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.

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"The people are stronger," pro-democracy demonstrators chanted as news broke that the Sudanese military had staged a coup Monday, overthrowing the joint civilian-military government and dashing hopes of democracy in the war-torn country.

The backstory. In 2019, Omar al-Bashir – a despot who ruled Sudan with an iron fist for 30 years – was deposed after a months-long popular uprising.

Al-Bashir was a bad guy: he cozied up to terrorists like Osama bin Laden and dropped barrel bombs on his own people. He also embezzled truck loads of money from oil production while millions of Sudanese went hungry, and oversaw a genocide in the Darfur region that left 300,000 people dead and displaced 1.6 million.

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Sort of, but governments haven't lost all control yet. On the one hand, The Atlantic CEO Nicholas Thompson says that governments can still push tech companies for transparency in their algorithms, while Microsoft has partnered with the US government to together fight hackers "so the company is seen as a champion for freedom and democracy." On the other, over time Thompson expects tech firms in the US and China to gradually become more powerful as the state becomes less powerful toward them. Watch his interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World.

Watch this episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer: Big Tech: Global sovereignty, unintended consequences

As COP26 nears, the need for real climate action has never been more urgent. There are reasons for hope, but many scientists believe the ambitious goal of net zero emissions by 2050 is unattainable without immediate and significant change. Governments, financial institutions, and private sector companies alike have all recognized the need for a multistakeholder approach to solving this crisis of a lifetime.

Watch "Climate Crisis: Is net zero really possible?" a one-hour virtual livestream, hosted by GZERO Media and Microsoft as part of the Global Stage series, to hear scientists, corporate leaders and policymakers debate this question and offer critical perspectives on the way forward. Live on Tuesday, November 2nd at 11am ET, we'll break down what "net zero" means, take stock of where the world is on the path to carbon neutrality, and discuss critical steps needed to make real progress.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hey everybody and happy Monday. Back in the office, getting a little cool. So I've got my sweater going on. It's the first time I've had a sweater on. What do you do with that? Discussing fashion, as I talk to you about what is on my mind this week?

And what's on my mind this week, Facebook. Facebook is on my mind. It's a tough week for Facebook. There are all sorts of whistleblowers out there. There's testimony going on. There's calls for regulation. Everybody seems unhappy with them. Indeed, you even got the government relations types, Nick Clegg, who I've known for a long time back when he was a policymaker in the UK saying that the headlines are going to be rough, but we're are going to get through it. But I will say, first of all, I'm kind of skeptical that any of this goes anywhere in terms of impact on how Facebook actually operates.

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Turkey's Erdogan ups the ante with the West: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared diplomats from 10 Western countries "persona non-grata" after the group — which includes the US, France, and Germany — called on Ankara to release Osman Kavala, a Parisian-born Turkish businessman who's been held in jail since 2017 but hasn't been charged with a crime. Erdogan says that Kavala was involved in an attempted coup against the government in 2016. This latest move is a sign of Turkey's authoritarian drift in recent years, which has seen Erdogan's government increasingly crack down on opposition members as well as journalists. It also reflects Turkey's increasingly fraught relations with the West: things got particularly bad between Washington and Ankara after Turkey purchased missile defense systems from the Russians in 2019. The Council of Europe (the continent's leading human rights organization) had previously warned that Ankara has until November to release Kavala or it would impose "infringements," though it's unclear what those would be.

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ASEAN gets tough(ish) with Myanmar: The leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations meet Tuesday for their annual summit with one notable absence: the head of Myanmar's military junta. It's a rare snub from ASEAN, a regional bloc that's gotten a lot of heat in the past for giving tyrants a free pass. The junta says ASEAN violated its traditional principles of deciding by consensus by disinviting its leader, and non-interference in domestic affairs for demanding the bloc's special envoy meet detained former leader Aung San Suu Kyi. For their part, the other ASEAN members have grown visibly alarmed at Myanmar's rapidly deteriorating political and economic situation since the February coup, and they're worried about the spillover effects of Myanmar becoming a failed state. More importantly, Myanmar is a big thorn in ASEAN's side as it walks a fine line between keeping warm ties with the US — which most members want cash and security from — and getting along with China, one of Myanmar's few remaining friends and viewed with suspicion by most ASEAN members over its South China Sea shenanigans.

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149: The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record-high 413.2 parts per million in 2020, 149 percent above pre-industrial levels. A new report by the UN weather agency released ahead of the COP26 climate summit found that last year's lower emissions due to COVID-related lockdowns had no impact on the overall amount of greenhouse gases causing global warming.

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