US Presidential Election 2020: a failure of competition?

As I write this the US is in a strange limbo.  Joe Biden has been declared the winner of the November 3rd Presidential election by news media and poll analysts, and has been recognised as the President-Elect by many foreign heads of state.  All that awaits is formal confirmation through the reporting of the electoral college.  Meanwhile, Donald Trump continues to claim that the election was stolen by fraudulent practices led by the Democratic Party, and he and his supporters continue to legally contest results at state and local levels, despite little evidence in support.  Everyone is waiting.

This is clearly a failure of democracy, and raises worrying questions about the general health of democracy.  But it is also more specifically a failure of institutions of formalised competition.  Democracy in the broadest sense includes not just the formal institutions of elections, but also a recognition of equality in principle among citizens, an arena of open public discourse, a distributed balance of power among institutions, and so on.  These are idealised as stated here, but nonetheless necessary to some degree to sustain democratic culture.  In its narrower definitions, the key relationship between democracy and competition is often more apparent.  Minimal evidence of democracy includes ‘free and fair elections’, and if that happens over a few electoral cycles, we say democracy has ‘stabilised’.

While I value and support the broader, cultural, we might say ‘Tocquevillian’, version of democracy, analytically the narrower conception as democracy as a particular kind of competition may help us see what is going wrong in the current period in ‘limbo’.  While it is no doubt true that the arena of public discourse in the US has been polluted by false information and outright lies, and people have become ‘siloed’ in ‘echo chambers’, creating an unhealthy atmosphere for democracy, the more substantial attack on democracy at the moment is directed at the legitimacy of the institution of the election.  And that legitimacy hinges on whether it is or isn’t a genuine competition.  A degree of division and opposition between ‘left’ and ‘right’ (the substance of those terms varies over time) is normal for modern liberal democracy, and is actually part of what makes it function.  We need democracy because there is always a degree of disunity that needs to be practically resolved on an ongoing basis.  But the legitimacy of electoral competition is critical to achieving that end.

The ‘game’ of democracy has rules that operate at various levels.  There are rules that define the game itself (‘one person one vote’, a ‘polling day’, counting procedures, etc.), and people appointed to oversee and enforce the rules.  The players must, to the best of their ability, ‘follow’ and not subvert the rules of the game while in play.  But the players must commit at two levels, one to follow the rules while in the game, and another to commit to the idea that such games are legitimate and possible in the first place (a fundamental issue of all social commitment and solidarity, recognised by Durkheim and others a long time ago).

We know, worryingly, that confidence in and support for democracy has been declining around the world, and in its heartlands.[1]  But so far Trumps followers, at least the more visible bulk of them, seem not to be abandoning electoral democracy in principle.  They are not saying democracy itself is illegitimate, we need ‘fascism’ or some other form of authoritarian rule instead.  They are claiming, tendentiously, that the agreed rules have been broken, that Democrats cheated and rigged the game.  This is false, but good, in that it expresses commitment to a common principle (free and fair elections).  The difficulty lies in trust in the system.  If one believes not just that the other team is cheating on the pitch, but that the referees and match officials are all ‘in on it’, then the question of legitimacy has moved to another level, not within the game, but of the whole match.  But hopefully, not of the entire possibility of the sport itself, not yet at least.

But what do we do if those objecting, Trump supporters, are not willing to trust any evidence put before them?  If by definition such evidence must be read as further deceit?  One can only hope that bit by bit those who are committed to the democratic electoral game will grasp that that commitment entails accepting loss on this occasion, to live to compete another day.  That they, and especially those who shape their opinions, will grasp that too much dissent will destroy the game, and its benefits, altogether.  And that those who will not concede under any circumstances will become increasingly isolated.  I say all this well aware that there is a degree of risk that with such people disillusion will tip over into violence. 

My point in all this is that while democracy, as a substantively rich historical thing, involves a certain spirit, an attitude, a set of cultural commitments that extend well beyond the mechanics of elections, nonetheless, it is competitive elections and their legitimacy that makes the thing concrete.  This is the worldly body that the spirit of democracy must attach itself to.  And in times like the present, we see that grip slipping. 

[1] See the Pew Research Center report at:

Published by jshearn

Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, University of Edinburgh.

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