Threats to Democratic Stability: Comparing the Elections of 2016 and 1860

19 Pages Posted: 30 May 2017 Last revised: 2 Feb 2018

See all articles by Stuart Chinn

Stuart Chinn

University of Oregon School of Law

Date Written: February 26, 2017


Assessing how great a threat President Trump poses to American democracy is a thorny task. Here my analysis on this question will be through a comparative-historical lens: namely, by comparing the election of 2016 to the election of Lincoln in 1860. The reference to the 1860 election for this inquiry is obvious enough: the victory by Lincoln did ultimately spark a fundamental challenge to the stability of American democracy in the form of Southern secession and the Civil War. The basic aspiration of this comparative approach then is to investigate whether some facets of the 1860 election may or may not find ready analogues in the present context, and to accordingly draw implications from this comparison.

Below, I proceed by briefly discussing the contemplated policy shifts in both electoral contests. I then discuss how the 2016 election may be seen to encompass the lesser threat to democratic stability when we focus on demographics and the possibility of policy reversals. However, I then note in the following section how there may be some tentative convergence between the 1860 and 2016 elections on a different dimension: the weakening or disappearance of structures of commonality in American society in both contexts. Finally, again prompted by the comparison with the 1860 election, I conclude by discussing how threats to American democracy might be minimized in the present-time by a redrawing or reshuffling of the major fault lines of societal difference.

Keywords: Trump, Election of 2016, Election of 1860, Democracy, Threats

Suggested Citation

Chinn, Stuart, Threats to Democratic Stability: Comparing the Elections of 2016 and 1860 (February 26, 2017). 77 Maryland Law Review 291 (2017), Available at SSRN:

Stuart Chinn (Contact Author)

University of Oregon School of Law ( email )

1515 Agate Street
Eugene, OR Oregon 97403
United States

Do you want regular updates from SSRN on Twitter?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics