This was not the election of a healthy democracy. A complete list of the undemocratic measures taken before, during, and after this election would stretch for pages. The proximate cause for so many—including the attempted coup—was Donald Trump. Following his lead, Republican voters and officials, all the way up to sitting senators, have conjured up a phantasmagoria where the only explanation for defeat is a conspiracy of rampant voter fraud around every corner. Where democracy is defined as a subset of the population; a herrenvolk. Theirs is a fever dream motivated by an explicit rejection of both democratic values and the intransigent reality of the ballot box. At roughly 31 cases in a billion ballots, voter fraud is astronomically rare. Voter suppression of minorities, meanwhile, remains commonplace.
It would not be unreasonable, in spite of efforts to throw out votes, intimidate election officials, spread lie after lie after lie until blood was spilled on the Capitol steps, to believe that this was a more undemocratic election than most in the nation’s history.
I want to first be clear about what I am not saying. I’m not trying to issue panglossian polemic, in the style of Steven Pinker. I am not here to acknowledge wrongs American electoral history only insofar as they serve to illustrate a vague ideal of neoliberal progress. I am, frankly, not abundantly optimistic about the future of American democracy, which is likely to remain yoked to undemocratic institutions like the Senate and Electoral College for the foreseeable future.
That said: I’d like to make the case that in spite of it all, this was in fact the most democratic general election in the history of the United States.
A caveat of sorts: I’m not a historian, and my work as a journalist is mostly restricted to science—particularly physics. In short, this is not my expertise. But seeing as the data bears it out, and nobody else seems to have forcefully articulated the point, I thought I’d try my hand at it.
If you wanted to tell the story of democracy in America over the past 231 years—all of its fits and starts, flaws and virtues, banalities and oddities, triumphs and tragedies—you could do worse than the following graph.
What this chart illustrates, perhaps reductively, is that American democracy has not always been so. Elections today bear little resemblance to those a century ago, let alone two centuries ago. We the people were not we the voters.
With absentee ballots finally counted, President Joe Biden has topped 81 million votes, which is not only the highest total ever, but also—by a small margin—the highest total as a percentage of population. Perhaps more importantly, the total vote in 2020 nearly scraped 50%, about 5% higher than the previous record in 2008.
In the sense that democracy refers to “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives,” elections closest to the democratic ideal are those that in which more of the population votes, not less. 2012 was a more democratic election than 1912; 1912 was more democratic than 1812. This is a simple, mathematically ineluctable definition without caveat or context, but it works.
And it works because increases in participation are so deeply entwined with expansion of the franchise that we can see, in the dips and rises of that graph, milestones of suffrage: universal white male suffrage in the 1820s, the partial success of the 15th Amendment after the Civil War, the resounding increase on the passage of the 19th Amendment, and the impact of Civil Rights legislation with which the U.S. first became a multiracial democracy.
There are plenty of confounding variables, and enormous setbacks remain. Roughly 5 million Americans remain disenfranchised due to a felony. Shelby v. Holder needs to be counteracted with a new VRA. Automatic voter registration and the repeal of voter I.D. laws are a must.
Electoral politics are not the be-all end-all of a democracy, and maybe not a “lifeblood” (or even hemolymph) but they are a sort of transmission fluid—a substance that allows for the continued maintenance and survival of the system. Better that it flow freely.
I’ll hopefully update this later with some more historical context to flesh out the point, but for now, it’s democracy.in.america_final2_final.pdf.