More thoughts on the state of American democracy

In part two of this series, five Penn experts offer their insights on public health, election legitimacy, student loan debt, and more.

capitol rioters holding flags
Rioters outside the U.S. Capitol steps on Jan. 6, 2020, before the mob stormed the building. The weeks between the presidential election and the riot tested the strength of America’s democracy. (Image: Elvert Barnes/Flickr)

It’s been just over a month since a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, the culmination of unprecedented tactics to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The weeks between the election and the Jan. 6 riot tested the solidity of American democracy. Did it hold up? Will it continue to?

Penn Today asked experts from disciplines across the University to share their thoughts on the state of our democracy. What follows is the second in a series launched on the Inauguration Day of Joseph R. Biden Jr., seeking insights on where democracy in the United States stands.

Diana Mutz, Samuel A. Stouffer Professor of Political Science and Communication, School of Arts & Sciences and Annenberg School for Communication

Immediately after any election, partisans who supported the losing candidate are full of reasons why it wasn’t a legitimate outcome. I’ve been studying this since the ’90s, and even back then, people had strong beliefs post-election that their candidate lost unfairly. They weren’t the same kinds of accusations of impropriety we have now, but they still were accusations of impropriety: The opponent ran misleading advertisements, or bought the election using tainted corporate money, or voters were discouraged from voting by the long lines at the polls. With the 2020 election, what’s different is that even political elites have endorsed the idea that the outcome was illegitimate in some way, and that traditionally does not happen.

It will be interesting to see whether the public’s endorsement of illegitimacy changes over time. Right after an election, people are emotionally invested and there’s a fair amount of sour grapes going on on the losing side. But six months later, how do they feel? We typically expect that sense of illegitimacy to dwindle, but is this year going to be different? I don’t yet know.

protesters with count every vote signs
Researcher Diana Mutz has studied the perceived legitimacy of the electoral process since the 1990s. Typically emotions fade after a few months, but the 2020 election was unlike any other, leaving a country divided and spurring events like the Count Every Vote rally in Washington D.C. in November. Mutz plans to begin a post-election study soon to learn more. (Image: Elvert Barnes Photography)

In the past we’ve found that if the same party loses twice in a row, as when Obama was elected for sequential terms, the effect of losing on electoral legitimacy becomes stronger. The first time one party loses, there’s a dip in that party’s faith in the legitimacy of the electoral process. It’s significant, but not enormous. Partisans can attribute the outcome to not having had the best candidate or perhaps not running the ideal campaign. But the second consecutive time they lose, there’s a huge dip in the outcome’s perceived legitimacy. It’s almost as if partisans see a second loss as evidence of a conspiracy against them.

What’s odd about Trump’s victory in 2016 was that it did not follow the traditional pattern in one important way: Despite the fact that Trump won that election, because he lost the popular vote he continued to promote conspiracy theories about an illegitimate electoral process. That’s the first time we’ve seen the winner promoting the idea that the electoral process is illegitimate.

One more thing I will say: This election demonstrates that turnout is not a good indicator of whether democracy is working well. We had record-setting turnout, but much of that occurred because people were angry and dissatisfied with how government was working, not because democracy was working smoothly.

Jalil Mustaffa Bishop, Vice-Provost Postdoctoral Scholar, Higher Education Division, Penn Graduate School of Education

We often think of education as being an engine toward that ideal of an inclusive democracy. My research shows that one limitation to building that greater democracy is student loan debt.

College graduate wearing a cap and gown looking anxious.
One limitation to building an inclusive democracy is student loan debt, which researcher Jalil Mustaffa Bishop (not pictured) sees as a racial injustice issue. He is advocating for full student loan debt cancellation.

Student loan debt sits at the intersection of historic racism: a higher education system that is stratified along racial lines and a labor market that is underpaying and underemploying Black people. Yes, Black people have been able to finance access to higher education, but they’re often not able to leverage it, to get returns similar to their white counterparts. Instead, student loans function more as a type of debt trap that evolves into a kind of unpayable lifetime debt sentence.

Student loan debt is a racial injustice issue. When we look at its impact, we see that across income levels, across degree levels, Black people are experiencing the worst outcomes, not because they’re making bad choices or not understanding that the debt they’ve borrowed is a loan, but because they are trying to use those loans to dig themselves out of a racial wealth gap created across generations of racism.

Communities that have been traditionally marginalized are those that rely the most on student loan debt and have to use their student loans to access our most low-performing and under-resourced higher ed institutions. They also go into a labor market that’s paying less for their credentials than their white counterparts.

One key way for us to move forward toward a more inclusive democracy is to remove the idea of a debt-financed education, which means canceling all student loan debt. A full student loan debt cancellation—with assistance and relief for all borrowers—is a way to start to imagine how higher education can move us closer to our ideals, how higher ed can become a public good that is central to a democracy that is equitable, inclusive, and accountable to its racial past.

Akira Drake Rodriguez, assistant professor, Department of City and Regional PlanningStuart Weitzman School of Design

What happened on Jan. 6 was the culmination of things that we’ve been seeing both over the last four years and over the last several decades: majority backlash over minority progress.

It was all very surreal—this very visible, spatial reclamation of this symbol of democracy unfolding across multiple media, but also very “business as usual” in that we saw people hanging out in their hotels afterwards, along with the total avoidance by the public of what the real issues were even as it was happening.

What have we learned from that day? After George Floyd, we didn’t have the conversations we were going to have, and we haven’t had the conversations about Trump and what the impact is—a national moment of reckoning that hasn’t yet happened. There’s this idea that we can get back to normal and things will be just like they were before, but no one will acknowledge that the way things were before are just as bad as they are now.

people protesting the death of george floyd
While this summer saw a renewed focus on systemic racism in the U.S., spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd by police, a national reckoning toward addressing the impacts of “majority backlash over minority progress” has yet to take place, says researcher Akira Drake Rodriguez. (Image: Jules Antonio)

To move forward, we need a government that’s not afraid to invest in and affirm the public sector, and we also need people who are willing to be uncomfortable. Those are things that are difficult, because we are a “business as usual” country, but they are not impossible. Things have regressed over the past four years, and now, with Biden, we’re making progress, but it’s not yet progressive.

In the next year, I also want to see people get healthy: Providing universal basic income, free health care, and meeting people’s basic needs will alleviate some of the pressures that inhibit us from functioning like a democracy.

Kermit Roosevelt, professor of law, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

What’s been increasingly evident to me recently is the ways in which our Constitution allows a minority to take and hold power. We’ve all heard about how the Electoral College means that the loser of the popular vote can still win the presidency. What people don’t talk about as much is that this is also true of Congress.

Because each state gets two senators, Wyoming is equal to California. So, senators representing a minority of the population could easily control the Senate. In the House of Representatives, partisan gerrymanders can allow a party that receives a minority of votes cast in the state to win a majority of congressional districts. And when you get to the judiciary, a popular vote–losing president can nominate judges who are then confirmed by senators representing a minority of the population.

None of this would matter as much if the elements of our system that empower a minority didn’t line up with a politically cohesive group. But they do: The Electoral College and the Senate favor low-population states, which tend to have significant rural populations, which tend to be white, which tend to be Republican. Add in partisan gerrymanders, and we’re very close to a situation in which a political party captures all three branches of the federal government despite consistently receiving fewer votes. That’s alarming for democracy.

Jennifer Pinto-Martin, Viola MacInnes Professor, School of Nursing and Perelman School of Medicine and Executive Director, Center for Public Health Initiatives

Democracy can affect the health of citizens in several ways, including reducing social disparities and income inequalities. Political institutions affect health through enacting universal health care coverage, and health policy can shape high-quality health care.

But does democracy lead to better health?

While existing data support this link, research continues to explore the mechanism underlying the association. A recent observational study in The Lancet assessing data from 170 countries from 1970 to 2015 demonstrated reduced mortality among those with democratic compared to autocratic governments. This was especially true for mortality causes affected by health care delivery infrastructure.

Additional evidence supporting this link comes from something called the Liberal Democracy Index, a cross-country correlation of life expectancy and an aggregate measure of democracy based on qualitative and quantitative assessment. In this index, more democratic regimes receive higher scores. A recent analysis showed a 12-year difference in life expectancy—from 72 on the high end down to 60 on the other—between countries with higher and lower scores.

patient getting temperature taken
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how drastically a health care divide exists in the United States and around the world. Despite that, Jennifer Pinto-Martin explains the need for more research to better understand the connection between democracy and health.

The idea that democracy is tied to better health is perhaps not surprising. Citizens demand better health care and governments respond. The authors of The Lancet piece point out that in a democracy, a government that fails to support health care can get voted out in favor of one that does. Autocratic governments do not face such consequence. So, there appears a robust correlation between population health outcomes and the strength of democratic institutions. Several studies have found that it also holds after controlling for other factors such as national income or human capital.

We need additional research to more thoroughly explore the causal pathway here. Clearly higher expenditure on public services and better public service delivery are important components. However, when we compare the 76-year life expectancy in the United States, a democratic society, to the 84-year life expectancy in Scandinavian countries, which are best described as social democracies, we can see that the influence extends beyond political structure to income inequality and other factors. Understanding all of the competing and complementary forces will enable us to develop effective policies that most effectively support the health of the public.

Jalil Mustaffa Bishop is Vice-Provost Postdoctoral Scholar and lecturer in the Higher Education Division of the Penn Graduate School of Education. With Penn alum Charles Davis, he coauthored an NAACP report released in October 2020, Legislation, Policy and the Black Student Debt Crisis: A Status Report on College Access, Equity, and Funding a Higher Education for the Black Public Good. 

Diana Mutz is the Samuel A. Stouffer Professor of Political Science and Communication in the School of Arts & Sciences and Annenberg School for Communication. Her latest book, “Winners and Losers: The Psychology of Foreign Trade” is forthcoming in 2021 from Princeton University Press.

Jennifer Pinto-Martin is the Viola MacInnes/Independence Professor in the School of Nursing, a professor of epidemiology in the Perelman School of Medicine, executive director of the Center for Public Health Initiatives, and University Ombuds. She is also director of the Pennsylvania Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Research and Epidemiology.

Akira Drake Rodriguez is an assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design. Her upcoming book “Diverging Space for Deviants: The Politics of Atlantas Public Housing” (University of Georgia Press 2021) explores how the politics of public housing planning and race in Atlanta created a politics of resistance within its public housing developments. She was recently awarded a grant from the Spencer Foundation to study critical participatory planning strategies in school facilities planning in Philadelphia.

Kermit Roosevelt is a professor of law in the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. His books include “Conflict of Laws” (Foundation Press 2010) and “Myth of Judicial Activism: Making Sense of Supreme Court Decisions” (Yale 2006), as well as two novels.