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How The 2020 Presidential Election Became A Test Of American Democracy


On this Friday afternoon, more than two days after voting concluded, we're still waiting for final tallies in the presidential election. The key states of Georgia and Pennsylvania are still too close to call. Former Vice President Joe Biden leads in the electoral vote count. And at this hour, NPR hasn't called the election for either candidate.


As this process has unfolded, we've heard very different rhetoric from Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Yesterday, Biden urged people to have confidence in the American democratic system.


JOE BIDEN: Democracy is sometimes messy. It sometimes requires a little patience as well.

SHAPIRO: The process is working, he said. A bit later at the White House, President Trump delivered a tirade full of false claims, accusing Democrats of trying to steal the election.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We were winning in all the key locations by a lot, actually, and then our numbers started miraculously getting whittled away in secret.

SHAPIRO: This election is a test of American democracy, and we're going to look now at whether the U.S. is passing that test with two guests. Michael Kang is a law professor and elections expert at Northwestern University, and Jelani Cobb is a staff writer for The New Yorker, who is also at Columbia Journalism School.


MICHAEL KANG: Thanks for having us.

JELANI COBB: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Well, first, how do you each measure whether American democracy is working? Michael, you want to begin?

KANG: Yeah. I think, really, this election, we've got two things going on, and they sort of point in opposite directions. On the one hand, despite pretty serious challenges presented by the COVID pandemic, we had record turnout. We had more than 100 million people cast a vote before Election Day. And we had turnout that looks like it's going to be well over 150 million and be a record. There wasn't civil unrest. There wasn't violence at polling places. So I think on the one hand, the running of elections went well. But on the other hand, you have, I think, growing distrust about the voting process and the election process. And that's really worrying. So I think you have both of those things going on at the same time.

SHAPIRO: Jelani, what do you look at to measure whether democracy is working or not?

COBB: I mean, I think there's one basic measure, and that is, does everyone have access to the ballot, and is every ballot counted? You know, by that measure, we could certainly make some qualifications around everyone having access to the ballot. But it's hard to square with a presidential demand to stop counting votes. I don't think that that meets any kind of standard or any definition of democracy.

I agree with Michael. There are big issues. One is a party that - with significant members - who are convinced that voter fraud mars our elections. And, you know, now there are a lot of people who don't have faith in the election system. On the other hand, you know, we have some very real concerns around voter suppression. So in that way, I think that, you know, our democracy is anemic and hemorrhaging in some particular ways that have to be addressed in the near term.

SHAPIRO: So when you look at the last 48 hours, when you have a sitting president in the White House saying things that are not true and undermining confidence in American democracy and filing lawsuits, some of which may be frivolous and quickly thrown out, does that actually matter? I mean, I've heard people say, you know, Trump's tweets are not the health of an American democracy. Do you think this is important?

KANG: So I think if you look at these lawsuits, they don't have a lot of legal merit as far as we can tell. And even if you believed all of the allegations, they actually - most of them don't affect many votes or would change the count at all. I think this is all political theater. It's part of a political strategy rather than a legal one where...

SHAPIRO: But if it's political theater, can it be just dismissed as nothing more than bluster?

KANG: No. I mean, it's political theater, but it's really effective political theater because I think he has a third to maybe 40% of the country that suspects that he might have actually won the election and that mysterious forces have robbed him of that in some sort of weird conspiracy. That's outlandish to anyone looking at this objectively, but that really hurts the functioning of our democracy when people don't trust the results.

SHAPIRO: Jelani, you point out in The New Yorker that in many states, the voters giving Biden an edge over Trump are Black Americans in places like Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta. And you write, the future of American democracy hinges on the actions of Black people living in places that this system has consistently failed.

COBB: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Do you see the system failing them now?

COBB: Certainly (laughter). I mean, look; we're talking about communities where we have questions about, you know, how we fund our educational systems, the titanic public health disparities that we're seeing in coronavirus that are reflective of bigger systemic inequalities. And these are the people who are really in the clutch. I mean, Joe Biden...

SHAPIRO: And so you're defining democracy much more broadly than casting votes and having those votes counted.

COBB: Sure. A system in which we believe that each person's citizenship has the same and equal weight - I think that's another way that we could define democracy. And when Joe Biden and other Democrats said that democracy was on the ballot, if that's, in fact, the case, then it means that, you know, the protection of this democracy hinges so much on the turnout of people in these communities that have not had an equal share of the democracy's fruits.

SHAPIRO: Well, Michael, as someone who thinks America should breathe a sigh of relief that votes were cast and counted during a pandemic, how do you respond to what Jelani is pointing out there?

KANG: I think Jelani's right. It is really two different stories going on at once. And I think the optimistic story is one where the election system survived really serious challenges. I think there were a lot of election workers on the line that don't give in to the partisan warfare and just want people's votes to count and to do their job well. And I think those people really represent a kind of triumph this year that's easy to overlook in all of the larger story about the partisan battles over rules and the ugly kind of attempts by the Republican Party to suppress the vote and try to deny people's ability to express themselves in the political system. So I think both of those things happened. I'm glad and grateful for the former, but I'm really worried about the latter.

SHAPIRO: So this question of whether American democracy is passing the test is a question that we are in the process of answering and has not yet fully been answered. What are you going to be looking for to see what the final answer is?

COBB: Well, I think one thing that we have to look at is the potential for violence, which is still present. You know, when I was talking with my students, I made the analogy of hurricanes, where very often we think that the fatalities of a hurricane happen when the hurricane hits. But it's more likely that the bulk of the fatalities happen in the week following the hurricane. And so we had this huge build up to November 3 and a lot of really intense passions on all sides, and we seem to have navigated past that. But that doesn't mean that we're past the point where there could be sporadic or significant eruptions of violence.

SHAPIRO: Michael.

KANG: I'll be watching to see how the political system responds to Donald Trump's attempts to turn everything after Election Day into a partisan fray and really take things away from the normal legal process of the election. We know, because he's signaled this for four years, that he's not going to accept an election result that he doesn't come out on top of. That's a given. But the question is, how are other Republicans going to react to that? Are they going to go along with that and support him in those efforts? Or are they going to trust in democracy and invest in democracy going forward? Because I think we see this deterioration in so many of our institutions, and if we lose this one, we're really in trouble.

SHAPIRO: Michael Kang of Northwestern University and NBC News and Jelani Cobb of Columbia University and The New Yorker magazine, thank you both.

COBB: Thank you.

KANG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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