Title: Professor of Political Science
Organization: Emory University
When local and national media needed to make sense of the most recent election season — which at times seemed senseless and mostly contentious — they turned to Alan Abramowitz.
The Emory University political science professor has built an enviable reputation as one of the leading scholars on American elections.
And rightfully so.
This school year, he’s teaching a freshman seminar on the 2020 election. He’s the author of six books and countless articles on voting, elections, and public opinion. Abramowitz, who created his own forecasting model he calls “Time-for-Change,” accurately predicted the winners in the 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.
In 2016, though, all bets were off. Forecasting models fizzled under the bizarre weight of that year’s presidential election.
Atlanta Civic Circle talked this week with Abramowitz, to speak about the polarization that now marks American politics and the future of Democracy in our nation.
Here’s an edited version of what he had to say.
Q: How do you define democracy today and is it a different animal from what America’s founders envisioned?
A: It’s definitely different from what the founders envisioned. The founders didn’t really believe in democracy in the way we understand it. The founders were rather suspicious about it. They kind of viewed democracy as sort of equivalent to mob rule. So they didn’t really believe in small d democracy.
They put a lot of provisions in the Constitution — the original Constitution — that were not very democratic because the people who wrote the Constitution didn’t have a lot of faith in the ability of ordinary people to govern themselves. They want to leave a lot of the decisions up to the educated elite. Only the House of Representatives was directly elected by the voters, and even that was a very restricted electorate. The people who were eligible to vote in the late 18th century and early 19th century were largely white, male property owners.
Q: Has your view of democracy changed in recent years?
A: I’ve become increasingly concerned about the threat to democracy that we’re seeing. There are lots of issues and problems that have existed for a long time. For example, the way elections are carried out in the United States, particularly with access to the ballot, and the various obstacles to voting.
However, we have seen, generally, an expansion of the right to vote over the course of American history, albeit with many setbacks. Since the Civil Rights Act of 1965, we’ve seen the right to vote expand considerably.
That said, we’ve put a lot of obstacles in the way of people getting to the polls, particularly low-income people and minorities. Some states make it a lot easier to register and vote than others do. Some have provisions like advanced voter registration, requiring people to register at least 30 days before the election, and the fact that elections are held on a weekday that’s not a public holiday when most people still have to work is troubling.
A lot of things we do make it more difficult for people to vote now. In this last election, we saw some pretty drastic changes in response to a pandemic that actually made it a lot easier for people to vote: the expansion of early voting, but particularly the expansion of mail-in voting. This is a trend that’s been happening anyway but increased dramatically in 2020. Along with that, we saw record turnout. It was generally a very well-run, safe election. However, since the election — well, really before the election, there has been an attempt to push back against that and try to impose more restrictions on access to the ballot. It got harder for people to vote again.
Q: On Jan. 6 of this year, we saw the most visible threat to democracy this country has seen in recent memory. What was your initial reaction to seeing the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol?
A: I was horrified but frankly not totally surprised. The thing that was shocking in 2020 is that we had, for the first time since the Civil War, a situation where we really had some questions about whether the losing side would accept the results of the election. Well, that’s one of the central requirements for any democracy. It’s not just that the people get to vote.
The most basic requirement for any democracy is that you have acceptance of the results by those on the losing side and the turnover of power. And the losers show that acceptance by very visibly conceding the results once they’re known and by actually participating in the transition, particularly when you have a change in power when an incumbent is defeated.
We’ve had some bitterly contested elections and candidates didn’t like each other, but the losers always accept the results. That’s what we didn’t have happen here and it still has not happened. That is what led to the attack on the (U.S.) Capitol on Jan. 6. That was certainly encouraged by the outgoing president. He thought having the rally and having his march on the Capitol could change the results of the election. We’ve never seen anything like that.
Subsequently, we have this full push that we’re seeing in Georgia and other states to restrict access to the ballot, even though it’s not acknowledged as that. They’re also doing something even more dangerous.
Q: What is more dangerous?
A: These changes in Georgia in the oversight and the administration of elections. The removal of the Secretary of State and replacing that person as chair of the state elections board with a partisan appointee, appointed by the governor or the legislature, then, allowing them to intervene in the election if they don’t like what’s going on, I think that is very worrisome. We need to keep our elections as insulated as much as possible from partisan influence.
Q: Is American democracy under siege or just undergoing transformation?
A: It’s under siege because it’s undergoing transformation. The electorate is becoming more diverse. We’ve seen an upsurge in participation, particularly in both 2018 and 2020. Even in 2018 in the midterm elections, we saw a dramatic increase in turnout.
Q: Do you see that continuing?
A: The stakes are so high. What Trump has brought to American politics is heightened stakes. So we’re seeing this heightened turnout on both sides.
Q: You’ve written numerous articles and books on the Donald Trump presidency. What was the biggest takeaway for you studying Trump’s presidency?
A: He took advantage of and contributed to the growing partisan polarization in our country. Where he differs from other recent presidents is that he deliberately sought to exacerbate the divisions in the country. He went beyond anything we’ve seen previously. It was very dangerous. He certainly had authoritarian impulses. What saved us, I think, was a combination of things. He was a rather incompetent authoritarian … and I would say lazy. He could not bring himself to serve, or at least he couldn’t focus on the task at hand on governing. He had no interest in governing. He could barely bring himself to pay any attention to the pandemic.
Q: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from the last year as it relates to democracy?
A: What we’ve all learned is that our democracy is much more fragile than we thought it was. If you think of the 2020 election as a sort of stress test for American democracy, we almost failed it.
(Header Image: Alan Abramowitz, political science professor at Emory University)