10/15/2020 Peter Durantine

Despite Pandemic, Political Partisanship, Election is Normal

As an associate professor from Wisconsin, where her class recently discussed Pennsylvania’s election importance, Julia Azari introduced herself to the Oct. 14 Common Hour viewing audience as only a political scientist can, “From one swing state to another, I greet you.”

Azari, assistant chair in Marquette University’s Department of Political Science and frequent contributor to the politics website FiveThirtyEight, spoke about electing a president in a time of crisis. She outlined several factors affecting that election—the COVID-19 pandemic, economic collapse, and, particularly noteworthy, “political intensity.”

“This is characterized by the depth and intensity of partisan polarization,” she said.

  • Julia Azari Julia Azari

What make this a “deeply politically intense year,” Azari said, are questions voters have about the peaceful transfer of power, the foundations of how America conducts politics and administers elections, how Republicans and Democrats across the different branches of government relate to each other, and this week’s contentious Supreme Court hearings.

“We address this question of everything feeling like it’s not normal … this is the kind of common tag line of the Trump era used by the opponents of the president,” she said, and went on to cite “some of the things that have struck his critics as outside the bounds of normal politics.”

Included on that list were the president’s disparaging remarks about Puerto Rico and Baltimore, his threats to jail his political opponents, his refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, not fully staffing federal offices, and his refusal to disavow white supremacists.

“These are all things we don’t expect in our politics; they have struck people as not normal,” Azari said. However, she said that doesn’t appear accurate when examining past presidential elections. “Our politics is actually robust to disruption even in these unusual conditions.” 

Azari, who also contributes to the political science blog, The Mischiefs of Faction, recalled Trump’s claim of being a “disrupter” in national politics. Actually, she said, what he’s done the last four years is follow the standard political playbook.

“Much of what we’ve observed during the course of the Trump presidency, including the events of this last very unusual and difficult year, has roots in long-term political forces,” Azari said. “Knowing what’s normal and what’s extraordinary helps deepen our understanding of our politics.”

Azari showed how increasing partisanship shaped the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic – “we’re really not all in this together,” she said. Most people believe wearing masks protects themselves and others while many do not.

“It turns out that partisanship, not age economic situation or other factors, is a really important predictor in how people respond in terms of what they’re worried about and what their policy preferences are about what should be done about the virus,” Azari said. “This kind of violates our sense and assumption of conventional wisdom that crisis unites the country.”   

What can we expect on Election Day? Azari talked about the United States’ decentralized election system; state and local governments make their own rules about voter eligibility, balloting, how ballots are counted, and who can cast absentee ballots.

“The big thing here is we’ve always had these localized election administration regimes, just now it’s likely to be stressed out,” Azari said.

Each state has its own procedures and rules for voting, such as Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot that requires two envelopes. And while voting by mail and absentee voting have existed for decades, they are controversial in this pandemic year because so many people intend to vote in one of those two ways.

“This decentralized system, I think, has some advantages. If you are worried about fraud or if you’re worried about a kind of concerted effort to steal the election, this certainly makes that harder,” Azari said. “But it also lends itself to confusion and I think more importantly, to court challenges.”

Common Hour, held each week that classes are in session, provides an opportunity for the Franklin & Marshall community to assemble to discuss an important topic. Traditionally held on campus, the event is being broadcast virtually this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic 

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