Great rivalries can sometimes produce extraordinary results. Michelangelo vs. da Vinci. Apple vs. Microsoft. The Red Sox vs. the Yankees. The Space Race put a man on the moon, and the race for the double helix unlocked the secrets of DNA. So a little healthy competition can be a force for good, and it often is.
But throughout history, rivalries taken to the extreme have just as often produced division and hatred and, at their worst, societal upheaval and destruction. In these instances, the two sides usually share one thing in common: Whether you’re the Hatfields and the McCoys or the houses of Lancaster and York, both believe unequivocally that their view of the world is not only right, it is the only view that is moral and just.
That’s when we get into trouble, which is where America finds itself today. The country is suffering from a great divide driven by the vitriol of our politics and the unwavering belief by the bases of both parties in the evil and inherent immorality of their opponents. Partisanship has become prescriptive.
It’s not the first time. From its very founding, this country has had its fair share of political division and the consequences that come with it. In a piece for The Wall Street Journal ten years ago, the historian Ron Chernow wrote about the nation’s first factions, the Hamiltonian Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans, which he said “generated intense loyalty among adherents.”
Chernow explained that both sides “trafficked in a conspiratorial view of politics. … Each side saw the other as perverting the true spirit of the American Revolution.”
Sounds all too familiar, given what we see on cable news and read on social media every day. In fact, it’s not so unlike our earliest elections that saw the Founding Fathers tangle in less than inspiring ways. Still, most of our history has shown that a spirited competition of ideas between political interests invigorates our democratic process and keeps it reflective of the people it serves.
A tale of two elections
But the country today is mired in the alarming aftermath of two extremely polarizing presidential elections where the losing side in each refused to accept the outcome. Not a good prescription for a strong democracy.
Ironically, neither Republicans nor Democrats understand that they have become little more than mirror opposites of each other, with one party still blaming Russian collusion for their loss and the other crying fraud as the only possible explanation for their defeat.
That continuing problem led us, in our most recent Feb. 9-12 “Winning the Issues” survey to compare voter confidence in the outcome of the 2020 and 2016 elections. We asked people first whether they believed Joe Biden had won the November election fairly or because of voter fraud. And then whether Donald Trump had won fairly in 2016 or because of Russian interference.
What we got was an almost perfectly partisan result — two sides of the same coin. By almost exactly the same percentage, Democrats and Republicans opted for a conspiratorial cause for their parties’ defeats.
Overall, 57 percent of voters believed that 2020 was a fair election, while 34 percent said Biden won through fraud. Democrats agreed it was fair by an 87 percent to 12 percent margin. So did a majority of independents, 55 percent to 28 percent. But 61 percent of Republicans blamed fraud for Biden’s win, while 28 percent said he won fairly.
When we asked about 2016, 51 percent of voters overall said Trump won fairly, while 33 percent blamed Russian interference. Very similar to the 2020 results. Republicans believed 2016 was a fair election, 82 percent to 10 percent. Independents were closer to Republicans, calling it fair by a 52 percent to 24 percent margin. But 62 percent of Democrats opted for the Russia explanation for Hillary Clinton’s loss, while 21 percent said Trump won fairly.
So it comes down to this. Sixty-two percent of Democrats don’t believe the results of the 2016 election, and 61 percent of Republicans don’t believe the outcome of the 2020 election. A statistical dead heat.
Looking at this data, it’s clear the country is at a dangerous tipping point because democracy only works when people on the losing side of an election believe the outcome.
Cynics will say, “It’s just politics.” It is, but it’s a new kind of toxic political environment that is undermining the free and fair elections that democracy depends on. Both parties have slipped into a “We wuz robbed” mentality, in large part, because they listen to and, more importantly, believe the hyperbolic rhetoric dished out by their political leaders and media pundits, without regard to the consequences of their words.
Proof not in the pudding
Give her credit. Clinton did formally concede the 2016 election. But she then spent the next four years constructing an elaborate conspiracy theory for her loss. She told us that the Russians, “guided by Americans … who had polling and data information,” ran “an extensive information war” against her campaign. She was supported in her efforts to discredit Trump’s election by the likes of Adam Schiff and other Democrats who called Trump everything from a Russian spy to a traitor to his country.
Yet despite all of their wild charges, none of it was ever served up with any kind of real proof. Sadly, Democratic partisans and much of the media believed it all.
Then 2020 rolls around. This time, the tables were turned, but the outcome played in much the same way. Trump spent the months after the election railing against Democrats who he claimed had stolen the election while never offering up any evidence to back up those claims.
But his supporters believed him, just as Democrats had believed their leaders’ crusade against Trump over the previous four years — in both cases, without proof.
Maybe both sides need to take a step back and start asking questions of their own. Take time to listen and really talk to voters.
Elected officials need to explore what’s happening to voter confidence and get a better understanding of what it would take for disillusioned citizens to regain trust. And perhaps, in a moment of self-reflection, ask themselves what role they’ve been playing as leaders in eroding the confidence in our electoral system.
In a democracy, elections stand as valid until someone can legitimately prove otherwise. We have a Constitution that sets the framework for our elections and laws to protect the integrity of the vote.
The actions of Mike Pence on Jan. 6 were a reminder that when political leaders are principled and put the country first, the system will work. But it looks like a lot of people still need convincing.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.