Whoever Wins the Presidential Election in 2020, It Had Better Be a Blowout.
If I were to be generous, American democracy is almost 100 years old (the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification will pass less than three months before Election Day, 2020). I have no intention of being generous though. This understanding of American democracy would have to include the colonization of the Philippines, and exclude the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960's.
That America is a democracy today is something to be proven, rather than asserted. Most think-piece detectives examining the “Death of Democracy” are looking for the murderer, while I am still looking for a body.
Some discussions of democracy mistakenly focus on an ideal and elusive political system that is labelled “democracy”. Since our political system is less than ideal, it cannot then be a democracy. I do not want to repeat that mistake.
Democracy describes a relationship between a state and its citizens (borrowing from Charles Tilly’s framework) in which there is “broad, equal, protected and mutually binding consultation”. This framework is useful in examining to what degree a state is democratic, rather than whether or not it is democratic (which can be arbitrary and sloppy). Voting is also not so much proof of democracy, as it is one of many imperfect tools available in preserving it.
The degree of democratization of a state should be judged by what degree citizens are consulted broadly and equally (no categories of adults should be excluded or privileged in consultation), and the degree to which this consultation is protected and mutually binding. With this understanding, The United States is at least one of the more democratic countries today, and one of the most ever if you include all the authoritarian states that have come and gone in recorded history.
To make this observation, is to notice how unusual democracy is in human history. Few since the beginning of states have had it, a minority have it today, and those that do have an incomplete version of it. To live under a state that might plausibly call itself a democracy is a very strange experience. In historical terms, the idea that landowning white men would be allowed to have a say in who their rulers were, and that the government had responsibilities and duties to them, and not just the other way around, is extraordinary.
In other words, democracy is nice, but it is not normal. It is a historically rare, extremely modern, and politically fragile relationship between a state and its citizens. After at least 200,000 years of human history, and roughly 10,000 years of (somewhat) recorded history, homo sapiens have very little to show for it in way of democratic governance.
The historical abnormality, and fragility, of democratic institutions should be kept firmly in mind as we watch Republican politicians and opinion makers spread unfounded rumors about voter fraud in Florida (and occasionally elsewhere).
To not accept the legitimacy of an election in which you were victorious, may seem like an odd strategy, but it is certainly not new. President Trump threatened (plausibly) to only accept the results of the 2016 election if he won. Having won, he proceeded to ramble about millions of votes cast fraudulently against him. He has yet to prove that (or even make a serious attempt), and his own silly Commission on Election Integrity failed to even make baby-steps towards vindicating him (their early meetings were broadcast on C-SPAN, and were pathetic).
The conservative hive mind has accepted this strategy as a legitimate way to drive outrage, either to promote turn-out in future elections, further engineer the electorate by way of legislation, or to increase ratings.
The perception of widespread fraud has been spread directly, and by innuendo. Florida Governor, and soon to be Senator, Rick Scott, was asked twice by Fox News’ Chris Wallace, and twice again by Martha MacCallum the next day, whether he had any evidence of voter fraud in Florida. He could not bring himself to say “yes”, or anything close to it. Instead, Scott cites an instance in which lawyers representing Democratic Senator Bill Nelson and Mayor Andrew Gillum objected to a single vote cast by a non-citizen being discarded, and insists this is because Democrats believe non-citizens should be allowed to vote.
The vote in question was discarded despite the objection, the presiding judge noted that it was the first vote cast by a non-citizen she had seen, and no elected Democrat has announced that non-citizens should be allowed to vote.
Influential personalities in the conservative commentariat, such as Sean Hannity and Charlie Kirk, as is their habit, do not appear to know, or care, what they are talking about. Hannity does not seem to know what mail-in ballots are, and instead tells us that 93,000 ballots could have only appeared by magic: “You don’t just magically find 93,000 votes laying around…”. That’s right, you don’t. And they didn’t.
Hannity performed this segment on voter fraud on November 12, with a “Fraud in Florida?” text backdrop, and actually never offered evidence that there was voter fraud, or even made a serious attempt. He did not answer his own question. It may be more important to Hannity that people ask the question at all, rather than have it be answered.
President Trump is even more confident that there is voter fraud in Florida, and has said so directly. He also believed there would be voter fraud in the 2016 election before it took place, and has never taken back his absurd claim that millions voted fraudulently in that election.
The margins by which the Florida Republican candidates for Senate and Governor won make it extraordinarily unlikely that all this alleged fraud will make a difference, but we cannot count on considerable margins of victory to keep official hysteria and nonsense-mongering impotent forever.
Trump and company are engulfed by selfishness and short-sightedness. They would take the risk of undermining public trust in elections, one of the most spectacular achievements of our species, not because anybody can produce grounds for doing so, but for short-term and marginal political gains.
Infuriating though this may be, it should not be described as weird. It can be difficult for us mere primates to know if things are falling apart, or coming together. It is not weird that Trump and his minions are eroding the democratic institutions that we depend on.
It’s that we ever had them at all.