2020 is a pivotal election year — perhaps the most important of our lifetime. I know, I know, we hear this every presidential election year.
But that’s precisely the problem: the perception that each election is the most important in our nation’s history, coupled with the erosion of the sanctity of our elections, has created a feedback loop of partisan rhetoric and escalation that ultimately threatens to make this common refrain a reality and push us to the brink of another civil war.
That perception manifested itself in Michael Anton’s 2016 essay “The Flight 93 Election.” Anton criticized conservatives who were still on the fence about then-candidate Donald Trump and compared the stakes of the election to those for the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11. With everything to lose in the event of a Clinton victory, conservatives had no choice but to endure Trump’s numerous flaws, “charge the cockpit” and commit to an all-or-nothing gamble.
The essay was easily the most read of the election cycle, but its significance lay less in how it persuaded many conservatives who were on the fence about Trump to take a risk with the candidate than how it unintentionally revealed that Americans had begun to perceive every election as an extinction-level event.
In 2016, many conservatives held their noses and cast their votes for Donald Trump because another Democratic victory, they believed, meant the end of American conservatism. The equal parts incompetent fool and evil mastermind that the Republican Party conjured in the visage of Hillary Clinton provided the perfect threat for the disparate factions of the conservative movement to unite against. Trump has provided a similar bogeyman for Democrats, who warned that the country would fall apart in a whirlwind of bigotry if he was allowed to sit in the Oval Office.
The pundits and elected officials similarly scream that 2020 is life or death. The madman Trump, the vile puppetmasters controlling senile old Joe Biden, they must be defeated. This all seems like fearmongering and bluster to get voters out on Election Day, but what happens when people begin to believe the slogans and rhetoric? Look at the violent actions of antifa on the left and the nonsensical conspiracy theories of the Q Anon crowd on the right. These instances and more show that large portions of the population have not only internalized this near-constant demonization of their political adversaries, but have sustained it across four years to the next election.
When a large portion of the right sees the left as Satanic and a large portion of the left sees the right as irredeemable Nazis, the function of a civil political process becomes impossible. Moreover, victory of the opposing party becomes unacceptable.
Every election these days is “the most important of our lifetime,” but that all too common refrain has become far more than a convenient slogan to drum up apathetic voters. The fact that we think that each election is pivotal to the survival of our ideologies will eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. With such high stakes, parties have no choice but to escalate the election, to bring all of their weapons to bear and beat the average voter over the head with enough scary phrases that he or she will take time from work to go and vote on a weekday.
Indeed, both political parties and the partisan media have every incentive to continue this cycle of escalation since it secures them a more fanatically loyal base and more money in their war chests.
The group hysteria has built up so much that, if one side doesn’t get its way, there is a real threat of violence. Court judges, executive orders and the bully pulpit that the office of the president provides are too integral to how the country currently functions, with its perpetual congressional impasse, that to lose the office for even a single term threatens the ideological survival of the losing side.
The Transition Integrity Project, which is made up of Democratic operatives like Donna Brazile and John Podesta and a veritable usual suspects list of Never Trumpers — Bill Kristol, Max Boot and David Frum — has provided perhaps the best example of this phenomenon for this election cycle. The Project formulated, ostensibly in the interest of protecting American democracy, a series of war games in which they forecasted the potential outcomes of the 2020 race.
Only one of their scenarios resulted in a peaceful transfer of power — a Biden landslide. A narrow Biden win, a Trump win and an uncertain result all ended in crisis, with Trump begin forcibly removed by the Secret Service in one scenario and the states on the Pacific coast threatening to secede from the union if they didn’t get their way in another.
Aside from the weaknesses in the methodology of the war games, having people who despise Trump’s very existence play team Trump in the simulation is never going to yield the best results, the exercise reveals two important points.
First, that anxiety about another four years of conservative rule has inspired powerful people within the Democratic Party to create a series of war games in which the military intervenes in a presidential election and several states secede. Just let that sink in. The very creation of the simulation escalates tensions between the two parties and begs a response from Republicans, who have no doubt already forecasted potential contingency plans should this election go awry.
Once you make war plans in the first place, they are more likely to be used in the real world.
Second, the simulation contains a veiled threat. Anything less than total victory for the Democrats, and there will be a constitutional crisis and violence in the streets.
Eventually, there comes a point of no return, in which one side’s move to escalate is perceived by the other to be a threat to its very survival and cannot be met with anything other than a total commitment. It’s similar to the game played by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War — they could escalate tensions to the very edge, like in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but if one country moves to DEFCON 1, it’s already too late to avert nuclear war and a counter strike has to be implemented.
Whoever wins, the other side will dispute the legitimacy of the election — that is a foregone conclusion. Like Russia before, Democrats already have their storm cloud brewing if Trump wins: The Post Office conspiracy theory. And the Trump camp won’t be able to file lawsuits alleging mail-in voting fraud fast enough if Biden wins. (Indeed, they’re already suing New Jersey.)
If Trump wins, especially if he loses the popular vote again, Democrats will resurrect the specter of Russian interference for another four years and renew their efforts to dismantle the Electoral College.
Trump is also likely to lean on Chinese interference or Big Tech meddling to make the case that Biden is illegitimate. With any of those talking points, he and remaining congressional Republicans will have more than enough ammunition to bog down a Biden presidency in its own Russian collusion-type scandal for years.
This scenario portends a greater danger to American democracy than uncertainty of who exactly won on the night of November 3.
Another round of investigations, hearings, dossiers, prosecutions of political opponents and endless cable show talking points will yield the same gridlock that has plagued Congress and the Trump presidency for the past three and a half years. If this method of undermining the other party’s tenure in power continues, the government will essentially cease to function. We’ve seen the effect already, as more time is dedicated to punishing the victorious party for winning than actually governing.
With the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Trump is entitled to nominate a successor under his purview as the president. However, this development is unacceptable to Democrats. Some have threatened violence if the president even nominates someone. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would not rule out an impeachment of both Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr to block a Supreme Court appointment.
When a speaker of the House of Representatives threatens to impeach a president for carrying out his constitutionally mandated duties because it would be detrimental to her ideology and party, it becomes clear that both partisanship and government dysfunction have risen to heights not seen in this country for a century and a half.
Impeachment is supposed to be a last resort used to remove a blatantly criminal president, not as a cheap political tool to cow an opponent from carrying out what he is legally obligated to do.
What’s more, these shenanigans will delegitimize the process by which we break that gridlock. Candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders experienced such remarkable success in 2016 because of the widespread belief in both parties that things weren’t getting done in Washington. Business as usual was bad business for the average American, so they almost gave Bernie the Democratic nomination twice and sent Trump to the White House.
Previously, if the establishment became too complacent to the will of the people, the people could vote in a populist, such as FDR or Ronald Reagan, who would at the very least shake things up and motivate career politicians into paying just a bit more attention to their constituents’ needs and desires. Now, the very mechanism by which change can be made and encouraged, a presidential election, has been compromised.
The American people become rapidly impatient with gridlock and apparent do-nothing politicians. Agitators have always prospered in America. The Founders were agitators, after all. Except, this time, the mechanism by which those agitators can be elevated to the halls of power, an election, can be declared illegitimate — and that accusation can carry significant weight with a large section of the electorate. If both the government becomes unable to enact policies that affect people’s daily lives and provide a process by which they can replace ineffectual leaders, the people will start looking for alternatives.
What do those alternatives look like? Does one side “take their ball and go home?”
That’s what happened in the election of 1860. Southern Democrats had become reliant on the presidency to shore up the pro-slavery cause as the far more populous North dominated in the House of Representatives and the Senate slipped more and more out of their grasp with the addition of each new free state. Southern leaders became convinced that the continuation of slave power in a unified United States relied on Democratic presidents, so each successive presidential race in the 1850s, especially after the emergence of the explicitly anti-slavery Republican Party, carried higher and higher stakes for the slave states. Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan delivered victories, but the stakes had become so high by the 1860 election that a Republican victory essentially meant the end of slavery in the eyes of slaveholders. Once Lincoln secured his decisive victory in the electoral college, though he only got 40% of the popular vote, the situation could not be defused, and South Carolina began the secessionist domino effect a little over a month after Election Day.
The rise of even more radical groups like antifa on the left and the hodge-podge identitarian movements on the right could gain more popularity as they promise quick and decisive change from outside the political system.
A situation reminiscent of France in 1789 could arise as people become ever more frustrated by a government that concerns itself more with providing financial advantages to elites and catering to fringe “oppressed” groups rather than the bread and butter issues that average Americans really care about. The American people may decide to sidestep the established political process, rightly judging that it is hopelessly rigged, and start consummating the “Chop! Chop!” chants of the would-be Seattle secessionists a few months ago.
The coming election will likely break the American political process. The tensions we’re seeing now can’t last forever, and they are unlikely to dissipate in the event of a Biden victory. The center cannot hold, and both sides have invested too much to de-escalate. The powder keg that has been building within American democracy only requires a spark to erupt. At this point it seems that it is not a matter of if, but when.
Hayden Daniel is a deputy editor and the opinion editor at the Daily Caller.