We’ve become lousy at democracy. What everyone missed while Googling “What is the Reichstag fire?” for the last four years is that because the guy they voted for won by fractions of a percent, roughly half of us now think the voting system is just fine. The other half invoke fraud this time instead of the Russians to explain the “mistake” voters made. Half the country’s love-hate relationship with the Electoral College just flipped.
But we know if the percents were reversed then so will the people who think the system is fair and those that do not. We have surrendered to the end we prefer justifying the means. We have given up trying for fairness in lieu of looking the other way when it is going our way. One of the loudest anti-concession voices – Hillary advising Biden – flipped her position completely when the count put her side ahead. The people demanding unity now seemingly forgot they drove a four year disunity campaign of Russiagate and impeachment. It is concerning how one party is very worried about suppression and not so much about miscounts, and the other very worried about miscounts and not so much about suppression.
This is not to say fraud decided the 2020 election. It is to say the problem is it is all too possible for fraud to have taken place and that is what crushes faith in the system when we need it most.
We really need to trust elections because we no longer trust each other. We no longer have honest differences of opinion. We are only certain not only that our side is right, but that the other side is evil, immoral, wrong on an absolute level once held back save for Nazis, Pol Pot, and djiin. In fact, people who disagree with us are Nazis, or maybe feminazis. Information which disagrees with us is fake news and not entitled to the 1A, or if you speak Orwellian, misinformation and deplatforming. There’s profit, political and otherwise, in encouraging these feelings so don’t expect things to change soon.
A vote tally is not a fact but merely a component of a system of belief. A NYT columnist wrote “Like many Americans demoralized by the softness of the spanking that voters just gave President Trump, I spent the past few days in search of answers. Why were so many of my fellow citizens so content to continue spoiling him? And what happened to the comeuppance due Republican lawmakers for not giving him timeouts?”
Another pundit wrote “Many Dems bought the polls because they could not imagine that half the country was not as disgusted by Trump and his Republican ‘enablers’ as they were. After four years of branding Trump a bigot, they had trouble understanding how the president succeeded in actually expanding his Black and Latino support in 2020.”
So what do we call ourselves now — a democracy? a republic? an association? — when the fundamental system underlying what we are creates such feelings, leaves open so many doors to cheats, and requires a heavy application of partisan media lipstick-on-a-pig to convince us it is all OK as long as it ends our way? And which clause of the Constitution grants “calling power” to the Associated Press anyway?
During my 24 years at the Department of State, when I worked on visa issues which could have been subject to bribery and manipulation, the standard was “avoid the appearance of impropriety.” Even if that big discount you got buying a car was because you really are a helluva guy, it might not look that way. We not only had to be clean to avoid people losing faith in our work, we had to look clean.
If people questioned our honesty, they had already lost faith in us and our process. This was especially true when working in parts of the world where payoffs were almost always expected and we as Americans were supposed to be showing them a better way. Dismissing peoples’ questions as unsubstantiated does nothing to restore their faith, and for everything fueling questions to be dismissed as conspiracy theories brings us to the point where the other guy somehow winning becomes a “coup.” Dismissing concerns as “yes, but too little fraud to matter” does not restore faith, it just confirms fraud exists.
An election that takes five days to a muddled conclusion with tens of thousands of ballots left uncounted, where critical numbers of votes seemed to appear on demand, where software glitches and undelivered mail even in small quantities keep entering the story, where fusses and fights over procedures focused on Democratic machine run cities like Philly, that is the very definition of an appearance of impropriety.
Now overlay all that stink on a voting system involving one-party state legislatures gerrymandering voting districts, 50 different and increasing complex sets of voting laws, and a controlling census with its own set of problems done only once every ten years. Mix in a ridiculously complicated menu of rules to allow for a flood of partisan court challenges, with everyone accepting, counting, and verifying votes differently, all backed up by a broken postal system. It should not matter what kind of pen one uses to mark a ballot, but we had challenges over Sharpies. This is a dysfunctional system designed for manipulation.
It was an embassy tradition to have a big party election night, invite host country dignitaries, hold a mock vote, and then a toast to whomever the actual winner back home was, with both sides coming together. Some years it was more acrimonious, some more fun (I may never have been drunker in a suit than the night First Obama won) but it was an important way to demonstrate how America more or less worked. Sure, a lot of the smiles were false — we were diplomats after all — but tomorrow we’d be back at our desks, not at each other’s throats, because that’s how it was done.
We did it to show the foreigners, we said, but I suspect we also did it in part for ourselves, we who served regardless of who was president for a couple of years. Nobody talked of Resistance; what were we, WWII French saboteurs? I served from Reagan through Obama, a lot of political ground. It was not always easy to explain America, but it was usually possible. Now I have never been more glad to have retired from that job.
Ignore Trump’s hyperbole (though if you still can’t see past it by now it’s too late) but don’t ignore the underlying concern. Prove it wrong not by faux “fact checking” or simply declaring it invalid as was done with Hunter Biden’s laptop, censored by Big Tech platforms as insurance. As my colleague wrote, “the fundamental reason all these claims remain ‘unsubstantiated’ is that the very people who reject them on this basis are the ones who are supposed to be substantiating them — and they have absolutely, entirely abandoned this basic duty.”
What’s in it for Joe? Didn’t he already win? Yes, but he’s still going to need all the help he can get. Even as science sorts out the virus, Biden will have to wrestle with a weakened Democratic House and what will likely be a Republican Senate. So it will be Executive Orders, again, with the Supreme Court, again, the only real deliberative, adjudicative body left in America. So the Court alone is pressed to sort the things which divide us out, from abortion to immigration. It takes an accepted leader then to make everyone accept that.
If you’re still adamant the election is already over enough, try it this way:
Me: Doctor, I think I have cancer.
Doc: Got any proof?
Me: Um, no, but I don’t feel well.
Doc: Sorry, I can only run tests if you already have proof. Otherwise, your pain is simply a medical conspiracy theory.
Relax, it’s only an analogy, so it is supposed to be helpful illustrating a broader point without being 100 percent identical. The idea is the doctor doesn’t take your word you have cancer and start chemo, nor does he kick you out of the office. He checks, does tests. Maybe the tests find a lump. Maybe the tests turn up negative and you go home feeling better knowing it was nothing.
Not being allowed to ask questions, with the questioners hypocritically labeled sore losers just for asking, is how we got the last four years of chaotic illegitimacy. To help America (and for Biden to govern legitimately) we need to run tests. We need to rule out cancer. Call it a recount, call it an audit or an DOJ investigation, but send America home knowing that nagging pain in the neck is really nothing to worry about.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.
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