Emory experts react to 2020 election results

Emory Report | Nov. 6, 2020

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Election 2020

Emory’s faculty experts weigh in on topics ranging from political polarization and economic impacts to finding a path forward and how Georgia could be a model for the nation.

‘Difficult days lie ahead’ 

If it feels like the country has never been more at odds with itself, it’s important to crack open our history books to see that we have been here before, says Alan Abramowitz, Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory. 

Some examples he cites: the ideological battles after the Revolutionary War that drove Thomas Jefferson to create what is now the Democratic Party, the bitter run up to the Civil War and the wrenching protests of the Vietnam War era. 

“This is not the first time in our country we’ve been bitterly divided. It’s not as bad now as it has been at times in the past,” says Abramowitz.

Joseph Crespino, Emory’s Jimmy Carter Professor of History, believes the most apt parallel is to the growing pains of late 18th and early 19th centuries. Election turnout and partisan divisions were both high as the nation shifted from an agrarian economy to one centered on manufacturing.

“The industrial revolution set loose all sorts of forces that transformed our society, our culture and our economy,” Crespino says.

Those changes are being echoed now by the digital revolution, he explains.

“We are only now beginning to see the implications in the way the internet and social media operate,” he says. “All of these things have transformed our lives and our politics.”

And that transformation will not be easy.

“Difficult days lie ahead of us,” Crespino says.

‘Find a path forward with respect’

Nadine Kaslow, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the Emory School of Medicine, suggests “thinking about the long game and conserving your emotional resources.”

Kaslow urges people to manage media and social media consumption as one way to regulate anxiety.

“Try to engage in other activities. Do things that normally help you calm down — exercising, reading, being in nature. Whatever helps you get grounded or calm down,” she advises.

But Kaslow also says moving forward will require work to bridge what sometimes seems like an insurmountable divide.

“Find a path forward with respect,” she says. “Even if the bubble you’re in feels like you are not alone, no one can deny that half the country doesn’t feel like you. People are trying to figure out what this means.”

It’s important to determine if a relationship is valuable and important, Kaslow says. If it is, find a way to keep and nurture it.

“You may never agree, but try to understand and listen, really listen. Sometimes it works to put the topic aside and focus on the things where you have common ground with that person,” she says.

It’s also important to acknowledge that some relationship hurdles may be too high and you may need to part ways.

“But too many relationships have been disrupted over this and most can find a way forward,” she says. 

History in the making?

Update: On Nov. 7, major media outlets projected Joe Biden as the winner in Pennsylvania, which would give him enough electoral college votes to win the presidency.

Kamala Harris will become the first woman — as well as the first person of color — to hold the position of vice president, notes Andra Gillespie, associate professor in the Department of Political Science.

“The ascendance of a woman as vice president puts another huge crack in the gender glass ceiling of American politics,” she says.

Given Biden’s age, Harris becomes the frontrunner to succeed him on a future Democratic presidential ticket , she says.

“The idea that a woman of color could possibly be the first female president is wonderfully intersectional and challenges us to rethink our archetypes of who can be ‘female firsts’ in healthy ways,” Gillespie says.

Impact on the economy

The strong likelihood of divided government will almost certainly translate into more gridlock in Washington on a range of economic policies and regulations, says Caroline Fohlin, professor of economics at Emory.

More specifically, she says, that will mean no reversal of corporate tax cuts or increases in capital gains taxes and a likely end to, or amelioration, of the trade war with China.

Financial markets may also like the idea of divided government because a breakup of the large tech firms is now highly unlikely, says Hashem Dezhbakhsh, professor and chair of the Department of Economics at Emory.

But one of the biggest short-term factors if Biden wins will be the expectation that he will improve the federal response to the COVID pandemic and get the economy more fully open as a result, Fohlin says.

Georgia as a model for the nation

Long considered reliably red, Georgia emerged as a surprise swing state in 2020, with one of the closest vote tallies in the country. 

But although the overall numbers show the state’s voters almost evenly divided between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, there is a stark difference when votes are analyzed based on race, notes Bernard Fraga, associate professor of political science.

The state’s white voters overwhelmingly voted Republican, while exit polls show almost 9 out of 10 of Georgia’s African American voters supported the Democratic ticket. 

This racial partisan divide means that, in many areas outside of metro Atlanta, political polarization can be “literally visible” in interpersonal interactions, Fraga says — but this also represents a “tremendous opportunity.”

“If we in Georgia can learn how to work with each other despite those divisions,” he says, “then maybe there is hope for the rest of the country as well.”