AreaS member Robert Lewis Mikkelsen recently published an article online for Cappelen for English in secondary schools. It is entitled “All of the People: The American Presidential Election of 2020“. It comes in connection with a larger program entitled “Election Watch.”
All of the People: The American Presidential Election of 2020
“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.” Abraham Lincoln, Republican President, 1860-1865.
The presidential election on November 3, 2020, will be extraordinary. For the first time since the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 – an election that set off the Civil War – there is a chance that the losing side may refuse to accept the results. In a sense, then, it is not just the next President that will be decided, but possibly the very future of American democracy itself. Why have things become so serious? This article will briefly suggest some of the factors that have led to this time of crisis.
The Bitter Political Divide
Over the last decades, American political life has split into two waring sections that view one another with deadly suspicion and mistrust – the Democrats and the Republicans. (1) There are many reasons for this, but underlying all of them has been an increasing inequality in the country that has weakened the trust of many people in the existing political structures and the politicians who run them. This had led to a bitter “blame game” in which each of the two sides attacks the other for undermining the American ideal that “All men are created equal.” (2)
During the administration of Donald Trump, these mutual accusations have reached a boiling point with each of the two sides regularly charging the other of lying, giving out false information or misusing governmental power for their own benefit. When the Democrats gained power in the House of Representatives in 2018, they immediately investigated whether the Trump campaign had illegally worked together with the Russians to defeat their presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, in the election of 2016. They then went on to attempt to impeach the President (remove him from office) for misuse of power for allegedly attempting to force another foreign power (Ukraine) to help undermine his expected Democratic opponent in the upcoming election of 2020 (Joe Biden). Their effort was blocked by the Republican controlled Senate, which refused to agree to impeachment. (3)
For their part, the Republicans under Trump, have regularly portrayed the Democrats as dangerous, left wing radicals bent on taking the money of the working people of America in taxes and giving it to their supporters around the nation, often identified with minorities like blacks, Hispanics or recently arrived immigrants. Democrats are also often accused of encouraging illegal and violent protests that undermine law and order. Recent Black Lives Matter protests around the nation have often been cast in this light. (4) Republicans have also regularly attacked the media for spreading “false news” and reflecting only the views of a Democratic Washington “elite” dedicated to keeping its governmental privileges and wealth, rather than serving the people. This elite is often identified in conspiracy theories with a “deep state” that wishes to hold on to power no matter who is elected. Views like these that have led President Trump to regularly refer to his chief political opponent in Washington, Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, as “Crazy Nancy.” In sum, the political atmosphere has become poisonous, affecting almost all aspects of American life. (5)
The Corona Crisis
On top of this political crisis has come the greatest health crisis to hit America in a century, the corona virus pandemic. As this is written, fully 6.5 million Americans have gotten COVID-19 and more than 193.000 have died. Some estimates put the total number of deaths by January 1, 2021 to over 400.000. (6) This is by far a greater number than any other nation in the world. When COVID-19 started, President Trump and his administration refused to accept the seriousness of the pandemic, claiming that “We have it under control. It’s going to be fine.” and “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” Eventually, the administration was forced to recognize the gravity of the threat and take measures. These turned out to half-hearted and confusing, however. Rather than showing strong federal leadership, Trump largely left it to the 50 individual states to grapple with the illness. In part, this was because President Trump refused to listen to the advice of his scientific advisors to act quickly to enact strong social and economic restrictions in the nation. (7)
The corona crisis put President Trump in a dilemma. He has never been a very popular president. His polls average about 40-45% approval ratings. (8) His main claim to success during his first three years of power had been an expanding economy. That was to be his main argument for reelection in 2020. The corona crisis took away this argument. The virus caused the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression in the 1930s. Local and state measures against COVID-19 forced businesses to shut down across the nation. Unemployment skyrocketed. The federal government was forced to go into greater debt to help both employers and employees survive.
In the face of this economic catastrophe, Trump – and many other Republicans – began to again downplay the severity of the virus. Many suggested that the economic damage of the “cure” of social restrictions was worse than the “disease” of the virus itself. Many of the states that had voted for Trump in the election of 2016 – often rural states in the South – began removing their corona restrictions and “opening up” their economies as quickly as possible in the spring of 2020. The hope was to return to economic prosperity before the election in November. The actual result was – predictably – a resurgence in the number of corona cases across the nation (see graph below, per August 28, 2020). (9) This, in turn, has caused increased economic damage.
There is little doubt that President Trump’s handling of the on-going corona crisis will be one of most important issues in the final weeks of the 2020 presidential campaign. As of August 27, 2020, 58% of Americans disapproved of Trump’s handling of corona. But the country remains deeply split on partisan lines. Almost 80% of Republicans still supported Trump’s corona polices, while fewer than 9% of Democrats did so. These numbers have hardly changed at all since the crisis began last March. (10)
Donald Trump and Democracy
To this politically, economically and medically explosive situation in the United States may be added the character and nature of Donald Trump himself. More than any presidential election in living memory, the upcoming vote will be a referendum on the man as much as his policies. To put it mildly, President Trump is a person of strong opinions and shifting moods. This makes him both unpredictable and interesting. He loves to keep public attention focused on him. He often does this by making unexpected and often alarming statements. This makes him a good campaigner, but a constantly controversial figure. He has often challenged established political traditions and Constitutional practice during his first term, portraying himself as a champion of the people shaking up corrupt professional politicians in Washington. He seems to take delight in this. For example, when his supporters chanted “Four more years!” at the recent Republican National Convention, he replied “If you want to really drive them crazy, you say 12 more years” – a clearly illegal suggestion since the Constitution sets a limit of 8 years, made up of two 4 year terms, for any President. (11)
Statements such as these cause Democrats and others to fear that President Trump’s actions could undermine Constitutional government and trust in American democracy. And he has added to these fears by repeatedly claiming that “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if this election is rigged.” By questioning the result of the election even before it is held, some worry that Trump is preparing the way to stay in power by claiming fraud if he loses. He has often made such claims of election fraud in the past, but most recently he has tied his accusations to fraud in mail-in balloting.
Because of the corona crisis, many voters have decided to vote by mail this year in order to avoid the risk of being infected at a polling station. Trump has claimed that Democrats – who use mail-in ballots more than Republicans – will used them to steal the election. “Mail ballots, they cheat. Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters,” said Trump. “They’re using Covid to defraud the American people.” Though studies show no evidence of massive mail fraud in America, this has not stopped the President from warning, in a tweet:
His suggestion for putting off the Presidential election caused jaws to drop around the nation. It was quickly slapped down as unconstitutional by the Democrats – as well as Republicans of his own party – but it serves to show how even fundamental rules of American democracy may be tested in this Presidential campaign. (12)
As this is written, the Democratic Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, is leading Donald Trump in national election polls by an average of about 7% points. He has enjoyed that lead throughout 2020 and some believe that Trump’s warning about mail fraud reflects the President’s realization that he may lose the vote. Certainly, the Democrats interpret it that way. “The president is afraid of the American people,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has said, “He’s been afraid for a while. He knows that on the legit (in an honest election), it would be hard for him to win, so he wants to put obstacles to participation.” (13) Democrat Ron Klein put it this way, “It’s very troubling to have the person who has the biggest microphone put out those kinds of thoughts (about fraud) and intimidate and scare people into thinking that no matter what the outcome, they’re not going to believe it’s fair. That’s a threat to democracy itself.” (14)
Will the result of the presidential election in 2020 be challenged by one side or the other? It is possible, if the vote is close. It has happened in this century, although in a peaceful fashion (unlike the Civil War of 1860). In 2000, the presidential contest between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush ended up being decided in the Supreme Court many weeks after the election. That was caused by the votes in one state, Florida, being so evenly split between the two candidates that recounts were necessary – and then those recounts were challenged in the courts. In 2020, it is hoped that the majority of the winning candidate will be so great that no questions of fraud or recounts can be raised. On the other hand, it is feared that it will be so close that the supporters of one side or the other will reject the result and flood out onto the streets, turning a peaceful election into civil conflict.
Both Republicans and Democrats claim they represent all of the people of America. It will soon be the chance for all of those people to make their choice. Stay tuned.
1) See Access to English, Social Studies, pp 195
2) See Access to English, Social Studies, Background: In the Pursuit of Happiness, pp. 312 – 314
3) See Access to English, Social Studies, Congress – legislative power/ The President – executive powers, pp186-187).
4) See Access to English, Social Studies, Facts: Views on the Black Lives Matter Movement, p. 366
5) Pelosi says Trump ‘needs intervention’, he calls her ‘Crazy Nancy’ https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-48386303
6) Worldometer – Corona virus
Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation
7) Access Update, America vs. America, April 14, 2020
8) Gallup – Presidential Approval
9) Worldometer – Corona in USA
10) How Americans View The Coronavirus Crisis And Trump’s Response
11) Trump Fires Up Party Delegates with Warnings of ‘Rigged’ Election
12) New York Times: Mail-in Voting Explained
RNC 2020: Trump warns Republican convention of ‘rigged election
Twitter – Donald Trump
13) RealClearPolitics, Trump vs. Biden
New York Times – Trump and Postal Mail Voting
14) The Guardian – A 2000 repeat in 2020? Concerns mount over ‘integrity’ of US election
The following websites may help you in this work – but feel free to consult others:
NATIONAL PARTY CONVENTIONS
- Joseph Biden (26 minutes)
- Donald Trump (1 hr. 10 minutes)
Press reviews of acceptance speeches:
- Joseph Biden:
- Donald Trump:
Vice Presidential candidates
- Press Reaction to choice of Kamala Harris
- Public Reactions to choice of Kamala Harris:
- Press reaction to choice of Vice-President Mike Pence
- Public Reaction to Mike Pence