By: Mitch Goulson  | 

Is This Level of Political Polarization Unprecedented?

With the election looming, tensions between political parties are at an all-time high. Issues such as a global pandemic, tense race relations and the rush to fill the late Justice Ginsburg’s Supreme Court vacancy have added on a multitude of unique layers to the typical election process. President Trump’s and Vice President Biden’s campaigns have balanced their focus on these issues with scalding character attacks on one another. While it is not hyperbole to label this election as the most polarizing election of the modern era, is it possible that political polarization simply rises to this point during election years in general?

There seem to be two distinctive concerns regarding the upcoming election. The first centers on the Democrats’ fear that if Biden wins, President Trump may ignore the long-standing tradition of a peaceful transfer of power and refuse to leave office, citing mail-in ballot security concerns. This would violate the 20th Amendment of the Constitution, which states, “The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January.” The second scenario legitimizes concerns that the loser’s supporters may riot or cause other forms of civil unrest. While these concerns are certainly understandable, are they valid?

Democrats fear that President Trump may not leave office if he loses, citing the president’s persistent claims of unproven voting and election interference problems. In addition, when asked to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, President Trump refused to do so, saying, “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens… Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very – we’ll have a very peaceful, there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation...” This sparked outrage from Democrats as well as Republicans. In response, the Senate swiftly passed a unanimous resolution committing to a peaceful transfer of power. This is not the first time the president has suggested he would not accept the results of an election; according to the Washington Post, he also refused to commit to accepting the results of the election during his campaign against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016.

State election officials predict a record number of absentee ballots to arrive by mail, all of which may not be fully totaled on November 3. Because many states require votes to be counted by hand and swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania do not allow officials to begin counting mail-in ballots until the day of the election, a close race may not be decided until days, or even weeks, after the election. Imagine this scenario: if Trump leads a tightly-contested election prior to the official count of votes from the aforementioned three states – only to lose a week later after votes from these states are tallied – could he refuse to leave office?

Several American elections have been too close to call: the infamous Jefferson-Burr Election of 1800 (in which Alexander Hamilton lobbied to the House of Representatives successfully for Thomas Jefferson) and the Hayes-Tilden Election of 1876 (in which the Compromise of 1877 gave the election to Rutherford B. Hayes) stand out. The most recent deadlocked election, the election of 2000, pinned George W. Bush against incumbent Vice President Al Gore in an election which hinged on Florida. Although Gore initially looked to have won Florida’s 29 electoral votes, after numerous recounts and over a month of waiting, the Supreme Court declared an end to the recounts. The Court ruled that Bush had won Florida by a mere 537 votes, granting him 271 delegates to Gore’s 266.

Gore’s concession was reluctant but graceful, despite losing such a tight race. Gore, who won the popular vote by 500,000 votes, conceded the election on December 13, telling his supporters, “...partisan rancor must be put aside. I accept the finality of the outcome… And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.” After exhausting a plethora of legal avenues, the incumbent vice president understood that America could not be divided. His support of President Bush helped to allow the most devastating event in American history, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, to become one of the nation’s most unifying events.

While these elections were exceptionally acrimonious, the losers of these tight elections concluded their appeals long before Inauguration Day, setting precedent for any possible issues from the 2020 election to be resolved without threatening the 20th Amendment. Although Gore’s case – as well as Burr’s and Tilden’s – differs from President Trump’s in that none were sitting presidents, the president’s worries of “fraudulent mail in voting” are all but guaranteed to be resolved by Inauguration Day, if not sooner. Democrats’ fears that Trump may hole himself up in the Oval Office with an M16 assault rifle, akin to Al Pacino in Scarface, are far overblown. Furthermore, as Vice President Pence suggested in the Vice Presidential Debate, the same scrutiny should be applied to Biden, as Secretary Clinton in August advised Biden to “not concede [the election] under any circumstances.”

The second consideration lies with regard to threats of violence after the election. For the first time since the Rodney King riots nearly 30 years ago, civil unrest has erupted following the killings of George Floyd, Daniel Prude and other Black Americans. It is certainly fathomable that the election results may cause this unrest to spiral further out of control, but could supporters angrily march down streets, setting cities ablaze, as some have prophesied? More broadly, has an election result ever spurred mass rioting in our country?

The upcoming election feels most comparable to the election of 1968, in which Republican Richard Nixon defeated Democrat and incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Similar to the upcoming election, the 1968 election also included Nixon’s “law-and-order” campaign, a Republican appeal to the “silent majority,” racial tensions and riots, and the outbreak of a global pandemic (H3N2 Influenza). The election followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Democratic frontrunner Robert Kennedy’s assassinations as well as widespread opposition to the Vietnam War. It is important to note that despite the fact that the country faced high tensions prior to the election, the Democratic Party accepted their loss without nationwide protests over the results.

However, Fox News host Greg Gutfield expressed his concerns over threats of violence from the left if Trump wins. “There will be blood everywhere,” he said. “There will be riots, there will be demonstrations, people like me [conservatives] will be targeted.” While Gutfield may be correct in his prediction, President Trump’s iffy condemnation of white supremacy in the first presidential debate may foreshadow instances of domestic terrorism from the right if Biden wins. Nate Snyder, a former Obama counterterrorism official, gave a more bleak outlook to Yahoo News, saying, “There’s real concern that violence is going to escalate with these domestic terrorist groups with the election coming up.” Snyder did not specify which side of the aisle he suspected would contribute to the violence, implying that this may be a bipartisan issue, depending on events leading up to and after the election.

While the election process certainly feels more polarizing than usual, this level of political polarization is not unprecedented, particularly in an election year. The equalized friction from both sides of the aisle, combined with the anticlimactic finish to the 1968 election, gives hope to the possibility that the results of the 2020 election will be uncontested once the ballots are tallied and independently certified.

Photo Caption: The 2020 election has been particularly polarizing.
Photo Credit: Pixabay