GZERO Media logo

Why a disputed US election in 2020 would be so much worse than in 2000

Why a disputed US election in 2020 would be so much worse than in 2000

The 2020 US presidential election is shaping up to be the most contentious in decades. But it might also produce the most bitterly contested result in American history.

Democrats are worried about Republican-orchestrated voter suppression and the post office's capacity to deliver an expected surge of ballots by mail before election day (November 3). President Trump, meanwhile, has cast doubt on some forms of mail-in voting himself and said that foul play is the only reason he'd lose. Add concerns about foreign meddling and there will be lots of grounds for both candidates – and their supporters – to contest an unwelcome result.


If so, we'll have been here before. In 2000, as Destiny's Child was topping charts in the US and Russell Crowe was lopping off heads in ancient Rome, the outcome of the US presidential election was disputed.

A razor-thin margin between Democratic nominee Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush in the decisive state of Florida led to legal challenges. A vote recount was begun. The country was bewildered and divided. The Supreme Court then ruled to stop the recount. Five weeks after election day, Gore conceded defeat.

The episode was a traumatic one for the country, but here are five reasons why a disputed result in 2020 could be immeasurably worse.

Polarization is higher. In 2000, Democrats and Republicans were already diverging culturally and politically, but since then partisan polarization has reached record highs in a quarter century of surveys by Pew. Each party's views on key issues like immigration, guns, healthcare, or the environment are not only more monolithic internally, but they are also more distant from those of the other party. Consider that in 1994, party member views on race relations differed by just 13 points – by 2017 that figure had risen to 50 points.

As a result, party affiliation is now a better predictor than age, race, or gender of a random American's policy views. What's more, personal animosity between the parties is growing. In 2016, more than two thirds of politically engaged Americans said they felt fear and anger about members of the other party – and that was before four years of deepening divisions under Trump. No wonder Democrats and Republicans increasingly live and love separately.

The stakes are more drastic. Al Gore and George W. Bush differed deeply on just about every key issue. But neither painted the other as an existential threat to American life or called for jailing members of the other party. Today, Joe Biden is campaigning to "save our democracy" while Trump has warned that Biden would "demolish our cherished destiny" and destroy the "American Way of Life." If candidates insist that losing the election means losing America as we know it, there's little incentive for anyone to concede.

Trust is lower. Americans' trust in institutions of government and media – Congress, the presidency, news organizations — has been dwindling for years. But to take one specific example that could be relevant this fall: the percentage of Americans who trust the Supreme Court "a great deal" or "quite a lot" has fallen 7 points since 2000, to 40 percent.

Social media makes it all worse. Back when Florida's election officials were (re)counting paper ballots, tweeting was still done only by birds, and no one had heard of a "Face Book". Today, more than half of all American adults log on to Facebook every day. That's tens of millions of people scanning political news that is tailored to their "likes" on a daily basis. Left-wing users see one set of news. Right-wing users see a completely different set of stories. This "filter bubble" deepens political divides on a daily basis —and will be a dangerous source of tensions in the wake of a disputed ballot.

Lastly, we are already in hell. Unlike in 2000, the election will take place amid the biggest social and economic upheavals that America has faced in generations, as protests and increasingly violent clashes over racial justice and policing continue while the pandemic smolders its way through the country.

Khant Thaw Htoo is a young engineer who works in Eni's Sakura Tower office in the heart of Yangon. As an HSE engineer, he monitors the safety and environmental impact of onshore and offshore operations. He also looks out for his parents' well-being, in keeping with Myanmar's traditions.

Learn more about Khant in the final episode of the Faces of Eni series, which focuses on Eni's employees around the world.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

More Show less

"There needs to be a dramatic and deep reduction in the amount of debt on the poorest countries. That's clear." As the world's poorest nations struggle to recover from a devastating pandemic, World Bank President David Malpass argues that freeing them of much of their debt will be key. His conversation with Ian Bremmer is part of the latest episode of GZERO World.

Listen: Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that social media companies bear responsibility for the January 6th pro-Trump riots at the Capitol and will likely be complicit in the civil unrest that may continue well into Biden's presidency. It's no surprise, she argues, that the online rage that platforms like Facebook and Twitter intentionally foment translated into real-life violence. But if Silicon Valley's current role in our national discourse is untenable, how can the US government rein it in? That, it turns out, is a bit more complicated. Swisher joins Ian Bremmer on our podcast.

Ian Bremmer discusses the World In (more than) 60 Seconds:

Biden's first scheduled call with a world leader will be with Canada's Justin Trudeau. What's going on with the Keystone Pipeline?

Well, Biden said that that's it. Executive order, one of the first is that he will stop any construction or development of the Keystone Pipeline. This is of course an oil pipeline that would allow further oil sands oil to come to the United States. The infrastructure is significantly overstretched, it's led to backlogs, inefficiency, accidents, all the rest, but it also facilitates more energy development and keeps prices comparatively down if you get it done. So, there are lots of reasons why the energy sector in Canada wants it. Having said all of that, Trudeau, even though he's been a supporter of Keystone XL, let's keep in mind that he did not win support in Alberta, which is where the big energy patch in Canada is located. This is a real problem for the government of Alberta, Canada is a very decentralized federal government, even more so than the United States. The premier of Alberta is immensely unhappy with Biden right now, they've taken a $1.5 billion equity stake in the project. I expect there will actually be litigation against the United States by the government of Alberta. But Trudeau is quite happy with Biden, his relationship was Trump was always walking on eggshells. The USMCA in negotiations ultimately successful but were very challenging for the Canadians, so too with the way Trump engaged in relations on China. All of this, the fact that Trump left the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Paris Climate Accords, WHO, all of that is stuff that Trudeau strongly opposed. He's going to be much more comfortable with this relationship. He's delighted that the first call from Biden is to him. And it certainly creates a level of normalcy in the US-Canada relationship that is very much appreciated by our neighbors to the North.

More Show less
The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's Newsletter: Signal