshire (where Republicans just flipped both houses of the state legislature) and Nevada (which Biden won by only two points) and pick up seats in states that Biden lost (Iowa and North Carolina) or only very narrowly won (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). Only candidates that reach out from the center and center-left to more rural and exurban voters are going to carry these seats.

The presidential victory of Joe Biden is not a small thing; incumbent presidents in America normally win a second term. Had Donald Trump been re-elected, he would have done in his second term massively more damage to our democratic institutions, our social fabric, and our global leadership than he was able to inflict in just four years. Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, we’ve been given a chance to see what the world would be like without us, and what America would be like without a liberal democracy. This is not a fate to which we should want to return.

Yet Donald Trump will remain in the political blast furnace, blowing out conspiracy theories and emitting his polarizing fumes. If the next four years are not to be a failure—a brief and illusory respite between Trump I and Trump II—Democrats must learn the lessons of their mistakes, and, yes, their hubris. The challenge is not to abandon dreams of a more just society and fair democracy, but to accept that progress will be incremental, and that the work of forging a new political majority will require not just energy and idealism, but patience, diligence, empathy, and humility.

Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He coordinates the democracy program of Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, and is a member of the editorial board of American Purpose.