What Happens When We Have ANOTHER Election That Both Sides Absolutely Positively Can't Afford to Lose?


Hyperpolarization Graphic

Newsletter #188— December 21, 2023


From the Directors Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

A little less than four years ago, we published an article in an earlier Beyond Intractability Newsletter asking the question, "What Happens When We Have an Election That Both Sides Absolutely Positively Can't Afford to Lose?" The article went on to outline some of the reasons why so many people on both the left and the right felt that they had to do whatever it took to make sure that their side won the 2020 election. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear what happens when Democrats win and Republicans, under the leadership of Donald Trump, lose. While we can only speculate what would have happened had Donald Trump won, it is clear that Democrats would have found a way to push back hard (though, hopefully, not using the illegal methods that Trump employed). Now, in 2024, attitudes seem to have hardened even further, and both sides feel as if this election is an existential fight for the survival of democracy in the United States.

Note: This is our last post for 2023, as we will be taking next week off. We'll see you in the new year.


The Republican Reaction to 2020 

At this point, Donald Trump and roughly 70% of Republicans still refuse to accept Biden's victory as legitimate. This is still true despite the fact that the courts have consistently ruled against Republican challenges to the validity of the election results, and a large number of illegal attempts to overturn the election have been exposed and blocked. These included, most notably, the January 6 attack on the US capital and its attempt to block the orderly transfer of power, but also Trump's and other Republican attempts to change vote counts and to appoint fake electors in seven states

The sense of anger and betrayal has flowed from this is now a dominant factor in the run up to the 2024 election and Donald Trump's apparently solid lock on the Republican nomination. Also driving Trump's support is his carefully cultivated and largely justified reputation as a fighter — someone who will do whatever it takes to reverse the many ways in which the US government and the larger society's educational, cultural, and commercial institutions have been captured by the social justice elites of the Democratic Party. His appeal is attributable to a complex combination of deeply felt and honestly held grassroots opinions about how to "make America great again" and the deceptive and deliberate manipulation of those interests and values by a political figure who openly aspires to dictatorial power. 

Trump and his many supporters believe that the his first administration was sabotaged by the left. They are now devoting enormous energy to the development of much more sophisticated and likely effective strategies for preventing that kind of sabotage in a second term. Not surprisingly, these strategies are view by Democrats, as well as many independents and anti-Trump Republicans, as a direct threat to the viability of the United States' democratic system.

The Democratic Reaction to 2020

For their part in this drama, Democrats interpreted the 2020 election results as a mandate to do all that they could to pursue their vision for a more progressive and socially just America. Their assumption seems to be that, once the public sees the changes that they are bringing to America, widespread support will follow. In light of unceasing Republican opposition to these efforts, the Democrat's initially conciliatory rhetoric about national unity changed into to intense partisanship and all-out battles over almost everything.  That said, there were a surprising number of important but largely unnoticed instances in which bipartisan governance actually worked.

Like the Republicans who seek to replace them in the upcoming election, the Democrats have also found creative ways around the traditional democratic checks and balances that have given the Republicans tools with which to block the Democratic agenda. This has, for example, included an several attempts to use an expansive interpretation of executive power to bypass the budgeting process and grant large sums of money (in the form of debt relief on student loans, for example) to an overwhelmingly Democratic constituency — the college-educated. Biden has also used executive authority to incorporate highly controversial, progressive language and policies into a broad range of federal programs. Examples include efforts to eliminate of the word "woman" from the public and private sector lexicons in favor of more "gender inclusive" language preferred by progressives.   A wide range of preferences have been granted to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and other People of Color) groups (another major Democratic constituency) in the belief that they were a necessary correction for past biases that have favored  (predominantly Republican) whites who are, as Yascha Mounk explains, often portrayed as irredeemably racist.

Democratic control of governmental institutions has been reinforced and supported by the many ways in which for-profit and non-profit sectors have been pressured into refocusing their missions and their day-to-day activities in ways that are more fully supportive of the full range of intersectional, left-leaning beliefs (for example by instituting DEI programs that control both hiring and employee speech and behaviors.)  Republicans also complain about what they see as the shadowy transformation of a public / private partnership formed to fight the very real threat of disinformation into a "censorship industrial complex" that is effectively suppressing much information critical of Democrats (and favorable to Republicans). 

The Disappearance of Moderate Voices

These trends have moved both Democrats and Republicans increasingly toward political extremes in ways that increasingly leave those with more moderate, centrist views politically homeless. Moderate political leaders with enough influence to alter the course of events have great trouble finding the money, political advisors, pollsters, or any of the help needed to mount a successful campaign. Part of this is attributable to the structure of today's media and the larger information ecosystem, which, focuses on catering to the interests and prejudices of more extreme partisans on the left and the right. The result is a system flooded with dire stories emphasizing the enormous threat posed by the other side and the virtues of those seeking to oppose that threat. Contemporary politics is portrayed as a climactic battle between good and evil. 

Still, if one looks at poll numbers, there is overwhelming agreement that voters want something other than a Biden/Trump rematch. There is also very strong support for more moderate positions on the full range of issues. While the political leadership of the left and the right may have shifted dramatically toward the extremes, public sentiment has not. 

This, it would seem, opens the door for more moderate candidates and, perhaps, a third-party to emerge. And, indeed that might happen. The group "No Labels" has been carefully laying the groundwork for such a campaign (while being very quiet about whether or not they are actually going to enter the race). They say that they want a real path to victory, not just an opportunity to act as a "spoiler" that, given the way in which the US two-party system is structured, would give Donald Trump Presidency. 

The Coming 2024 Election 

In the coming year, all of these forces are going to collide in another election in which it seems likely that an even bigger share of the electorate will conclude that it is even more important that they find some way to deny victory to the other side. Given the widespread belief that the other side is engaged in all sorts of unfair, anti-democratic, and often illegal practices, it is likely that there will be widespread support for taking increasingly desperate steps to defeat the other side — the kind of steps that, in more normal times, most people would view as clearly anti-democratic, morally repugnant, and something that they would avoid.

Amid this dismal landscape, it's hard not to be left with an overpowering sense of dread. Forces are being unleashed that are going to be hard to control and hard to reverse, especially in the short time between now and the November 2024 election. One can hope that, once the primary process starts, voters will force the parties to move in a more conciliatory directions, or that President Trump and/or President Biden may be defeated or decide to drop out. Alternative candidates could present themselves with more conciliatory platforms or a third, national unity party might emerge.  Still none of these possibilities seem very likely or particularly reassuring. We are going to have to do much more to prevent a political breakdown that is similar to (or, perhaps, worse than) the 2020 election — something that could shake US democracy to its very foundations in ways that could have profound global implications.

In order to reduce the possibility and the magnitude of such a calamity, we think that it is imperative that we all start doing whatever we can to help bring the nation together in ways that start to defuse our dysfunctional and dangerous politics.  As we have argued before, the most effective way of doing this is through a massive array of independent efforts, each directed toward some aspect of the larger problem and each (from their respective political orientations) building toward a future that those on both sides of the divide would find attractive. Fortunately, such an array of efforts is now well underway. 

While it is, by no means, clear that these efforts have reached the kind of critical mass needed to overcome the forces that are driving us apart, we believe that we are much closer to being able to address these dangers than most people think. What we want to do with balance of this essay, is to start laying the groundwork for a series of posts that will, in the coming months, explore how massively parallel peacebuilding/democracy building can help us get out of our predicament. We would also like to invite readers to send us your thoughts about how the upcoming election could be shaped in more positive ways. 

Among the many topics that we hope to address are the following:

  • Potentially Viable Compromises – Mainstream news and opinion sources on both the left and the right now, with respect to issue after issue, convey the impression that there is a stark choice to be made between the mainstream views offered by one's own side and utterly indefensible views of the opposing side. The key is to first get past the attention-grabbing and often misleading rhetoric of the most committed partisans. Once one does this, it becomes clear that there are valid concerns on all sides, as well as promising ideas for reconciling those concerns in mutually beneficial ways. There is a critical need for people who can develop and present these ideas in ways that make it clear that there really is a viable middle ground between the two, now prominent and irreconcilable extremes.
  • Compromise Candidates – Also largely missing in the run-up to the upcoming election are candidates and political parties (as well as potential candidates and parties) who are willing and able to champion compromises in ways that would give them a real chance of being adopted. Efforts must also be made to get these candidates on the ballot and getting their ideas to the floor of legislative chambers where they can be debated, refined, and, when they are ready, approved and implemented.
  • Improve Information Systems – Much more effort is needed to change or block the dynamics that encourage the spread of extreme, inflammatory, and deceptive information, and replace them with processes that encourage a temperate and balanced view of the issues and "the other." 
  • Bridge Building – A lot of effort is already being made here, but even more effort to bring people together to break down their stereotypes and enemy images will help with many of the other goals in this list.
  • Exposing and Blocking Aspiring Authoritarians – Trump is actually being very open about his authoritarian tendencies, but his followers don't seem to care. We want to explain why people should care, and also why we should be worried about (and try to discourage) a different, but still troubling, set of authoritarian tendencies on the left. Here our focus will be on joint efforts that people from across the political spectrum are taking (or contemplating) to protect Constitutional checks and balances and prevent changes that could, potentially, lock one political leader (or faction) into power in ways that would leave the other side disenfranchised.
  • Trustworthy Elections – Here our goal is to go beyond the self-serving and highly partisan efforts to promote "fair" elections which are now so prominent — efforts where "fairness" tends to be synonymous with "more favorable to my party."  Instead, our focus will be on genuinely bi-partisan (or trans-partisan) efforts to assure genuinely fair and trustworthy elections that will give everyone confidence that the system will work for 2024 and beyond.
  • Violence Prevention – Given that so many people now feel that they cannot rely upon democratic processes to protect their vital interests, a frighteningly high number (33% of Republicans!) say that violence might be justified to make sure their favored candidate wins the election. Limited violence could easily escalate out of control and lead to widespread violence (or, potentially, even civil war). In an effort to help prevent this, we will try to highlight bi-partisan efforts to defend and strengthen taboos against violence, while simultaneously strengthening safeguards against it and working to increase trust in elections, so people do not feel violence is warranted.
  • Geopolitics – In this time of increasing global tensions, we will also pay attention to the possibility that global and regional powers may be using the West's open information environment to launch a variety of propaganda attacks designed to further drive us apart, undermine our faith in democracy, and even question the nature of objective reality.
  • Partisan Self Reflection – We are also interested in hearing about the work of people who are resisting the temptation to blame all problems of the other party while holding their party blameless. We all need to be asking hard questions about what our group is doing to contribute to democracy's difficulties. 
  • Visioning – When we think about our future hopes and dreams, we tend to focus on the vision that people who share our values and our image of the world have for a better society. We want to encourage people to go beyond this, as we talked about in Newsletter 184, and get people to imagine what our country would look like if we made the effort to accept the interests, needs, and values of everyone who lives here.  How can we create a thriving country that really does embrace diversity (including Republicans and conservatives)? How can we reconcile our differences as John Paul Lederach suggests, by balancing peace, justice, truth, and mercy?

We will be addressing these issues and more in the coming weeks and months and invite our readers to share their thoughts on how to make the November election more trustworthy and trusted than was the 2020 election.


Lead graphic photo credit:  Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/6262122778; By:  DonkeyHotey; Permission:  CC BY 2.0. DEED https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/; Date Required: December 20, 2023


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