The voice of the people may be the voice of God — but if so, the Almighty works in mysterious ways.
In recent years, the rise of anti-intellectual, plutocratic “populism” throughout the Western world has tested progressives’ faith in actually existing democracy. When a pack of wellborn drunkards complicit in ruinous austerity wins the hearts and minds of working-class Britons — by mendaciously championing a policy that will make them poorer — it can be hard to summon warm feelings for popular sovereignty. And when the GOP can prioritize tax cuts for the rich at a time of record-high corporate profits, opioid overdoses, and income inequality — and maintain its support among nonaffluent voters — a liberal might be forgiven for wondering if rational self-government isn’t another “God that failed.”
The first weeks of the coronavirus crisis called into question even the humblest arguments for democracy’s capacity to deliver responsive governance. In Democracy for Realists, the political scientists Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen argue that voters largely cast their ballots on the basis of their acquired social identities, not informed policy preferences (of which most have few). The authors maintain, however, that democracy functions as a constraint on misrule, as voters tend to punish incumbents for major losses suffered on their watch.
Yet when a virus that Donald Trump had brazenly dismissed started filling America’s ICUs and shuttering its downtowns in late March, the president’s approval rating went up. Since then, more than 150,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and the U.S. economy has entered its worst crisis since the Great Depression — all while the president has advised the public to inject disinfectant, gassed protesters to enable a photo op with a Bible, convened potential super-spreader events in coronavirus hot spots, and argued that the number of U.S. coronavirus deaths is an irrelevant statistic.
All this has put a dent in Trump’s approval rating and poll numbers against Joe Biden, but the dent is not as deep as one might hope. As of this writing, the president’s approval rating in 538’s polling average is 41.2 percent; on January 2, it was 42.4. Meanwhile, Biden leads Trump by 7.4 percent in the RealClearPolitics poll of polls; in mid-March, Biden led Trump by 6.4 percent.
Still, recent weeks have yielded signs of civic vitality in the U.S. Social movements defending the interests of the disempowered against state violence have won popular majorities to their cause. Although Trump’s political decline is more modest than one might hope, given the widespread tendency of the mass public to rally behind incumbent leaders when faced with an acute crisis — and the exceptional power of right-wing media in the U.S. — the fact that the president’s mishandling of the pandemic has turned his reelection into a long shot is cause for encouragement. And now, a new study from political scientists Lynn Vavreck, Christopher Warshaw, and Ryan Baxter-King offers further reassurance that responsive government is still possible in the United States.
The researchers set out to determine whether the rise in COVID-19 deaths is directly costing Trump and the Republican Party voter support. To explore this question, they looked at whether areas with a high level of accumulated COVID-19 deaths by the end of May were less likely to support the president and his party, after controlling for all other relevant variables (such as the partisan and demographic composition of areas impacted by the virus and changes in national public opinion during the period in which deaths rose in those areas). Here’s what they found:
The gap between stated voting support for Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. grows by about 2.5 percentage points in Mr. Biden’s favor when a county has extremely high levels of coronavirus-related deaths relative to when it has low levels … A doubling of cases per capita in a county over the last 60 days drops Mr. Trump’s two-party vote margin against Mr. Biden by a third of a percentage point — a seemingly small gap, but not when you consider that several recent elections have been won by narrow margins. In 2016, the critical state of Michigan was won by less than a third of a point; Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were won by less than a point. And some places are seeing a tripling or quadrupling of cases.
An unsentimental appraisal of contemporary democracy’s dysfunction doesn’t dictate elitist conclusions. Ordinary people do not reliably hold their leaders accountable to their interests and avowed preferences in our present social context, which is to say: in a society where civic and communitarian institutions are in decay, economic power is concentrated in the hands of the few, and most people rely on television news for their political information. One could read this fact as an indictment of ordinary people’s capacity for self-government. But it could also be interpreted as an indictment of an economic system and social order that frustrates that capacity. The grotesque class and regional inequalities that define American social life were not born of tyrannical majorities but of reactionary and/or technocratic elites who enacted regressive tax, trade, and monetary policies, often in defiance of popular preferences. (And, of course, the most democratic features of America’s constitutional order were not what put Donald Trump in the White House; its most counter-majoritarian did.)
The study from Vavreck, Warshaw, and Baxter-King suggests that when voters are exposed to the worst consequences of Trump’s misgovernance — not through cable news or social media but through the lived experiences of friends and neighbors — they become more likely to hold their leaders to account. To improve and fortify our democracy, we must strive to provide Americans with the tools, information, and social institutions necessary to make the less spectacular failures of governance politically salient.