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Dartmouth professor: ‘Damage to our democratic norms is real’ after Trump’s election reaction

  • Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, leads a class focusing on gathering data on the media and political misinterpretation in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 26, 2011. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News file photographs

  • Donny Wadkins carries an American flag as he demonstrates outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center where votes are being counted, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Philadelphia. Wadkins said he voted for President Donald Trump and hopes he wins, but said his family's votes are being counted inside and wants all votes to count. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell) ap — Rebecca Blackwell

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/6/2020 11:23:11 PM
Modified: 11/6/2020 11:22:55 PM

HANOVER — As the steady, deliberate counting of votes moved former Vice President Joe Biden further ahead of President Donald Trump on Friday, the nation waited to see whether the long campaign was at an end.

At the same time, a group of democracy-watchers was assessing how vigorous and long-lived the president’s attempt to discredit the election results might be. Even if Biden is declared the victor, and such a victory withstands legal challenges, the after-effects of this momentous vote might be felt for years to come.

“The damage to our democratic norms is real,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College and a co-founder of Bright Line Watch, a scholarly project that tracks the health of American democracy. John Carey, the Wentworth Professor in the Social Sciences at Dartmouth, is another of the co-founders.

“The president has refused to commit to the peaceful transfer of power and has engaged in a systematic, monthslong effort to delegitimize an election that he’s very likely to lose,” Nyhan said.

It is “profoundly irresponsible and destructive for a president to engage in this kind of behavior,” he added.

At issue is the rule of law, but also the many unwritten rules that political leaders have lived by since the nation’s founding. The peaceful transfer of presidential power is at the heart of democratic ideals, Nyhan said. And should Trump lose, even if he does stand down, “it’s unlikely that his supporters will see this election as legitimate,” Nyhan said.

Depending on how many of his fellow Republicans stick with Trump, his attempt to discredit the election could have an effect on future elections, or on the ability of future presidents to govern.

Bright Line Watch got its start in 2017, when academics who study democracy and the erosion of democracy in other countries started to see elements of what they’d witnessed elsewhere emerge in the United States.

The “bright line” comes from an influential 1997 academic paper by Stanford University professor Barry R. Weingast, “The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law.”

Democratic norms, such as congressional oversight, restrict the power of elected officials, but those norms are mere words unless someone is willing to defend them if they are at risk of being violated, Nyhan said. The power of Congress or the courts to check executive power, or more to the point, the power of the electorate to turn out an incumbent, are prime examples.

“It must be in the interests of political officials to respect democracy’s limits on their behavior,” a key sentence in a summary of the paper reads.

Right now, those limits are under threat, in part because Congress has not served as an effective check on the president, his impeachment by the House notwithstanding, and because trust in institutions is low. The structure “doesn’t work in a time of high partisan polarization,” Nyhan said.

Bright Line Watch has published regular surveys that assess trust in American democracy, both from experts in the field and from the public.

The group’s most recent report, from last month, assessed the likelihood of “nightmare scenarios” before and after the vote.

“A number of the things they tagged as most likely have been happening,” Carey said on Friday. Trump’s pre-emptive declaration of victory on Tuesday night and his accusations of fraud, without evidence, are the two most notable examples. The time between Election Day and the conclusion of vote counting provides an opportunity to stir up doubt in the voting system.

“Trump is doing exactly as we had feared,” Carey said. “He is trying to use that time lag to sow distrust.” He added: “The potential for damage here is just vast.”

In addition, the close national vote hasn’t repudiated Trump or his tactics, even if he loses, which means future Republican candidates might hang on to parts of the Trump playbook.

But, Carey noted, the voting system, which is decentralized and at times considered byzantine and dysfunctional, has worked well, with local and state officials carrying out their duties under immense pressure.

“I have to admit that I go around and around about it,” Carey said. “When something’s radically decentralized, it’s hard to corrupt the entire thing.”

But at the same time, the popular vote, which as of Friday afternoon favored Biden by more than 4 million votes, is sliced and diced by the Electoral College, a system capable of delivering the presidency to a candidate who doesn’t win the most votes, as with Trump in 2016.

“We’re not at the end of this election,” Carey said, even if the Associated Press calls it for Biden.

Though there are nightmare scenarios that could play out, such as a contested vote in the Electoral College, Carey said he thinks they are of “low probability.”

“I think we’ll make it through,” he said.

So, too, does former New Hampshire state Sen. Bob Odell, a New London Republican.

“We’ve been at this for over 200 years and I think we have a pretty good record of holding elections,” said Odell, who was the national finance director for the Republican National Committee.

While the number of votes President Trump received indicates that he still has significant support, election results signal evolution, Odell said.

“I think we’re going to evolve, and we’ll have a good country for our children and our grandchildren,” he said. “We’re pretty resilient.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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