Next Tuesday, when we sit down, turn on our televisions, and subject ourselves to the inevitable “who’s up, who’s down?” horse race coverage throughout the evening, these elections will reveal more than just which party gets to control Congress for the next two years. They’ll also provide a real-time update on the state of democracy in the United States, and what the future might hold.
More than 70 percent of Americans—Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike—say that “democracy is under threat.” This poses any number of deeply concerning problems, chief among them—aside from the alarming possibility of losing the core founding principle of the republic, and all the freedoms and rights that come with it—is the prospect that, in the absence of democratic means by which to decide the country’s path, more and more people could turn to undemocratic methods. This could lead to some very bad, existence-threatening places. The United States is not there yet, but vigilance is essential to keep this existential threat at bay. Here are some things to watch for, other than just who won and who lost:
Will there be violence? When it comes to assessing the state of democracy in the United States, this is an unfortunately pertinent question. Last week, an assailant wielding a hammer attacked the husband of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) in their home; the attacker had planned to question the speaker and break her kneecaps if she “lied.” According to reporting, the perpetrator’s social media accounts contained posts claiming the 2020 election was fraudulent and that shadowy elites plan to use the pandemic to abolish private property and enslave millions. This is just the latest in a string of recent, similarly worrying events. On Friday, the Justice Department issued a message to law enforcement warning of a “heightened threat” of ideologically driven violence against candidates, election workers, and others.
Will losing candidates concede? Both parties are dueling over their opponents’ preemptive casting of doubt on the validity of this year’s election results. Hundreds of Republican candidates have taken fire for their baseless questioning of the 2020 election, as well as the fact that many of them in battleground races have declined to respond when asked if they would accept whatever happens this year. Democrats, meanwhile, have been taken to task for setting the stage to potentially deem some results illegitimate. The bottom line is that battles on the validity of the results could extend well beyond election night.
How many voters cast a ballot? Average midterm turnout in the last forty years has been about 40 percent. In presidential election years, that jumps to 57 percent. Interestingly, the most recent U.S. elections significantly boosted these averages. The 2018 midterms generated voter turnout not seen in non-presidential elections since 1914—50 percent—and the 2020 presidential election brought out a larger percentage of Americans—66 percent—than any time since the turn of the twentieth century (that’s 1900, folks). Donald Trump was clearly a “yuge” (to use his vernacular) motivator for voters across the political spectrum. Conventional wisdom has long held that high turnout is a sign of a healthy, flourishing democracy. This is an understandable, even instinctive idea. The larger the proportion of a nation’s citizens who have enough faith in voting to take the time to participate in their democracy, the more closely the levers of government will reflect a population’s collective will. This analysis has its counterarguments, however. Some analysts argue that high turnout could accelerate polarization and signal problematic levels of anger in the electorate.
How accurate were the polls? This question may seem unimportant once the actual results are in, but it speaks to the health of democracy in the United States. In the past, polls have served as an important check—one of the last remaining checks—against the “bubbles” in which so many Americans have found themselves. No matter how few acquaintances you might have had who voted differently than you, no matter how much you marinated yourself in media catering solely to your ideological preferences, thanks to polls you could have at least some sense of how your preferred candidate might actually do. Polls have helped set, or at least temper, bubble-set expectations. When the polls were accurate, and voters had realistic expectations going into election night, losses were easier to digest. Following some recent high-profile misses, however, as well as rising skepticism about institutions in general, polling is on the ropes. A poll about polling a few years ago found that 52 percent of Americans were “doubtful about polls they hear about in the media,” with just 36 percent of Republicans saying that polling is “mostly or almost always accurate.” Mistrust plays out not only on the poll-consumption side of the equation but also on the numbers of certain Americans who are even willing to speak to pollsters. Polling inaccuracies next Tuesday could further erode that confidence, striking yet another blow to a potentially moderating influence in our politics.
The United States’ steady upward trajectory has been built on a foundation of domestic strengths—a stable democracy first among them. A weakened American democracy is an ominous prospect, not only for us but also for a twenty-first-century world beset with enormous challenges. As we buckle up for a rough-and-tumble political week ahead, it will be easy to get caught up in our politics as usual, whether our candidates won or lost, and, soon after, what the next Congress will mean for policy. But our first priority should be to assess what these elections have told us about what the future holds for our democratic system.