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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On Tuesday, a major US intelligence report said the top threat to America right now is China. A day later, John Kerry, the Biden administration's "climate czar," got on a plane to... China.

Such is the drama of ties between the world's two largest economies these days.

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Should the Biden administration "reverse course on China" in the hope of establishing a friendlier relationship, as diplomat Kishore Mahbubani argues in a recent Financial Times op-ed? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Michael Hirson take out the Red Pen to explain why it's not that simple.

And today, we are talking about the United States and China. The relationship between the two most powerful nations in the world is the worst it's been since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Pundits and policymakers alike all around the world are trying to figure out how Washington and Beijing can at least stop the bleeding because a reset is nowhere in the cards.

That's the topic of the op-ed that we are looking at today. It's from the Financial Times, written by Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, and the title summarizes the key argument: "Biden should summon the courage to reverse course on China." Meaning, he should throw out the Trump era approach and open the door to more cooperation and kinder, gentler relations.

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More than a dozen COVID-19 vaccines have been fully approved or are currently in early use globally, and COVAX, the global initiative started last year by the World Health Organization and other partners, is pushing for equitable access to vaccines for all. But most of the half billion jabs given so far have gone to citizens of wealthy countries, with half going to the US and China alone. What's the problem with so-called vaccine nationalism? Ian Bremmer explains that besides the clear humanitarian concerns, the continued global spread of COVID increases the risk of new mutations and variants that can threaten the entire world, vaccinated or not.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Should wealthy individuals and nations shoulder more of the burden in addressing climate change? Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert argues that Big Tech leaders like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk should shift more of their focus to fighting for our own planet's survival, instead of space exploration. "We're doing as much as we can to make life difficult on planet Earth for ourselves. But there's virtually nothing we could do to make it as difficult as life on Mars, where there's, among other things, no oxygen." Kolbert, the author of Under a White Sky, discusses why it's so crucial for a few rich countries to bear most of the climate burden, since they're also the biggest emitters. Her conversation with Ian Bremmer is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting this Friday, April 16. Check local listings.

In recent days, Northern Ireland has seen some of its worst street violence in over a decade. The anger has subsided a bit this week, but post-Brexit fears leave many uncertain about their future in a deeply divided land with a long history of political violence between Irish republicans and UK unionists.

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Fighting climate change is about making the planet get less hot. The more quickly countries slow down their carbon emissions, the faster that'll happen. All the more important for the nations that pollute the most — but not all of them are on board. Although the majority, including China, are setting future targets to go Net Zero, India doesn't want to commit (yet) to when to stop burning fossil fuels to spur economic growth. We take a look at when the world's top polluting economies intend to go carbon-neutral, compared with their share of global emissions, of renewable energy as a source of electricity, and percentage of global coal consumption.

Peruvian runoff: Perú's presidential election is going to a runoff in June between two surprise and polarizing contenders, each of whom won less than 20 percent of votes in a highly fragmented first round. Pedro Castillo, a far-left union leader and teacher who benefited from a late surge in the polls, will battle rightwing populist Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the country's imprisoned former strongman. Castillo wants to rewrite the constitution to weaken the political influence of the country's business elite and maybe to allow the state to nationalize parts of the mining sector to pay for social programs for the poor. Fujimori wants to use mining revenues to create jobs by investing in infrastructure and healthcare. The runoff will probably be a national referendum on Fujimori, a divisive figure running for the top job for the third time. No Peruvian president has ever left office without facing corruption charges, but Fujimori already faces several — and she'll avoid jail time if she wins.

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