This November, Americans are casting their ballot amid turmoil and uncertainty: a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic; a summer of civil unrest and a racial reckoning; disinformation and conspiracy theories muddying the media landscape; an economy rebounding in spurts; record-shattering weather and climate disasters. 

Stanford research intersects with many of these issues that are troubling the nation and the world at large. From across the social and political sciences, humanities, science and medicine, scholars are applying their expertise to better understand how people, policy and democratic processes can come together to address them. 

As Stanford political scientist Condoleezza Rice recently pointed out, while democracy “is hard,” it inspires change in a way that aligns itself to human dignity.

“I think if each and every one of us recognizes that democracy is not a spectator sport and that you have to commit yourself to being willing to play your own role, then the aggregated roles will come to mean something,” added Rice, director of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, who spoke at a session of Democracy Matters: Challenges Facing Democracy in the U.S., an ongoing webinar series that highlights challenges to democracy in the U.S. and around the world.

Here, Stanford scholars share what democracy and political change look like in the U.S. today, how to understand the attitudes of the American electorate, and the challenges posed to democratic processes, from the impact of the pandemic to political messaging.

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Adapting policies that respond to today’s challenges

Through their research and studies, Stanford scholars have closely examined public policies and regulations related to issues that are being debated on the campaign trail – from how to deal with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic to the devastating consequences of wildfires, for example. As their research shows, these are complex problems that require coordinated responses.

For example, when it comes to implementing policy to mitigate the heightened risk of wildfires in the American West, Stanford Law Professor Deborah Sivas says that implementing change requires balancing incentives. 

“Unfortunately, we really don’t have the right combination of public and private incentives and regulations – carrots and sticks, if you will – in place. We are geared up to fight wildfires like we fight wars, with heavy machinery and manpower,” said Sivas, director of Stanford’s Environmental Law Clinic and the Environmental and Natural Resources Law and Policy Program. 

Similarly, dealing with the economic consequences from the COVID-19 pandemic will also demand a coordinated approach. “Minimizing the damage requires a similar combination of policies: better coordinating disease containment to minimize lost production, identifying critical links in production chains and ensuring that they don’t break and cause cascading failures of companies, and stepping in to fill the gap in lending caused by the growing credit freeze,” said Stanford economist Matthew Jackson.

Amid these extraordinary times of unprecedented global change, here is how Stanford scholarship might inform some of the problems facing the country and the challenges surrounding governance and policymaking today.

No matter who wins the 2020 election, governing will be difficult

Whoever wins the U.S. 2020 election will need to find ways to govern over a persisting political divide and get back to the art of politics, say Stanford scholars Bruce Cain and Hakeem Jefferson.

Cultivating civic engagement in a COVID-19 world

When the pandemic hit, StanfordVotes had to rapidly change its campaign to get out the student vote. Building a digitally-connected community has been a huge part of that shift.

Applying human-centered design to voting places

Stanford’s has partnered with the Healthy Elections Project, a joint collaboration with scholars at Stanford and MIT, to help election officials address some of the unprecedented challenges the pandemic poses to November’s general election.

Examining effects, challenges of mail-in voting

Mail-in voting has come under partisan scrutiny, but according to Stanford research, it does not appear to benefit one political party over the other. However, challenges to mail-in and absentee voting remain as states and voters make a shift this November.

U.S. democracy facing historic crisis

A Stanford political scientist’s new book makes the case for major governmental reforms to save U.S. democracy.

Prior contested elections in U.S. offer cautionary tale

A willingness to concede and compromise has helped resolve past election disputes, but that option may not be available this year, Stanford historian Jonathan Gienapp says.

Potential for congressional action on climate change

The political landscape has changed, potentially opening a window for meaningful policies to combat global warming. Stanford experts discuss opportunities and prospects for change.

Democracy and prosperity require uncorrupted governments

We don’t have to choose between capitalism and socialism. What we need is a system in which corporations can thrive without distorting the economy – or democracy itself.

Coordinated response needed to fight coronavirus pandemic

Without coordination within and across countries, the novel coronavirus will endlessly reemerge, with devastating consequences for public health and the global economy, says Stanford scholar Matthew Jackson.

How pandemics catalyze social and economic change

Throughout recorded history, pandemics have been effective levelers of social and economic inequality – but that might not be the outcome this time around, says Stanford historian Walter Scheidel.

Living with fires: Mitigating risks with law and environmental policy

Stanford Law Professor Deborah Sivas discusses the effects of climate on fires in California and policy changes that might lessen their danger on residents.

Why politicians have incentives to let outdated policies linger

Real-world disruptions inevitably lead to “policy decay,” but corrections are hard to come by.

Is this the moment for universal basic income?

Stanford historian Jennifer Burns discusses how universal basic income could become a major discussion point in Washington, D.C., as policymakers respond to the economic blow of the coronavirus pandemic.

Stanford students carry on the legacy of suffragists, 100 years later

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in the United States, Stanford highlights some of the women students who are continuing the hard work of the suffragists who came before them.

Stanford faculty address complex challenges to U.S. democracy

In the run-up to the November election, Stanford faculty from across campus will come together for Democracy Matters, a forum to discuss current issues affecting U.S. democracy.

Image credit: Andrew Brodhead

Understanding the American electorate and their attitudes

As millions of Americans prepare to cast their ballots in November’s election, some Stanford researchers have examined what inspires voters and why they might vote a certain way. 

According to research by Stanford political scientist Jonathan Rodden, for example, to understand how Americans vote, one needs to look at where they live. His research shows that ever since President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, the Democratic Party has evolved to become an almost exclusively urban party. The geographic distribution of Democrats and Republicans has turned political campaigns into high-stakes battles in which the parties pit urban against rural interests, Rodden said.

Meanwhile, Sarah A. Soule at Stanford Graduate School of Business found that political protests have the power to influence the final outcome of an election. Her research revealed that on both sides of the political spectrum, protest mobilizes political engagement by raising awareness of an issue to voters and educating them about a particular problem. She and her colleague, Daniel Q. Gillion at the University of Pennsylvania, also found that protest can be a cue to incumbent challengers about when to enter a race.  

“Our work suggests that citizens filter the information provided by protest through their own ideological prisms and that they use this information to inform their voting in much the same way that individuals’ level of political engagement is shaped by their social context,” Soule and Gillion wrote

Here is what Rodden’s and Soule’s scholarship, as well as several others, reveal about what brings voters together and what sets them apart.

Party sorting to blame for political stalemate

Political gridlock in contemporary U.S. politics can be explained by the increased sorting of the Democratic and Republican parties, says Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina.

9 things to know about election polling data

Stanford political scientist David Brady discusses the lessons pollsters learned in the 2016 election and what to know about tracking election forecasts in 2020.

How the urban-rural divide shapes elections

The geographic divide, which pits Democratic voters living mostly in cities against Republicans in exurban and rural areas, has an impact on representation and policymaking, Stanford scholar Jonathan Rodden says.

Poll shows consensus for climate policy remains strong

A new study shows that Americans overwhelmingly want a reduction in global warming and support renewable energy development. But according to the data, Americans don’t realize how many people share their beliefs.

Political parties more polarized than voters

The nation is no more politically divided than it was in the 1970s, despite how things might appear in the news. Instead, the political parties have sorted into narrow groups.

How the Great Recession influenced today’s populist movements

Stanford political scientists explain why populist messages emerged in contemporary politics and how they spurred larger political movements.

Americans’ views on taxes are surprisingly complicated

A majority favors wealth tax, but not if it would hurt the economy or increase unemployment.

Why protesters could swing the midterm elections

A new study shows that both liberal and conservative protests have had a real impact on U.S. House elections.

How Trump won the unhappiness vote

New research shows our mental well-being drives our decisions at the ballot box.

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Examining the impacts of technology, media and messaging

Concerns about the impact of fake news, disinformation and misinformation across social media platforms and in news outlets are more relevant now than ever before. Even after the findings emerged from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, questions linger about vulnerabilities in the democratic process and the influence of modern technology. 

“We know more than ever before about what happened in the 2016 election. Now we need to pivot to what needs to be done to prevent it in the future – from concrete legislative acts as well as steps that online platforms can take even without legislation,” said political scientist Michael McFaul. Joined by other scholars across Stanford, McFaul has been looking at various ways to protect the integrity of American elections. 

Meanwhile, others have examined the impacts technology, media and political messaging have on the democratic process. 

“Democracy cannot function without communication,” communication scholar Jon Krosnick said. “In order for voters to make informed choices among candidates, the voters must learn about the candidates’ policy positions, track records, personalities, past experience and much more.”

Here is what some of their scholarship reveals about the current media landscape and some of the challenges technology may pose to democratic processes.

Sleuthing for misinformation about voting

Ahead of the 2020 election, Stanford students investigate the spread of mis- and disinformation online as part of their work with the Election Integrity Partnership.

Strategies to secure American elections

Stanford scholars outline a detailed strategy for how to protect the integrity of American elections – including recommendations such as requiring a paper trail of every vote cast and publishing information about a campaign’s connections with foreign nationals.

Is search media biased?

In an audit of search media results for every candidate running for federal office in the 2018 U.S. election, Stanford scholars found no evidence of political bias for or against either party.

Journalism and democracy

In a complex news environment, Stanford professors urge voters to be careful consumers of political information and to think hard about where information comes from and how it reaches them.

High school students are unequipped to spot ‘fake news’

With the 2020 presidential election approaching, new research by Stanford education scholars finds that prospective young voters are poorly equipped to evaluate the sources of online content.

In political messages, values matter more than policy

When progressive candidates talk about how their policies are aligned with values commonly associated with conservative ideals – as opposed to liberal ones – they receive greater support from conservatives and moderates.

Stanford study examines fake news and the 2016 presidential election

Fabricated stories favoring Donald Trump were shared 30 million times, but the most widely circulated hoaxes were seen by only a small fraction of Americans.

Media consolidation means less local news, more right wing slant

A new study finds conglomerates are reshaping local TV news from the top down.

Historical parallels between the press and the president

Stanford communication scholar James Hamilton looks at how presidents – past and present – have navigated relationships with the White House press corps.

Why Republican politicians pay more than Democrats for TV ads

New research shows political advertising’s hidden costs.

Media Contacts

Melissa De Witte, Stanford News Service: (650) 723-6438,