The theme of the roundtable presented on April 8, 2021, was “Can Democracy Survive?” Ken Kollman introduced the event, noting that the survival of democracy was a question that Miller and Converse worried about. Their ambition was to study survey respondents and political parties and candidates much like other scientists studied cells and atoms and planets, but they cared about the fate of democracy. Their legacy of scientific inquiry into politics and society continues at ISR and CPS. A recording of the event is available below.
Ken Kollman: Moderation and Extremism in American Political Parties
Political parties are changing and adopting new issue positions, says Kollman, and the mass public pays attention to these movements. Both partisanship and voting decisions respond to the people’s evaluations of these partisan positions relative to their own interests.
Kollman makes the case that both major parties in the United States are perceived to have moved away from the center since 2008. These patterns include a continuation of the shift of the working class towards the right and the Republicans the shift of more educated voters to the left and the Democrats. These shifts have consequences for politics and for the survival of democratic processes.
Most people in the US hold their partisanship for life, but notable portions of the electorate change over the course of their lifetime. The most common reason they change is that they perceive the major parties as moving away from them or toward them on issues of fundamental importance, including economics and racial liberalism. They change much less often because of the performance of a party in office or because they change their ideology or issue preferences.
In The American Voter, Miller and Converse wrote about partisanship as a result of socialization; they argued that partisanship shapes the perceptions of events, of candidates, and the vote. Kollman and Jackson don’t necessarily argue with this. The American Voter portrayal of partisanship remains robust and is good at predicting the vote. In contrast, Kollman and Jackson focus on the dynamics of partisanship and how partisanship changes. Group memberships based on interests and elements of socialization determines partisanship. It’s malleable and they model it as a form of what’s called Bayesian updating, a method of modeling how people incorporate new information in their decisions.
Kollman and Jackson are continuing to analyze the patterns from the past to predict what’s going to happen in the future if the two parties take different positions. The chart below shows how different groups of voters would respond if the Democratic Party moved to the left. What they find, first, is that partisanship becomes more Democratic for every group as the Republicans become more extreme. African Americans are complex in that they prefer the state of the Democratic Party in 2016, but their partisanship actually drops away if the Democratic Party moves to the left or moves to the right. Among white voters, the Democratic Party would lose partisans (and votes) if it moved to the left.
The trends of both parties away from the political center are worrisome for many people. Extreme party positions, including the pursuit of extralegal strategies to either pass policies or hold and maintain power, could become more likely as parties become more extreme.
Rob Franzese: What Causes People to Become Political Extremists?
What explains the rise of far-right nationalist-xenophobic and rightwing populism in the United States and other developed demoocracies? Robert Franzese presented research to address this question.
Scholars have noted that the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-globalization, anti-elite, anti-government sentiments correspond to a sea-shift of white working class voters to the right. One explanation for this shift is the notion that people have been left behind socioeconomically, and experience angst as a result. While support for parties farther to the right increased everywhere, it is especially notable in regions experiencing economic hard times, demonstrating support for these economic explanations of voting behavior.
Surveys have examined whether the shift to the right was attributable to socioeconomic malaise and decline, or whether it was due to cultural status threat. The data from these surveys seem to suggest that the political shift resulted from preceved xenophobic threats and it doesn’t have anything to do with the economic conditions.
However, Franzese contends that this conclusion is both wrong and wrong-headed. Instead of either/or explanations for political shifts, he suggests that we think in terms of both/and. Both neighborhood socioeconomic malaise and xenophobic anxiety associated with cultural change are both part of a broader sense of socioeconomic and cultural threat, as described in the graphic below. Franzese emphasized the importance of heterogeneity of perceptions. Some people are more susceptible to demagogic railing against the elite, the media, and foreigners. Other people will be immune, and may even become more repulsed by populist appeals.
This approach shows that the socioeconomic conditions the individual experiences are partly contributing to social-cultural threat perceptions that produce support for extremism. It’s not just economic hardship that creates the response, but economic hardship contributes to the sense in some respondents that their group is being left behind.
Extremism, especially far-right extremism, is a rising threat to democratic society. Therefore, understanding better the provenance of this rising far-right extremism and concomitant rise in rightwing populism is urgently essential. Casting the possible causal processes as some xenophobic or socioeconomic threat perception is unhelpful. These processes are better understood as complementary.
Pauline Jones: Democratic Survival, Using Lessons from the Muslim World
Pauline Jones notes that many people think that democracy is either unlikely or impossible and due to familiar tropes that Islam and democracy are somehow incompatible.However she contends that democracy and Islam are not incompatible at all. Muslim democracies exist all around the world. Several Muslim-majority countries have transitioned to democracy in the latter half of the 20th cenury, and there are Muslim-majority democracies in multiple diverse regions across the world.
Survey research shows popular support for democracy among Muslims, and that Muslims are mostly supportive of democracy as a form of government, and they do not view democracy as incompatible with their religious principles or institutions. Furthermore, democracy itself is in a constant state of struggle to survive. Jones describes democracy not as an outcome, but a process toward resilience. Democracies are constantly undergoing a test of vitality.
There are two key dimensions to typologizing varieties of democratic vitality. The first is duration: the length of time that a country maintains a certain level of democracy since its initial transition to democracy. Both geographically and temporarily, it’s important to consider the context of that particular democratic state. The second dimension is trajectory: the overall trend in a country level of democracy since its initial transition to democracy. Trajectory measures how consistently a country has improved or maintained the level of democracy over time, since its transition.
To measure the level of democracy, Jones uses the Varieties of Democracy Electoral Democracy Index (DDI). This score focuses on the role of elections as the core feature of democracy, and includes aspects of the political system that increase the likelihood that elections will result in democratic outcomes. She then created a typology based on the dimensions of duration and trajectory, which describes four modes of democratic survival, depicted in the graphic below. Democracies are grouped into categories including striving, thriving, waning, and backsliding.
Striving democracies have short duration, but an upward trajectory. The thriving category is the best case scenario: long duration and upward trajectory. In the waning category there is neither duration, nor trajectory. Democracy is just not taking hold, and this is where you might see the transition away from democracy. Democracies in the backsliding category have long duration, but have a downward trajectory.
Jones investigated eight Muslim majority countries and fit them to these modes: Albania, Malaysia, Mali, Tunisia, Indonesia, Senegal, Kyrgystan, and Turkey. She found, surprisingly, that for that most of the Muslim-majority countries in the sample were striving are thriving.
The key takeaway from this research is that democracy is an ongoing struggle to survive. Jones challenged the audience not to think about democracy as meeting some threshold, but rather as a sort of ongoing struggle, and to think about it as varying degrees of vitality, as opposed to focusing on the mortality of democracy. This, she concludes, allows us to have some degree of cautious optimism. Democracy faces constant challenges; survival is just a matter of the degree of the threat and the strength of the institutions meeting that threat.
As the 21st century began, religion was spreading rapidly. The collapse of communism had left a psychological vacuum that was being filled with resurgent religion, fundamentalism was a rising political force in the United States, and the 9/11 attacks drew attention to the power of militant Islam. There were claims of a global resurgence of religion.
An analysis of religious trends from 1981 to 2007 in 49 countries containing 60% of the world’s population did not find a global resurgence of religion—most high-income countries were becoming less religious—however, it did show that in 33 of the 49 countries studied, people had become more religious (Norris and Inglehart, 2011). But since 2007, things have changed with surprising speed. From 2007 to 2020, an overwhelming majority (43 out of 49) of these same countries became less religious. This decline in belief is strongest in high-income countries but it is evident across most of the world (Inglehart, 2021).
A particularly dramatic shift away from religion took place among the American public. For years, the United States had been the key case demonstrating that economic modernization need not produce secularization. But recently, the American public has been moving away from religion along with virtually all other high-income countries—in fact, religiosity has been declining more rapidly in the US than in most other countries.
Several forces are driving this trend but the most powerful one is the waning grip of a set of beliefs closely linked with the imperative of maintaining high birth rates. For many centuries, most societies assigned women the role of producing as many children as possible and discouraged divorce, abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and any other sexual behavior not linked with reproduction. Virtually all major world religions encouraged high fertility because it was necessary, in the world of high infant mortality and low life expectancy that prevailed until recently, for the average woman to produce five to eight children in order to simply replace the population. Religions that didn‘t emphasize these norms gradually disappeared.
A growing number of countries have now attained high life expectancies and drastically reduced infant mortality rates, making these traditional cultural norms no longer necessary. This process didn’t happen overnight. The major world religions had presented pro-fertility norms as absolute moral rules and firmly resisted change. People only slowly give up the familiar beliefs and societal roles they have known since childhood, concerning gender and sexual behavior. But when a society reaches a sufficiently high level of economic and physical security, younger generations grow up taking that security for granted and the norms around fertility recede. Ideas, practices, and laws concerning gender equality, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality are now changing rapidly. Almost all high-income societies have recently reached a tipping point where the balance shifts from pro-fertility norms being dominant, to individual-choice norms being dominant.
Several other factors help explain the waning of religion. In the United States, politics explains part of the decline. Since the 1990s, the Republican Party has sought to win support by adopting conservative Christian positions on same sex marriage, abortion, and other cultural issues. But this appeal to religious voters has had the corollary effect of pushing other voters, especially young liberal ones, away from religion. The uncritical embrace of President Donald Trump by conservative evangelical leaders has accelerated this trend. And the Roman Catholic Church has lost adherents because of its own crises. A 2020 Pew Research Center survey found that an overwhelming majority US adults were aware of recent reports of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and most of them believed that the abuses were “ongoing problems that are still happening.” Accordingly, many US Catholics said that they have scaled back attendance at mass in response to these reports.
Although some religious conservatives warn that the retreat from faith will lead to a collapse of social cohesion and public morality, the evidence doesn’t support this claim. Surprising as it may seem, countries that are less religious actually tend to be less corrupt and have lower murder rates than religious ones.
Each year, Transparency International published a Corruption Perception Index that ranks public-sector corruption in 180 countries and territories. Is corruption less widespread in religious countries than less religious ones? The answer is an unequivocal “No”—in fact, religious countries actually tend to be more corrupt than secular ones.
This pattern also applies to other crimes, such as murder. Surprising as it may seem, the murder rate is more than ten times as high in the most religious countries as it is in the least religious countries. Some relatively poor countries have low murder rates, but overall, prosperous countries that provide their residents with material and legal security are much safer than poor countries. It’s not that religiosity causes corruption and murder, but that both crime and religiosity tend to be high in poor countries.
In early agrarian societies, when most people lived just above the survival level, religion may have been the most effective way to maintain order and cohesion. But as traditional religiosity declines, an equally strong set of moral norms seems to be emerging to fill the void. Survey evidence from countries containing over 90%of the world’s population indicates that in highly secure and secular countries, people are giving increasingly high priority to self-expression and free choice, with a growing emphasis on human rights, tolerance of outsiders, environmental protection, gender equality, and freedom of speech.
As societies develop from agrarian to industrial to knowledge-based, growing existential security tends to reduce the importance of religion in people’s lives and people become less obedient to traditional religious leaders and institutions. That trend seems likely to continue, but pandemics such as the current one reduce peoples’ sense of existential security. If the pandemic were to endure for decades, or lead to an enduring Great Depression, the theory underlying this article implies that the cultural changes of recent decades would reverse themselves.
That’s conceivable but it would run counter to the trend toward growing prosperity and rising life expectancy that has been spreading throughout the world for the past 500 years. This trend rarely reverses itself for long because it is driven by technological innovation which, once it emerges, usually persists and spreads. If that happens, the long-term outlook is for public morality to be less determined by traditional religions, and increasingly shaped by the culture of growing acceptance of outgroups, gender equality, and environmentalism that has been emerging in recent decades.
Vincent Hutchings outlined thedemographic shifts that are affecting levels of support for each party leading up to the 2020 election. As the makeup of the voting population changes in terms of gender, age, and race, the base of each major political party also changes. Hutchings presented results from a recent New York Times poll, which shows the state of the campaign as of October 2020. A recurring theme in the poll results is that Biden is performing better in the polls than recent Democratic candidates, while Trump is performing worse in the polls than previous Republican candidates.
Women have been a strong democratic constituency since 1980. Unsurprisingly, Biden is polling well among women in the current election cycle, performing even better than Clinton and Obama did in 2016 and 2012, respectively. Trump is underperforming in polls among women. Whereas recent Republican candidates have received around 40% support from women, Trump is polling around 35% support.
What is surprising is that Trump is underperforming among men, compared to recent Republican candidates. Typically, more than half of male voters support the Republican candidate; Trump is currently polling around 48% among men.
Younger voters are increasingly supporting Democrats. This is in part because younger voters are more racially diverse than older voters. Republicans typically capture around 35% of the youth vote, but in this cycle Trump is receiving even lower levels of support. Among older voters, the news for Republicans is even worse. Older voters tend to turn out to vote in higher numbers than younger voters. They are also more likely to be white, a constituency that leans Republican. In the most recent polls, Trump is polling at only 41%, which is significantly lower than expected for a Republican nominee; Biden is over-performing compared to recent Democratic candidates.
In the United States, whites have leaned Republican since 1968 – even higher during the Regan years. Trump is only polling around 50% support among white voters. The base of the Republican party has been non-Hispanic white voters for several decades. That share of the population has been declining, with important implications for support for both Democrats and Republicans.
The Importance of the Latino Vote
Angela Ocampo added to the conversation about the changing and diversifying electorate, with special emphasis on the growing Latino population. The non-white elegible voter population have accounted for 76% of growth in the electorate since 2000, said Ocampo. Latinos account for most of this growth, contributing 39% of the growth in the eligible voting population. The majority of this growth comes from US-born citizens who are turning 18 and becoming eligible to vote. In the 2020 presidential election, Latinos are projected to be the largest minority group among eligible voters for the first time.
Ocampo demonstrated that the differences in the growth of the Latino population at the state level is important. The proportion of Latinos in the voting population has increased sharply in key states, like California, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas. The emergence of these states as battlegrounds is largely attributable to an increase in Latino voters.
How consequential is the Latino vote? There has been a consistent trend toward increasing voter turnout among Latinos. Although immigration is often thought of as the most important issue for Latinos, polling shows that this group rates the COVID-19 pandemic, health care, and jobs as the most important issues in the upcoming election.
Ocampo notes that a record 32 million Latino voters will be eligible to vote in the 2020 election. Latino voters will continue to be influential in future elections. The Latino vote has grown, and the real question is how successfully candidates will be able to mobilize these voters.
The view from the states
Even if you only care about the outcome of the presidential election, said Jenna Bednar, you should still care about what’s going on in the states and in down-ballot races. Why? The electoral process is a product of the states. States structure elections by managing voter registration, identification requirements, and polling hours. States determine the qualifications of candidates and draw legislative districts. The electoral experience itself is determined by decisions about ballot design and whether states hold caucuses or primaries.
States shape the way we vote, and therefore the outcomes we get. Bednar reviewed the case of the butterfly ballot design in Palm Beach County, Florida, which led to voter confusion in the 2000 presidential election. Instructions for voters were confusing, and it was easy for voters to make mistakes. Following the irregular voting outcomes that stemmed from that ballot design, some people called for a standardized ballot. Bednar argued that slight differences in aspects like ballot design make for good experiments and innovation. She noted that ballots that are different in each state are not as easy to hack. Overall, these differences will rarely lead to problems.
Redistricting is a powerful way that states shape government at all levels. Bednar observed that Republicans have been more effective at drawing legislative districts to their benefit than Democrats. Democrats have been late to recognize the value of the states. Can we blame state governments for gerrymandering? Bednar said that while gerrymandering is not necessarily a good thing, you can’t blame a partisan process for having a partisan outcome. Many states, including Michigan, have adopted new laws to allow same-day voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting, and reforms to make the redistricting process less partisan. With all of this to consider, Bednar concludes that all voters should care about what’s happening at the state level, because the state laws and policies shape outcomes.
Stuart Soroka began his presentation by showing additional data from The Breakthrough, which assigns a sentiment to each response about the candidates, in order to track trends in the sentiment over time. This is not the sentiment of news content itself, but rather it’s the sentiment of the content that respondents remember. Soroka noted that the data show stability over time with a slightly positive average for Biden and a slightly negative average for Trump.
Sentiment of Recalled News about the Candidates
Amongst Republicans, Trump gets more positive recollections than Biden. Over the past month or so recollections of Trump have been a little more positive, albeit with a slight and statistically significant decline over the last month. Soroka said “That’s an interesting result because it runs contrary to what media observers might suggest. And contrary to what the Trump campaign’s own claims about negative coverage of Trump and mainstream media.”
Sentiment of Recalled News about the Candidates
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Sentiment of Recalled News about Trump
Next, Soroka focused on the impact of COVID-realted content on recollections of news related to Trump for Republicans, Democrats, and independents. The data show that as COVID-related content is associated with negative sentiment among Democrats, it’s associated with increasingly positive sentiment among Republicans. That trend is not just the product of Trump’s quicker recovery in the week of October 11th. It’s evident in weeks prior to that as well. “In short,” Soroka said, “partisans see the same information in fundamentally different ways.”
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Sentiment of Recalled News about Trump
Switching to analyses of news content, Soroka showed data on the ratio of Republican candidate mentions to Democratic candidate mentions in the first week of September across 11 major newspapers for every election back to 1980. Incumbents get more coverage than challengers, and this has been equally true for both parties. We see this for Reagan, we see it for Clinton, we see it for Obama. That imbalance tends to be roughly a 20-percentage point gap. If there are ten candidate mentions, six of those are for incumbent, and four for the challenger. There are two outliers, first in 2016 Trump got incumbent style coverage in terms of imbalance although he was not the incumbent. After the election there was lots of discussion in the Academy, but publicly amongst journalists and the media as well, especially expressing concern that the media had focused too much attention on Trump.
Balance of Coverage, 1980-2020
Now that Trump is incumbent, Soroka said that Trump is getting outsized proportions of coverage. This year, for every ten-candidate mentions, seven to eight of them are about Trump, and two to three of them are about Biden. Are there differences across newspapers? Soroka said these differences are relatively slight, and have barely changed over time. He also noted that public opinion data show that partisans see information in different ways; researchers cannot reasonably assume that coverage of Trump is viewed as negative or positive on average.
Overwhelming coverage of Trump makes it very difficult for citizens to learn about Biden. In other words, Soroka pointed out, “the nature of media coverage that I have just reviewed makes it possible for voters to decide on whether or not to vote for Trump, but it gives very little information that helps voters decide whether or not to vote for Biden.” The imbalance of coverage is evident across media outlets throughout this campaign, and at a rate that is roughly twice as large as we’ve seen for the last 40 years.
Soroka concluded by highlighting the areas in which the media can play a critical role in fostering the well-informed citizenry. He directed the audience to https://mediafordemocracy.org to find a set of recommendations on how to improve coverage of this election, as well as various possible outcomes of this election. Soroka is one of the signatories of an open-letter, signed co-authored and signed by more than 60 professors, at more than 40 universities.They hope this will be a useful resource for people interested in the role that media can play in American democracy both leading up to and following the election.
Josh Pasek said there are several ways that a scholar would look at the 2020 presidential election. One is looking at the structural features that set up the landscape in which the current election is taking place. Another is to look at the messaging that people are getting in the context of this campaign. Yet another is to think more broadly about the American political system and what that might imply. Pasek examined each of these perspectives in turn.
Pasek noted that there has never before been a U.S. president with a negative net favorability rating for his entire term, but this is true of Trump. A majority of individuals who have ever been asked whether they approve or disapprove of the president’s job have said that they do not approve. This is very unusual, said Pasek. Usually approval is strongly correlated with reelection chances, and an approval rate of 44 percent would not be associated with reelection. But it’s also an unusual way to target one-self as a sitting president, who typically tries to represent all the American people and to gain favorability among all of them.
The economic situation which is another of the major indicators to look at. The COVID-19 pandemic hurt the U.S. economy, and the economic growth in the last two quarters has been strongly negative. Pasek pointed out that strongly negative numbers tend again to be something that point against reelection of an incumbent president.
Pasek emphasized the incredible stability of polling in this election cycle. There has also been relatively stable attention to issues across the campaign. Pasek, Traugott, and Soroka contribute to a project called The Breakthrough, which asks people what they’ve seen, read, or heard about Biden and Trump over the past week. The survey has found that people are hearing essentially the same things about the candidates throughout the campaign.
This moment in American Politics
Pasek suggested there is another story that needs attention, which is this moment in American politics. He said we are in a moment “where there is increasing animosity in American politics.” Tying this sentiment to an increasing erosion of key Democratic norms, Pasek said that Americans are less likely to reject political violence than they were in 2017.
There are also issues that are more concerning, Pasek said, such as questions about whether the president is willing to accept the election results or engage in a peaceful transition of power if he does lose the election. He points to evidence that groups have been recruiting people to show up at the polls armed, which could be sort of a widespread attempt at voter suppression.
“Maybe that all points to a situation where things are a little bit more abnormal, and we really do need to worry about whether the models are right, not just because the models sometimes have error, but because they’re actually is enough distrust in the system that people may work against it,” said Pasek. If we were looking at a normal election year, Pasek said he expect this to be a change election. People tend to be not particularly happy when they don’t like the president overall, and whether the economy is poor, and polling fits in line with that pretty clearly. But given some of these unique contextual features of the campaign, he concluded that it is hard to know how this election cycle will end.
Michael Traugott began by noting that this is a very interesting and unusual election. When Donald Trump ran for President in 2016, he had no prior experience in governing, and he ran explicitly as an outsider. “He is typically focused on his base,” said Traugott. “Unlike any other first-term president, who takes office and thinks about how to enlarge his coalitions.” In the 2020 presidential election, Trump is now an incumbent with a record to defend. His campaign strategy before the COVID-19 pandemic was to run on a strong economy, and to turn out his base. However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the course of the campaign dramatically.
Division of partisanship in the constituency
Traugott emphasized that it is important to recognize that there are more Democrats in the adult population in the U.S. than there are Republicans. Data from the Pew Research Center show that there are about as many independents as Democrats, both of these groups outnumber the Republicans.
Furthermore, there are substantial racial and ethnic differences in party support. Among whites, the Republicans are the favored party. Among Blacks, Democrats outnumber Republicans by eight to one. Among Hispanics, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a little more than two to one, and among Asian Americans, about five to one. The demographics of the U.S. are shifting, and whites are expected to be a minority in the population by the mid-2040s. Traugott points out that there is a significant question about what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat in today’s society and how that is likely to change across the next 20-25 years.
Candidate Trait Assessments
Traugott presented data on assessments of the candidates’ traits, collected in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. Respondents to this survey were more likely to see Joe Biden as compassionate than Donald Trump, with a 33 percentage point advantage. Biden was also seen as a good role model, with a 26 percentage point advantage, and honest, an 18 percentage point advantage. Trump stands out as energetic to respondents, with a 16 percentage point advantage.
Policy Differences Between the Candidates
Traugott presented the results of a survey that asked respondents about their confidence that either Biden or Trump would make good decisions in various policy areas. Respondents rated the candidates evenly on making good decisions about economic policy. Across a series of social issues, including law enforcement and criminal justice, nominees for the Supreme Court, and foreign policy, Biden has a growing advantage.
Among people who say that they’re going to vote in-person on election day, Trump is ahead by a margin of two to one. However, Biden has an advantage among those who are going to vote by mail and those who will vote in-person before election day. Traugott noted that as of October 14, there were about 10 million votes already cast in this election.
The Democrats are emphasizing turnout voting in large numbers, whereas the Trump administration has been sowing doubt about the integrity of the electoral system. Traugott presented data collected by YouGov for Yahoo News, which show the partisan differences in attitudes about whether the election will be rigged or not. Republicans are much more likely to believe that there will be problems with vote counting and irregularities. Democrats are more likely to believe election security experts who say the U.S. presidential election cannot be rigged. Traugott concluded by saying “I think the most disheartening part of this is when the respondents were asked do you think this year’s presidential election will be free and fair, only about a quarter of the respondents said yes.”