The 2020 election saw the largest voter turnout rate in over a century. Still, political scientists say that is not necessarily a good thing for democracy and may deepen the partisan divide in U.S. politics for years to come.
During a virtual panel discussion Tuesday hosted by George Mason University, political scientists speculated that the high rate of voter turnout in the 2020 election appears to be a byproduct of extreme partisanship: People voted based on their opposition to the other party.
“I see that as both good and bad,” said Dr. Jennifer Victor, a panelist and associate professor of political science at GMU’s Schar School of Policy and Government. “On the one hand, more people voting is good for democracy. That's democracy in action...On the other hand, most of the people who are voting are voting out of a sense of anger or fear or this negative partisanship phenomenon. And that, to me, is democracy degrading.”
Victor added that partisan polarization has been around for decades, but the difference now is partisanship has become people’s political identity.
“I think that’s what drove a lot of turnout this year,” she added. “The Democrats were able to drive a bunch of turnout and win over races, as a way of expressing anti-Trumpism.”
Another panelist, Dr. Bill Schneider, professor at the Schar School, said partisanship in U.S. politics is nothing new. But President Trump, Scheider said, has created deeper rifts within both the Democratic and Republican parties.
“The Republican Party is divided between establishment conservatives and Trumpists,” he added. “And in that dimension, I think Trump probably has the upper hand because he’s popular. Establishment conservatives are not.”
Victor added that on the Democratic side, there is an ongoing battle between moderates and progressives.
“These internal factions and battles within the parties will intensify,” she said. “The extremist elements of the party have more room to breathe when the parties are being pulled apart…. And so I think we should expect this battle to continue to go on.”
Victor and Schneider said they both expect President Trump will run again in 2024, and already some members of the Republican Party are developing a narrative around the election being stolen from President Trump.
Victor and Schneider both agree that if elected leaders can’t agree on or respect fundamental democratic norms and institutions, then gridlock on Capitol Hill and extreme partisanship is likely to continue.
“Having faith in the outcome of an election is one of the tenants of democracy,” Victor said. “It’s a really important democratic value. If people don't believe that the election was fair, they don't believe that the election was free of fraud, then that undermines the faith in the whole system.”