The 2020 U.S. Election: Stress Test for American Democracy


The 2020 US election occurred in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic, yet the voter turnout was the highest in 120 years.  After all the mail-in ballots were counted, former Vice President Joseph Biden was declared the winner of the popular vote and the Electoral College vote by a wide margin.  Yet, Donald Trump refused to concede defeat for two months after the results became clear and mounted a series of court challenges to fight the results, including taking his baseless claims of fraud to the Supreme Court.  Even more unprecedented, mobs of Trump supporters assaulted the Capitol building on Jan. 6, forcing an evacuation of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.  In the aftermath of that insurrection in Washington, the US House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump for his role in inciting the insurrection and not stopping the mob action, making him the first president in US history to be impeached twice.  To help understand this historic US election and its aftermath, SCPKU on Jan. 13, 2021 convened a distinguished roundtable titled “The 2020 U.S. Election: Stress Test for American Democracy.”

The Stanford participants were Professors David Brady and Bruce Cain; Professors Pan Wei and Wang Yong joined from Peking University.  Professors Jean Oi from Stanford and Wang Dong from PKU moderated.  The event was part of an ongoing collaboration between SCPKU and Peking University.

Professor Brady analyzed the election results at the presidential level and down-ballot.  Using survey data, he highlighted the extreme divisions within the electorate.  However, the results of the election as a whole show that it was a referendum on Trump at the top of the ticket, where he failed, but down-ballot the Republicans made gains, especially in the House.  The crucial issue that drove the loss for Trump was his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.  That cost former President Trump five battleground states and the election.  Prof. Brady cautioned that the progressives and the Democratic Party would be wrong if they thought the election outcome signaled a huge surge to the left.

Professor Bruce Cain analyzed the aftermath of the election, including the decision to impeach Trump, which had happened only on the morning of our program, asking why the Democrats had chosen that route and where the Democratic and Republican parties are headed after the election.  The impact of seeing the far-right extremists breach the Capitol cannot be overstated.  Regardless of whether one calls it a coup, a riot, or an insurrection, it was traumatic for members of Congress.  This trauma made it unacceptable to do nothing, even if some Republicans were willing to go down that route.  There had to be accountability.  Impeachment was the better choice to ensure that nothing like this would ever happen again.  As for where the parties might be headed, Prof. Cain thinks we are likely to see consensus regarding the need to fix some of the problems in the electoral system and the way it is administered.  He questioned how much foreign policy would figure into the agenda of the Biden administration in the first year.  He stated that the progressives are going to force the Democratic Party into something a little bit closer to what Trump was trying to do in terms of paying attention to the implications of economic policy.  Prof. Cain further offered that there will probably be more of a renewal than was seen under the Trump administration towards human rights.

Professor Pan Wei offered his observation that three big changes are dividing Americans and undermining the basis of the American democracy.  The first is a widespread anti-intellectualism; the social respect for scientific knowledge is degrading among the ordinary people.  The second change is the rapid growth of individualism, which he sees manifest in the strong and healthy not wanting to wear a mask to protect the health of the old.  The third change Prof. Pan noted was the manipulation of the new capital of social media, where groups strengthen their political identities.  He blamed government for not regulating media platforms, allowing companies to ban individuals, including the president.  He reasoned that the cause for the three major changes is a new digital technology, which is bringing the US deep into the age of tertiary industry.  The US leads in the decentralization of digital technology, where individuals are creating innovative ideas that create rich overnight.  Prof. Pan worries about the increasing competition and inequality that will come from such developments, especially surrounding the ability to attend elite universities.  He concluded that it is America against America.  This contradictory combination of the three changes has brought about the current social and political results in the US.  He stated that President Trump catered to the anti-intellectualism, which led to the mishandling of COVID-19.  Were it not for that, Prof. Pan thinks Trump would have been reelected.

Professor Wang Yong argued that we need to go beyond President Trump to explore the reasons for the problems in the US democracy.  He focused on the effects of economic globalization and argued that the US, as its biggest beneficiary, has seen a widening wealth gap and more inequality.  In addition, he remarked that the US has overreached in international relations and expended too many resources intervening in other countries, fighting two wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.  The consequences have manifested in the handling of COVID and the outcome of the election.  COVID changed the way people vote, which made the election more chaotic.  He submitted that the US political system had failed the stress test, and that perhaps it was a good time for people in the United States to talk about the reform of the 100-year-old tradition that is its political system.  American political division is seen by many as the world’s biggest challenge in 2021.  Prof. Wang concluded with questions and hope that the Biden administration will lead to a positive impact on US China relations.

Following the presentations, the participants engaged in a lively discussion and Q&A on a number of different topics.  One clear conclusion was that the Stanford participants all agreed that the US did pass the stress test, even if it was difficult, and that possibly the US may be stronger for it.  

SCPKU will continue to host similar programs in the coming months and deepen the understanding between the US and China.