July 6, 2021
Democracy in the United States is in a deep crisis. It is beset by political violence that culminated in an attack on the Capitol on January 6, and threatened by a major party determined to change and break rules wherever it holds power in order to cast doubt on the last election and to manipulate the next. Despite all this, the number of people engaged in every form of political participation — voting, making political contributions, or participating in organizing and protest — reached unprecedented levels in 2018 and 2020.
It’s possible that this level of participation, once achieved, will become a lasting feature of the American political process. That alone won’t lead to a healthy democracy, as we saw in the aftermath of the tumultuous 2020 election, but it could alter our assumptions about how to preserve American democracy.
Political scientists and international human rights organizations have developed several ways of measuring democratic health, and the two features common to all are elections and broad participation. By that limited standard, we’re doing alright: 67 percent of the eligible population turned out. This was the highest voter turnout since the 1900s, even including elections before women’s suffrage and the Voting Rights Act, when the eligible voter population was much more limited. While much analysis has parsed the relative turnout changes of different groups, it’s enough to say that every group, by party, race, education or age, voted at higher levels than in the past.
Giving money to campaigns is also a legitimate form of participation, and small donors — those giving less than $200 — made up 27 percent of the total donors for federal offices, up from 19 percent in 2012. The Democratic fundraising portal ActBlue reported at the end of the year that more than 15 million unique contributors had used their site to donate to campaigns, a five-fold increase in four years, and small donors also boosted Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and those of some other Republicans.
Organizing of all kinds exploded, too. The last four years have seen an explosion in community organizing and protest, including the Women’s March in 2017, new organizations such as Indivisible, cross-country phone banking, and the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, which drew between 15 and 25 million people in 2020.
But participation — and democracy itself — is now a fiercely contested, partisan value in American politics. In every state under full Republican control, the party has unabashedly targeted every form of engagement that increased in 2018 and 2020. Restrictions on early voting and absentee ballots, along with voter ID laws, have received the most attention for their expected racial and partisan impact, but legislatures have also sought to limit protests and even donations. Florida governor Ron DeSantis recently signed a law limiting contributions for ballot initiative campaigns to $3,000, in direct contradiction to the longstanding Republican position that such contributions represent free expression. It’s possible that the recent surge in participation will fade. We’ve seen episodic jumps in enthusiasm and engagement before, such as the 2008 election of Barack Obama, driven by the same combination of unprecedented voter turnout, 3 million small donors, and organizing. But as the recession of that era dragged on and Obama lost his luster, so too did public engagement wane. Voter turnout returned to postwar norms on both sides in 2012.
Participation — and democracy itself — is now a fiercely contested, partisan value in American politics.
But it’s also very possible that a fired-up electorate will remain engaged. Twelve years ago, much of the enthusiasm was about Obama himself. But last time around, much of the organizing that led up to the Biden election had taken place independently of the candidate. Expectations of transformational change are lower, leaving less room for disappointment. Organizations such as Indivisible, and many more local or issue-specific groups, now have four years to build networks of relationships that don’t center on a charismatic candidate. Meanwhile, on the right, the surge of organizing and engagement remains very much centered on former president Trump — a risky choice.
Young voters, whose turnout increased more than most other groups, are likely to keep voting, as might Trump voters. Pollster Stan Greenberg concluded recently that interest from both parties is “higher than a comparable point in 2018, suggesting the era of high turnout elections is not over.” Turnout in several 2021 elections has remained at levels comparable to or higher than 2018. Many states expanded voting opportunities including vote-by-mail and no-excuse absentee ballots. While some states are curbing those practices, in many others they are likely to become part of the permanent voting landscape, along with automatic voter registration, which in just five years has become law in 20 states.
The attacks on representation might also help generate a backlash that will push toward deeper engagement. Aware of the threats, donors are now more likely to support voter registration and turnout organizations year-round, rather than letting them wither until airdropping funds in September of the next election year. This might help voter-mobilization efforts in states such as Texas and North Carolina match the success of the New Georgia Project.
And small donors, most of them middle class, many of whom invested in campaigns far from their own homes, are also more likely to remain engaged. Thanks to the economic stimulus and reduced spending during the pandemic, they may also have more disposable income than voters did during the dog days of 2009 and 2010, when many of Obama’s small donors lost interest.
A future of high participation and engagement isn’t automatically better than the years in which voter turnout barely crossed 50 percent. Marginal voters may be more vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation. Small donors are more likely to be motivated by ideology than transactional, access-seeking corporate donors, which some political scientists argue will deepen polarization.
But it will change the practice of politics. Strong grassroots organizations, particularly political parties but independent groups as well, can help channel participation and organize people’s demands. In studying “co-governance,” practices in which local government actively seeks engagement from local residents, we’ve found that community organizing is essential — people don’t participate in purely individualistic ways.
A permanently higher level of participation can also help make other democracy reforms more effective, particularly around issues of money in politics. Political money most easily corrupts legislators when it’s scarce. An office-holder resists saying no to a donor if they worry that there’s no other source for those campaign resources. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig calls this “dependence corruption.” But in a world in which many ordinary citizens are small donors, and funds are abundant rather than scarce, politicians are less likely to be “dependent” on one or a few. Campaign reforms that boost the value of small donors, such as the provisions in the For the People Act currently under consideration in the Senate, can accelerate the expansion of the donor pool, weakening the hold of big donors on the process.
And a new normal future in which we expect more people to vote changes the nature of campaigns. Instead of just firing up the base or targeting a small number of swing voters, campaigns will see it as possible to reach new and underrepresented groups, further expanding participation and changing the electorate.
Other reforms, such as ranked-choice voting, proportional representation, and fusion (allowing third parties to cross-endorse candidates from other parties sometimes, as the Working Families Party does in New York) can further accelerate participation by ensuring that each vote is meaningful, even in a state or district dominated by one party.
Right now, democracy is under profound threat and participation alone won’t save it. But if we can get past this crisis, a new normal of persistently higher participation, as voters, organizers, and donors, might form the foundation for a new era that is healthier for the long term than the duller, low-participation era that came to an end in 2016.
You May Also Like
This Pandemic Will Transform Our Democracy—Perhaps for the Better (Political Reform): In this piece we discuss three ways America could emerge from COVID-19 with a stronger democracy.
Electoral Systems Affect Legitimacy Gaps and Affective Polarization (Political Reform): Our brief investigates different electoral systems and the effects they have on political attitudes that underpin democratic stability.
America Needs a Federal Elections Agency (Political Reform): This report addresses the inability of current federal election regulators to guarantee free and fair elections, and the need for a empowered and properly funded elections agency.
Subscribe to The Thread monthly newsletter to get the latest in policy, equity, and culture in your inbox, and curated updates from New America you don't want to miss.