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Democracy in America: Four Keys to Understanding the 2024 Presidential Race

Democracy in America: Four Keys to Understanding the 2024 Presidential Race
 Alexandre Marc
Political economist and scientist

There is no doubt that American democracy is facing serious challenges. The four years of Trump's presidency were a rollercoaster for U.S. politics. Egregious assaults on democratic and judicial norms and a rampant spread of disinformation from the halls of power left deep scars on the country's political landscape. These events reached a crescendo with the Republican faction's determined and coordinated attempts to overturn the result of the last presidential election, culminating in the dramatic siege of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The latest twist in this saga of American democracy was the paralysis of Congress for almost a month. This gridlock occurred as Republicans, despite their slim majority in the House, grappled with internal divisions over appointing the Speaker of the House during one of the gravest international crises in three decades. This strife led to the ousting of Kevin McCarthy as Speaker, a first in U.S. history, followed by a long struggle to find his successor, showcasing deep fractures within the party and an unyielding far-right faction. Mike Johnson was eventually chosen. All this unfolds against the backdrop of a complex presidential campaign, where the likely post-primary contenders, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, will both be over 78 years old. Trump, who currently leads in the polls, also has the unprecedented distinction of being the first former U.S. president to face a slew of criminal charges. We are past the stage of mere unease. This is a genuine crisis in the fabric of American democracy.

This crisis has prompted extensive questioning and analysis by experts and observers. Indeed, it’s not just a matter of systemic or institutional dysfunction but indicative of a more profound cultural crisis gripping the United States. It's a foregone conclusion that the presidential campaign trail will be paved with surprises. To make sense of what's happening, we offer four interpretative keys to unlock the critical dynamics in American politics. These keys are not comprehensive solutions but shed light on certain complex aspects that are often hard to grasp from an outsider's perspective. First is a convoluted electoral system that tilts the scales in favor of political extremes. Second, growing public distrust in institutions and a move away from collective action to drive change. Third, polarization that masks deep societal fragmentation. And fourth, former President Trump's incredibly visceral connection with his electoral base.

A complex electoral system that tends to favor extreme viewpoints, especially on the conservative side of the aisle

The U.S. electoral system is a tapestry of complexity, mainly because it is decentralized at the state level, with each state having a significant say in how national elections are conducted. This leads to a patchwork of substantial differences from one state to another. A major point of contention in this approach is the frequent redrawing of electoral maps by state officials before elections, a process known as gerrymandering. This political chess game, aimed at favoring one party over another, stirs considerable political strife.

The U.S. electoral system is a tapestry of complexity, mainly because it is decentralized at the state level, with each state having a significant say in how national elections are conducted.

However, the focal point of increasing criticism is the use of primaries by the two major parties to select their candidates. Since 1832, each major political party has been playing by its own rules to choose its candidates (which have included a growing number of female contenders). In most states, this selection is done through primaries. A handful of them opt for caucuses.

Interestingly, the primary election process impacts the Democratic and Republican parties differently. Democratic primaries often pave the way for centrist candidates, whereas Republican primaries tend to favor candidates who are more extreme in their conservative views. The core criticism of this process is that primary elections often have low voter turnout. Consequently, the party's candidate gets chosen by the most politically active and passionate voters rather than the broader party base or general electorate. This creates a representational gap, as fervent voters don't always mirror the broader American political landscape. Primaries are thus more influenced by extreme and partisan views compared to general elections, which tend to attract a broader spectrum of voters. In Republican primaries, for example, the conservative and populist factions hold the reins, especially since Trump has entered the picture. Accordingly, Republican primaries often produce presidential candidates who are more conservative than the general stance of the Republican Party.

Another unique feature of American democracy is the Electoral College system, where a group of electors from each state casts the official votes in the presidential election. This system is becoming increasingly controversial and subject to debate as it often leads to the election of a president who did not garner the majority of the popular vote nationwide. For instance, in 2000, Al Gore lost the general election despite racking up 48.4% of the popular vote against George W. Bush's 47.9%. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost with 48.2% against Donald Trump's 46.1%, a significant gap (over 2 million votes in absolute numbers). It seems clear that the Electoral College has benefited chiefly the Republican Party and conservative candidates in recent years. Under the system's rules, each state is allocated a certain number of electors. The candidate who wins the popular vote in a state usually receives all of that state's electoral votes. Only two states, Nebraska and Maine, do not follow this winner-take-all method. Electoral votes are allocated proportionally in those states based on the popular vote. The Electoral College gives disproportionate influence to smaller states with smaller populations. The system was designed by the nation’s Founding Fathers, back when the level of polarization we see today did not exist, to encourage smaller states, concerned about being overshadowed by larger ones, to join the Union. States with smaller populations are generally rural states and lean predominantly to the right. One fallout of this system is the intense focus of presidential campaigns on "swing states" like Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These battlegrounds-where the winner is usually decided by razor-thin margins and independent voters can often tip the scales-become the epicenter of campaign efforts. The focus on a select few states, to the exclusion of others, creates significant tension and polarization, which many view as antidemocratic.

Eroding faith in democratic institutions but renewed appetite for voting

The upcoming elections are set to unfold against a backdrop of plummeting trust in institutions, especially democratic ones. The erosion of democratic and social connections, which was highlighted in a previous analysis for Institut Montaigne that drew attention to the work of Robert Putnam, is not a phenomenon confined to the United States; it's a wave washing over the entire Western world and beyond, as echoed in Jérôme Fourquet's studies in France. However, the decline in faith in institutions and the fraying of social ties are notably more pronounced in the U.S. This trend, which started taking root in the 1980s, has led to reduced public involvement in political parties and civil society organizations, crucial for a vibrant political life. While the downturn in political and civic engagement is a global phenomenon, it is especially noticeable in the United States. Despite this, the Pew Research Center has observed a resurgence in electoral participation since 2018, following a long period of declining voter turnout, one of the lowest in the Western world before Trump's political ascent. In the 2020 elections, 66% of the eligible U.S. population headed to the ballot box, marking a significant return to democratic participation. The 2018 midterm elections also saw a high voter turnout of 51.8%, the highest level recorded since the turn of the century. While voter turnout in the 2022 midterm elections was also high, it did not reach the record levels seen in 2018. Still, voter turnout in the U.S. is converging with levels typically seen in other Western democracies. This resurgence might reflect a changing attitude towards politics in the country. However, it seems more plausible that it is largely due to the intense political polarization that emerged when Donald Trump arrived on the political scene, and that has created a landscape where the two major parties are increasingly at odds in their values and principles, alienating many voters. The rise in voter turnout may be less about a renewed interest in political engagement and more about a growing fear and demonization of the "other" side on the debate stage. In the 2020 presidential election, both Joe Biden and Donald Trump received the highest numbers of votes ever for any presidential candidate in U.S. history. The campaign was extraordinarily contentious and felt like an existential battle for survival for both parties. Whether this surge in electoral participation will translate into sustained interest in public affairs and restored trust in political parties and civic organizations remains to be seen. However, recent polls don’t give much reason for optimism. Axios has shown that trust in the political system and government continues to collapse, casting doubt on the prospects for positive change.

In 2023, the number of Americans with unfavorable views of both parties quadrupled compared to 2002. Only 16% of those surveyed expressed trust in the federal government, close to a record low. Two in three Americans report feeling "exhausted" when thinking about politics. The surge in electoral participation doesn’t seem to be signaling a move towards greater political harmony...

The rise in voter turnout may be less about a renewed interest in political engagement and more about a growing fear and demonization of the "other" side on the debate stage.

Political polarization masks deeper societal divides

It's often said that the United States is steeped in polarization, a fact vividly reflected in the intense, sometimes even explosive, political campaigns between the Democratic and Republican parties. But this polarization might not be as clear-cut as it seems. It's not necessarily a clash of extreme ideologies, far from it. The Democratic Party, for instance, has consistently fielded centrist candidates in presidential elections. Left-leaning candidates are not up to snuff for national elections and rarely are for Senate races. Republicans, on the other hand, have drifted towards more extreme positions, influenced by movements like the Tea Party and religious conservative groups. In fact, the entire Republican Party has shifted rather significantly to the right, a gradual process over the past 30 years. The party has pivoted its focus from economic concerns, entrepreneurial freedom, and limited government to championing staunchly conservative moral values, adopting a stance of active protectionism and isolationism, and vehemently defending the right to bear arms. By and large, it’s the Republican Party’s shift to the right that has contributed to the current level of polarization.

However, it seems clear that political polarization is something that the majority of Americans would rather not have to endure. The phenomenon is primarily driven by a minority of Americans who have adopted radicalized viewpoints. It’s a tightly-knit group united in the belief that conservative values are under attack by broader trends in American society and around the world. This faction represents 30% of American voters at most. Adding to this complex picture, a recent Gallup poll reveals that fewer Americans feel aligned with either of the two major political parties.

It seems clear that political polarization is something that the majority of Americans would rather not have to endure.

A survey conducted at the end of 2021 found that 42% of American voters identified themselves as independents, indicating they did not affiliate with either of the two main parties. Only 29% of the respondents identified as Democrats, and 27% as Republicans. A more recent Gallup survey found that support for a third major political party has increased to more than 60%. Additionally, in roughly half of the states, the number of independent voters exceeds those affiliated with the two parties.

In the United States, much like in many Western democracies, political fragmentation is on the rise. A myriad of interest groups, each with a specific agenda, are becoming more prominent in politics, but they are less focused on broader national objectives. While these interest groups actively advocate for their particular causes, their efforts do not necessarily contribute to national cohesion. In addition, social media platforms-which Americans use extensively-often amplify divisions, increasing political fragmentation.Voter turnout is usually driven by the desire to safeguard individual interests or express dissatisfaction, leading to protest votes. This trend of voting to express discontent is not unique to the U.S. but is part of a broader Western phenomenon. However, the political polarization seen during election periods does not necessarily reflect an equal level of social and cultural division. Much of it can be attributed to a significant minority group that has adopted highly conservative views. This group also influences many independent voters, creating a divide with the larger population, which seeks to shield itself from this extreme conservatism at all costs.

Trump's extraordinary emotional bond with his electoral base

To fully comprehend the current political climate in the United States requires acknowledging the deep emotional bond that ties Trump's supporters to their hero. Trump's appeal transcends specific political policies or platforms, which may be vague and change over time. Trump has ascended to the realm of an American superhero, a savior of the nation, that nobody comes close to matching on today’s political stage. He famously boasted that he could commit murder on Fifth Avenue and still not lose voters. About 20% of American voters are staunchly loyal to Trump on an emotional level, enough to control the course of the Republican presidential primaries, which start in January 2024. Trump’s unrivaled popularity among Republican voters is especially apparent when looking at a candidate like Ron DeSantis. Despite his very conservative platform, the Florida Governor has been unable to even come close to the former president in the polls for the Republican primaries. Trump gives hope to certain demographics, particularly poor white and conservative voters who feel disenfranchised and overlooked. He does this by invoking the narrative of a heroic, solitary figure standing against established institutions and elites. Scientific American describes his campaign rallies as "identity festivals" where audience members see America how they would like America to be.

The 2024 campaign is shaping to be a rollercoaster ride, full of twists and turns and peaks and troughs-something Donald Trump is no stranger to. Despite the legal charges and trials he faces, these do not legally bar him from running a campaign or potentially becoming president again under U.S. law. These legal challenges might actually embolden his base, who are already convinced that their hero is the target of an evil witch hunt.

Trump has ascended to the realm of an American superhero, a savior of the nation, that nobody comes close to matching on today’s political stage. 

Image copyright : Mandel NGAN / AFP

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