Friday, December 2, 2016

College Education

Electoral College votes tallied in Congress, January 2013

It’s become quite obvious that American politics is broken.  And not just because a malign and ignorant huckster has been elected president, though that is certainly the most glaring symptom of a disease that’s been worsening for decades.  And the real source of our debilitating political dysfunction is our profound ideological polarization.  We’ve split into two roughly equal and mutually hostile camps, with seemingly incompatible instincts and visions of America.  But a well-designed institutional framework might have channeled those deep disagreements into constructive compromise, or better represented them in government such that consensus or conciliation might be reached.  But our Constitution seems utterly incapable of handling or moderating our deep disagreements.  Consider how, in the Obama Era, the dubious notion of Separation of Powers actually exacerbated that deadly polarization, leading to such excesses as the government shutdowns, the debt limit crises, the Obamacare wars.  And consider that an incredibly polarizing and dangerously incompetent extremist has become president without even winning a plurality of the votes cast.  That quite undemocratic outcome occurred because our system for choosing the president is hopelessly overcomplicated and confused, and sitting at the heart of that confusion is that embarrassing constitutional relic, the Electoral College.  The Electoral College is our institutional dysfunction come to life.

The Founders created the Electoral College with two principles in mind. The first was the diffusion principle, the desire that the power to pick the president be spread among all the states, even the smaller states that might otherwise be overlooked in a national popular vote.  The second was the aristocratic principle, the belief that a collection of disinterested statesmen would prevent the election of a demagogue or a fool.  But these are practical principles, they weren’t adopted for theoretical reasons, but to satisfy the interests of the various states at the Constitutional Convention.  Many of the founders, including James Madison, the father of the Constitution, would have preferred direct popular election of the president.  Others wanted Congress to choose the president.  The original version of the Electoral College left it up to the various state legislatures to decide how the electors from their respective states were chosen; and for the first few decades some of those legislatures chose them directly, while others allowed their voting publics to decide.  But those electors were expected to make their own decisions, not necessarily rubber-stamp the choices of those that had put them there.  In the early 1800’s, however, as Jacksonian democracy swept the land, all the states switched over to having their populations choose the electors, and law and custom bound those electors to represent the plurality vote for president within their respective states.

And that’s where things stand today.  We’re stuck with this bizarre hodge-podge, an aristocratic structure that tries to channel democratic desires.  But it’s the worst of both worlds, since it can override the national popular vote while – quite obviously! – failing to prevent a demagogue and a fool from becoming president.  The Electoral College has bitterly failed the demands of both democracy and statesmanship, and in doing so it has produced something new in the political world: an unpopular demagogue!

The only remaining remotely defensible rationale for the Electoral College is the diffusion principle, the desire to ensure small states aren’t overlooked when choosing the president.  But the Electoral College does absolutely nothing to force presidential campaigns to address small states.  Instead, it forces them to address battleground states like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, states which are split down the middle and can easily go either way in a given election.  The campaigns smartly ignore all dependably red or blue states, small or big, such as New York or Kansas.  But there’s no principle satisfied by ignoring those states, while a national popular vote would genuinely spread power to the entire country.  The Electoral College fails the diffusion principle too.

And it’s hard to see why the election within each state should be based on majority rule but not majority rule across the country as a whole.  Why should the democratic principle be so inconsistently applied?   There already is a mechanism within the federal government that gives disproportionate power to smaller states: the United States Senate.  (It should be noted that James Madison and other Founders opposed the undemocratic apportionment of Senators too, but accepted it as a necessary practical condition for bringing into the Union the small states who otherwise would not have joined.)   But Senators represent states, while the president is supposed to be the leader of the country as whole, the leader of the people.  That was clearly the intent of (many of) the Founders, and it was clearly the intent of those early 19th century statesmen who gave the choice of electors directly to the people, and it is clearly the understanding of the present-day voting public.  The president is supposed to represent all of America.

Electors aren’t even apportioned according to population, because each state gets as many electors as it has Representatives in the House of Representatives (which is proportional to state populations) plus two more for its two Senators.  Thus, for instance, Wyoming gets 3 electoral votes (it has one Representative in the House plus its two Senators), while California gets 55 electoral votes (53 Representatives plus 2 Senators).  But California had about 37 million people as of the 2010 census, while Wyoming had only about 564,000.  So California has about 672,000 people for each electoral vote while Wyoming has only about 188,000 for each of its electoral votes.  That means the vote of one person in Wyoming has 3.5 times as much power as the vote of one person in California.  But why should a citizen in Wyoming have so much more power than a citizen in California when picking the one person who is the leader of the country as a whole?  The Electoral College doesn’t protect small states, it disenfranchises big ones!  It’s a failure in every conceivable way.  And it’s clearly failed us this year.

Brilliant, decent, imperfect, practical men, 1787
That’s not to say that Hillary should be president by virtue of winning the popular vote by over 2 million votes (that’s almost 2 percentage points, though with 48.2% it’s still shy of an outright majority).  If we’d had a national popular vote system in place for the 2016 election both Clinton and Trump would certainly have campaigned quite differently, and the popular vote might have gone for Trump.  Still, a lot of people did take the time and effort to vote, even in states that were definitively red or blue.  That is, they must have known their votes couldn’t make a difference in the Electoral College yet they voted anyway; and that deserves respect in a generally democratic society.  It can’t be said that the popular vote means nothing.  And given that the Electoral College system is inherently undemocratic, it’s not consistent to argue that electors are morally bound to obey their state pluralities but obligated to disregard the national one.  Either we respect the wishes of the American people or we don’t.  So it’s not entirely unfair to suggest, as some have done, that the electors reject the state pluralities and deny the presidency to someone who not only failed to win a plurality of the national popular vote but who is also an irresponsible demagogue and a dribbling fool.  In that case both the democratic and aristocratic principles would be satisfied, and that would probably have made James Madison very happy.

All the logic, all the theory, all our reason and sanity and common sense suggest the Electoral College should ignore the wishes of the people in the states and obey the wishes of the people of the United States.  Except for one thing.  We all agreed before the election that we would choose our presidents in this bizarre, old-fashioned, ridiculous way.  Or rather, history and convention and expectation have stuck us with this absurd system, and it would just be terribly unfair and destabilizing to change the rules after the fact.  People would be enraged, and rightly so.  As tempting as the thought is of the electors saving us deus ex machina from the Great Orange Disaster, our respect for fair play and democratic norms renders it unthinkable.  No principle is safe if we can’t all rely on the procedures.

But then let Trump supporters stop this dishonest and baseless talk that he has a “mandate”, or he won because “the American people have spoken.”  No, he won because the Elector College has spoken (or will soon).  Or because enough unrepresentative people in enough unrepresentative states have spoken.  Or because we have our heads stuck up our Constitution and can’t create a better system.  Those sentiments don’t make great slogans, but they have the virtue of being true.  At strongest, the American people chose Hillary Clinton.  At weakest, their choice is unclear and muddled, the exact thing an election is supposed to avoid.

And that is the real problem.  This election, like 2000, was a virtual tie, but the technical winners will enact policies the technical losers find frightening and abhorrent. And to add mendacious insult to juridical injury they’ll likely speak and rule as if they had actually won an overwhelming victory.  They’ll claim a mandate to shred the social safety net and distribute huge tax cuts to the rich.  And if you don’t look closely the Electoral College appears to give them some plausible cover for that undemocratic chicanery.  But that will just add to the bitter disappointment of the vaguely leftish half of the country, who now feel, and effectively are, disenfranchised.  For at least the next two years the comprehensively Republican federal government will trample upon their deeply held convictions and damage the institutions and programs they love, even though their candidate essentially tied.  They don’t deserve that.  We don’t deserve that.

But we’ll get it, and that’s because of other imperfections of our system, specifically Separation of Powers and fixed terms in office.  In parliamentary systems, as obtain in most of the English-speaking world and in Europe, the head of government is whoever can lead a ruling coalition in the democratically elected parliament (and many of those parliamentary elections have mechanisms for making sure minority parties are proportionally represented).  If the party in power governs ineffectively or against sustained popular opinion then elections are held and the people get to choose their rulers again, even if the terms of office aren’t close to being over.  And such a unified government makes the ruling party accountable; it doesn’t have independent executive and legislative branches that can blame each other for government failure or inaction.  And it doesn’t permit the constant war between those separate powers that results when they’re controlled by bitterly opposed and sharply polarized factions.

But wait, this is about as academic as an argument can get.  There is as much chance of America renovating its basic constitution as there is of Donald Trump suddenly becoming an expert on 20th century African-American literature.  Though there are ways around the Electoral College that might actually be implemented – and more power to them!  But the Electoral College, ridiculous as it is, is only a small part of what’s wrong.  One doesn’t have to be a Democrat or bitter about Trump’s technical win to see the lesson the College teaches us: Our deeply polarized populace is possessed by rage and vindictiveness, the design of our political institutions prevents a constructive handling of that polarization, and that combination is radically undermining our democracy.  And it will probably only get worse.

It’s not sustainable, and there are really only two ways this can end: the polarization can give way, or the institutions can give way.  It could still conceivably happen that, as seemed inevitable until November 8, the demographics keep moving in the liberal direction, with the older, whiter, more conservative percentage of the populace shrinking.  Or populist conservatism could become widely dominant among the broad middle.  Or populist liberalism.  If any of those things happens then the federal government will be safely held by one party with a clear majority among the people, and that’s a situation the Constitution can safely handle.  (Though, if it’s Trumpian populism it’s not necessarily a situation that liberal democracy can handle.)  

Doing his best to elevate the discourse
But if none of those scenarios comes to pass, then the institutions themselves will erode.  If Congress and the Presidency are held by opposing parties the conflict between them will become even more acrimonious and destructive.  If our present situation continues – with one party that only represents half the people holding complete control of the federal government – then the struggle between feds and locals will become more acrimonious and destruction.  There could be widespread unrest, with irresponsible individuals on both sides even embracing violence.  And all these scenarios end just one way, with a president accruing more and more police power until he becomes essentially an elected tyrant.  And soon after, not even an elected one. 

That’s the direction we’re heading if we can’t create a better politics, an understanding of ourselves that satisfies the interests and aspirations of most of us.  America is hurting right now, all of it, the half that lost and the half that won.  And the only way forward is toward some new, moderate consensus that respects us all.  If any good can come from Trump’s win, it will be to force us to question the old rigid ideologies and blind archaic animosities that possess us and make us enemies.  There are fair-minded people on both sides urging tolerance and conciliation and offering constructive and pragmatic solutions.  But conciliation and pragmatism have little hope of being well received in an atmosphere of bitter mistrust, a mistrust happily fomented by special interests, propagandists, ideologues, fanatics, and fools.  But when our institutions fail us, all we have left is ourselves, and our commitments to each other.  There isn’t necessarily a happy ending here, only a chance, a hope that the great reserves of good will, common sense and generosity still possessed by the American people can be marshaled to fight the polarization that is killing us all.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What Have We Done?

We're all branded now
This is a disaster.  America has just been dealt a terrible blow, and it’s not clear how we’ll recover.  Donald Trump is as fit to be President of the United States as a rabid gorilla is to drive a school bus.  He’s an ignorant, bigoted, bullying, narcissistic clown, and that personal instability in conjunction with the policies he’ll likely implement (with the eager help of a thoroughly Republican Congress) will do the country, and quite possibly the world, great damage.  In fact, this is such a comprehensive disaster that it’s hard to fully appreciate it.  But let’s try.  Let’s take a stark look at the likely ramifications of America’s self-inflicted wound.  Let’s face up to what we’ve done.

You don’t have to be a liberal to contemplate Trump’s coming presidency with dread, but it sure helps.  Trump ran, particularly in the early days, as a genuine populist, promising to raise taxes on Wall Street, to protect Social Security and Medicare, to fight for American workers – all things economic liberals heartily endorse.  But as time went by he became increasingly co-opted on these issues by the Republican establishment.  Now much of his economic program looks like it was written by Ronald Reagan or – admittedly the same thing – the Chamber of Commerce.  It delivers huge tax cuts that go almost exclusively to the investor class, it relieves 20 million poorer Americans of their health insurance, it removes constraints on the financial markets that delivered us so effectively to the Great Recession.  The plutocracy’s favorite ideologue, Paul Ryan, is even claiming that the now comprehensively Republican federal government has been given a mandate to privatize Medicare!  So much for populism.

Trump has become, in effect, a special case of the investor class’s master strategy for turning populist anger to capitalist advantage.  The typical Republican presidential candidate wins by pointing angry fingers at liberal snobbery, black thievery, and gay buggery; and once elected proceeds to treat the country as little more than raw resource for capitalist ingestion.  But Trump ran against the script, attacking not just racial, sexual, and religious minorities, but Wall Street and big business too!  But the establishment that could not stop him was able to work him.  Usually the conservative populace is duped into supporting an investor-class stooge, but this time the candidate himself was duped.  So much for tough negotiation.

But it would be unfair to say Trump has become completely co-opted.  For the most part he still holds his ground on the issues of immigration and trade.  American workers will be better off if immigration, illegal and legal, is more tightly controlled, and if the American negotiators of trade deals are actually concerned about them.  But collecting up and tossing out millions of immigrants who are here illegally would be a humanitarian disaster of unimaginable proportion, one that no thinking or feeling person could remotely defend.  That is, the typical Trumpian brainless barbarism spells disaster even on those issues in which he genuinely is looking out for the American worker.  If Hillary had become president, thoughtful patriots of all ideologies might have pressured her to moderate her globalist attitude.  But tempering Hillary with practical concerns would have been much easier than moderating Trump with humanitarian ones.  So much for reasonable policy.

But our new Trump World isn’t just a unhappy place for working people, it’s also not particularly welcoming for blacks, women, Jews, Muslims, gays – basically anyone who isn’t a white Christian male.  The Trumpistas, like good right-wingers, rose to power denouncing the ways that all those non-white-Christian-male types are ruining things for regular Americans.  Black are criminals, Mexicans are rapists, Muslims are terrorists, Jews are evil conspirators, women refuse to be mere playthings.  It’s true that Trump hasn’t targeted gays, but the restive crowd on his right clearly has no sympathy for the sexually unorthodox.  And that’s the real point: It doesn’t really matter all that much if Trump himself is a bigot; what matters is that he has encouraged bigotry, he’s unleashed it.  It’s hard to judge how serious this particular threat is, but you don’t have to be a minority or a liberal to see real danger here.  So much for equality.

And the way that Trump has re-legitimated these sorts of hostilities is particularly dangerous.  That is, he’s made white identity politics central to his appeal.  He tells whites that they’re victimized by those other groups, that their primary loyalty is to each other, and that their problems can only be addressed if they understand and act upon their interests as white people. But this is an invitation to levels of racial hatred which we can now only imagine.  If white Americans come to broadly think of their own interests in racial terms then every contentious issue will come to be seen as a zero-sum dispute over limited resources.  America would devolve into constant and bitter infighting, into a war between the tribes, probably leading to greater and greater violence.  Identity politics has been both a miserable failure for non-whites and huge source of polarization and discord for us all.  If whites adopt it too, it could mean the desolation of America.  So much for national unity.

And Trump’s authoritarian sensibility is a dagger pointed at the heart of self-government.  He admires foreign tyrants and autocrats.  He hopes to curtail press freedom.  He threatens political rivals with lawsuits and prison.  He thoughtlessly undermines the democratic process.  He’s unhappy that freedom of expression hampers ardent pursuit of the terrorists.  He advocates torture for its punitive value.  He blithely dismisses the norms that make our system function.  He embodies and encourages the authoritarian trends growing on the right side of America.  You don’t have to a liberal or a minority to find this alarming: A corrupt, amoral megalomaniac has just been given control over our military and our enormous federal investigative apparatus, one that already monitors our emails and phone calls.  And he’s certain to face no resistance from rival centers of power in a Washington completely controlled by a cowed and fawning Republican Party.  So much for democracy.

And he has no character.  He successfully ran for president without any solid convictions, without any knowledge of the issues, with no respect for our democratic traditions, with no compunction about misrepresenting opponents or himself, with no generosity or ideals or compassion.  The American people should have kicked this pathetic man-child to the curb for his impossible ignorance and gurgling malice.  But as payment for his lies and his threats and his ungodly vanity he will get to sit in the office once occupied by Washington, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelt’s and delight in his own true brilliance and awesomeness.  So much for accountability.

And that leads to what’s arguably the scariest aspect of the Trumpian calamity: his instability.  He clearly suffers from something like clinical Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  He has little or no control over his own impulses.  He responds bitterly and vindictively to every slight.  He can’t sit still long enough to read or to learn anything.  He feels no obligation to conform what he says to what actually is.  He casually spreads lies and conspiracy theories.  He feels no responsibility to anything but his own ego.  He’s incapable of reasoning and speaking like an adult.  The combination of authoritarianism and recklessness is particularly frightening.  Is it too far-fetched to worry that he might use official force against political opponents, or impulsively start a war, or even casually employ nuclear weapons?  Maybe it is, but consider that we can’t be sure.  So much for security.

An American flag recovered from World Trade Centre site after 9/11

So much for America.  So much for our hope and our promise and our potential.  Almost everything we admire in ourselves – our commitment to justice and freedom, our generosity, our common sense, our openness, our honesty, our idealism, our optimism – has been besmirched or undermined or threatened by Donald Trump.  In effect, he’s promised to turn America into a shambles and now he’s been given the power to do so.

And now that he has won, there is enormous pressure to treat this as just another election and Trump as just another president.  As if winning excuses all his sins, or makes them irrelevant, or means they’re not indicative of how he’ll govern.  Wishful thinking, respect for the democratic transition of power, and the need to feel the world is safe, all these conspire to lull us into seeing things as not fundamentally changed.  But it’s just not true, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  The disaster is real.  We may not have seen it coming, but we should damn well recognize it now that it’s here.  As Jonathan Chait so nicely put it:

To submit to a world where we say the words President Trump without anger or laughter is to surrender our idea of what the office means.

But what’s threatened by casually accepting Trump’s win isn’t just our idea of what the presidency means, it’s our idea of what democracy, justice, and decency mean.  Of what America means.  Trump did legitimately win and he will be president for at least 4 long years, that’s a fact and we need to respect it and accept it.  But we shouldn’t just treat it as part of the normal course of events and get back to our private lives.  History has taken a terrible turn.  The name TRUMP is being stamped upon us in 10 feet tall gold-plated letters.  We should grieve, deeply. 

And we should fight back!  We should organize and peacefully march and argue and persuade and vote and keep tight in our minds the profound seriousness of our situation.  And we should remember that America is always at its best when things are at their worst.  We need to rededicate ourselves to the best promises of America, while accepting that those promises are now much farther from our reach.  We must fully face the disaster and in facing it find the strength and the determination to fight it.  And one very important way we fight it is by refusing to treat it as anything other than the terrible disaster that it is. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Breaking America Down


Donald Trump must not become President of the United States.  That must be glaringly obvious to anyone whose reason has not been overcome by partisanship or bitterness or rancor.  He’s a bigot who elicits and encourages the worst impulses of his followers; he’s an authoritarian with little respect for individual rights or democratic institutions; he’s a foolish extremist, advocating, for example, abandoning NATO, and deporting millions of illegal immigrants; he’s utterly and willfully ignorant of government, policy, or the Constitution; he’s rankly dishonest and corrupt; and – most damning – he’s a huge, smelly pile of crazy.  A President Trump would be an unimaginable disaster, for the country and the world. 

He represents what’s worst in ourselves, particularly the worst of our popular culture.  He’s vulgar, boorish, thoughtless, shallow, materialistic, self-absorbed.  And he represents the worst instincts of the conservative base.  He traffics in putrid racial and religious hatreds dredged up from the far-right fever swamps.  He indulges the most brainless conspiracy theories.  He yearns for the days when white Christian men received the deference that was their due as the only real Americans, and he encourages those same yearnings among his followers. He scorns all the correct pseudo-Americans: liberals, blacks, feminists, Muslims.  If Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh could make a baby they’d make Donald Trump.

But, he also represents the legitimate grievances of white working people.  They’ve been derided by cultural elites, exploited by economic elites, impoverished by mass immigration, off-shoring, de-industrialization, downsizing.  They are genuine victims, disdained, disowned, disheartened.  They feel betrayed because they’ve been betrayed, by an American elite that feels little obligation to them.  And Trump represents their darker impulses in response, the impulse to lash out, to destroy, to burn to the ground.  He is their revenge.  But, also, in a strange and inarticulate way, he is their hope, the hope that America can be made to work again, to sustain and nurture them rather than exploit and discard them.  At this moment there is a great struggle going on within them, but by voting for Trump they’re choosing their lesser collective self.  No matter who wins today we must not forget about these people, their alienation, their disenfranchisement, their despondency, their self-destructiveness, their fears, their hopes.  They are fighting desperately to be acknowledged, and we owe them that. They are, after all, us.

Meanwhile, Hillary represents all that’s wrong with our elites.  She’s an epitome of the new aristocracy; an aristocracy of education and profession, delineated by manners, condescension, technocracy, urbanity, even eating habits.  It’s an aristocracy possessed by the sanctimonious, globalist, multicultural, cosmopolitan distaste for anything tainted by American patriotism or the retrograde notion that American policy should particularly benefit Americans.  But a nation without leaders working in its interests is a nation without leaders.  Soon, it won’t even be that.  Trump almost gets this one right, but he’s too crude to understand that blacks, Muslims, liberals are part of the nation too.  And this is the heart of the Trumpian catastrophe: whites went looking for a leader for America, but they settled for a leader for White America.

The paradox of Hillary is that despite her vague post-American-ness she nicely embodies what’s so good about America.  Like most ordinary Americans, and unlike Trump, she’s hard-working, inclusive, and hopeful in the best way.  She really thinks America can be made to work for everyone, and she’s eager to put in the effort to make incremental changes in that direction.  She is, more than anything else, pragmatic, and that’s something very much needed in our current situation.  Indeed, the pragmatic willingness to tone down ideology and to compromise with reality is a cardinal American virtue.  It’s too bad that her post-patriotic sensibilities diffuse her abundant energies; properly focused they might have greatly helped her own people.

And it’s too bad she’s so corrupt.  Hillary’s sins are those of political connection: using high office for her own enrichment, evading professional responsibilities, nepotism.  But Trump’s moneyed birth has allowed him to systematically evade responsibility too: regularly stiffing contractors and employees, claiming bankruptcy.  His celebrity and extreme clinical narcissism have even enabled his outright sexual predation.  Both candidates have taken advantage of unearned privilege, but he’s been dishonest and corrupt in ways Hillary can only dream of: he’s tied to the mob, he’s been involved in all sorts of fraudulent schemes, he’s connected to Russian oligarchs.  And did I mention he’s a big stinking slagheap of whack-job?  She is a deeply flawed politician, but he is a nightmare.



Happily for the safety and sanity of us all, Trump probably won’t be elected President.  And once he’s lost, and goes creeping back to his gaudy, gilded towers and his cringe-worthy TV appearances and his rancid tweets, it will be tempting to dismiss his followers and their concerns.  But consider right now the very real and terrifying possibility that he might actually win!  Let yourself feel the full weight of the disaster that may be about to engulf us.  A frightening demagogue, an ignorant and irresponsible buffoon, a colossally absurd joke of a person is actually within a few percentage points of being handed the nuclear codes.  And now take very seriously how profoundly dysfunctional our politics must be to have delivered us to this moment.  The system is broken, and we can’t ignore it any more.  Once Trump has lost – if there is a God in heaven! – think back to today and remember how stark and undeniable that brokenness was made by the near-election of this one-man wrecking crew.

At that point all our energies must be directed toward healing our country.  That may require more generosity and forgiveness than we’re capable of.  In all candor, it’s probably not possible.  The system is so broken, and the rancor and mistrust and alienation it so plentifully dispenses just break it more.  America may really be on the path to irrevocable decline.  We’re all obligated to fight the brokenness, to not give in to it.  Trump’s gift to us is to make us appreciate the depth of the brokenness.  He’s here to tell us we may not have much time left.

And that must be the starting point for any serious post-election reconciliation and healing.  All those people out there are mad as hell, so mad they’re blindly rushing themselves over the edge in a blind fury.  But despite their staggering irresponsibility, we have to remind ourselves that they’re mostly good people, and we must acknowledge that if they’re so willing to put America through this torture then things must be much worse than we had previously thought.  We know why they’re angry: they’ve been dismissed and exploited and propagandized and disappointed and discouraged.  The system isn’t just broken, it’s breaking them too.  It’s breaking their hope, and their generosity, and their common sense.  And Trump, whether he wins or loses, is breaking them – and us – even more. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

Democracy for Grown-Ups

The third presidential debate

Donald Trump has been roundly condemned for apparently disrespecting the very notion of democracy, because of an exchange with Hillary Clinton and moderator Chris Wallace in last Wednesday night’s debate.  Wallace brought up an accusation repeated by Trump on Twitter and at public rallies that the election has been “rigged” to ensure Hillary’s victory; Wallace asked Trump if he will “absolutely accept the result of this election?”  And Trump evaded:

I will look at it at the time. I'm not looking at anything now. I'll look at it at the time.

Which seems to mean that come Election Day he’ll be looking for evidence of voter fraud, and deliver a judgment on the election results based upon his perception of how honest the voting process has been.  He also accused the news media of being in on the fix, calling them “so dishonest and so corrupt”, and he claimed authoritative evidence of widespread voter registration irregularities.  And he even tried to de-legitimize Hillary’s candidacy itself: “She’s guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run.”  Behold Trump’s indictment of the vote and the electoral process more broadly.

It’s not terribly convincing.  Sure, lately the media have become quite transparent in their conviction that Trump is a demented egomaniac who would do the country great damage.  To be fair, that’s only because he is, and he would.  Most members of the press, being at least as bright as typical 5-year-olds, are perceptive enough to see it, if not clever enough to pretend not to.  And it’s hard to understand why it’s dishonest or corrupt for the media to provide a platform to the small army of women who are accusing Trump of just the sort of sexual predation that he himself has so brazenly bragged about.  And it’s not clear if Hillary broke the law (presumably he’s referring to her email scandal), though she’s legally in the clear.  And it’s even less clear what process Trump believes should have prevented her from running, considering that she is the nominee of one of our two major parties and the democratic processes that promoted her to nominee endow her with all the legitimacy she needs.

But here’s the real point: there is no evidence of significant voter fraud.  For one thing, it would be extraordinarily hard to pull off, considering how many election precincts there are, and how locally organized and controlled they are.  To really affect the outcome such conspirators would have to fake thousands of votes in thousands of precincts across the country, all without accidentally revealing their nefarious plot.  For another thing, it just ain’t happening.

But Wallace wouldn’t let Trump off the hook:

But, sir, there is a tradition in this country – in fact, one of the prides of this country – is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying that you're necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and that the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle?

Trump deferred:

What I'm saying is that I will tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense. OK?

And Clinton, clearly the superior debater, pounced:

Well, Chris, let me respond to that, because that's horrifying.

A minute later she delivered the knock-out blow:

So that is not the way our democracy works. We've been around for 240 years. We've had free and fair elections. We've accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them. And that is what must be expected of anyone standing on a debate stage during a general election.

And major news outlets have expressed the same horror: Donald Trump will not abide by the election results because he doesn’t in principle accept majority rule.

But that’s not what he meant.  Wallace asked him if he thought the election was rigged, he explained (unconvincingly) why he thought it was, and then Wallace, though clearly intending to get to the heart of the matter, changed the subject by asking a different question: Do you support the principle of democratic transfer of power?  That is, he first asked Trump if he believed the present election process is honest, and then a minute later asked him if he was willing to submit to elections in general.  But Trump, who – how shall we say this? – misses a lot of subtleties, was still answering the first question.  Neither he nor Wallace seems to have noticed the question had changed, so Trump just repeated his answer to the first question, making it seem he was answering “No” to the second one, that he was explicitly rejecting the principle of popular sovereignty.  Trump seems to have a knack for sounding more offensive than he means to, and that’s quite impressive when you consider that he usually means something quite offensive!  But if we’re going to condemn him, let’s condemn him for what he actually meant.

If, as seems to be the case, he was questioning the procedural fairness of this election, and not the authority of elections in general, then he actually was defending democratic rule, not attacking it.  From this point of view Hillary and her surrogates in the press are trying to steal the election and he’s fighting to protect it.  As Trump advisor Newt Gingrich claims:

We are in the worst cycle of corruption in American history, and in many ways, we resemble Venezuela and Argentina more than we resemble traditional America.

Hillary is undermining democracy, turning America into Argentina (is Gingrich making an Evita reference?) and Trump is bravely standing up to her.


It’s ridiculous, of course, since there is no reason to think the voting process is being interfered with.  Wallace was actually stumbling toward a third question: Isn’t questioning the system without any real evidence as destructive as questioning the principle of popular sovereignty itself?  The answer, of course, is “Yes!”  The two have the same effect: the erosion of public trust in our political system.  Elections are the accepted mechanisms for peacefully resolving social conflict, and it’s frightening to imagine what would happen if that acceptance lapsed.  Put another way: making a charge of electoral fraud is so dangerous, so potentially destructive of social cohesion, that one should only do so very carefully, with extreme caution, and only with convincing evidence.  To do so recklessly, flippantly, thoughtlessly, does almost as much damage to democracy as actually stealing elections.

And Trump, to wildly understate the matter, is not known for speaking with responsibility or circumspection.  Indeed, he constantly casts mistrust upon our public institutions and the people who run them.  In his view, the leaders of our society are all crooks or fools.  Business sends your jobs overseas.  The government deliberately refuses to secure the borders, and steals your tax money to make life soft for the illegal immigrants of questionable ethnicity who then so easily enter.  Finance enriches itself while gambling with our economic well-being, and collects bailouts while you have to keep paying your underwater mortgage.  Academia indoctrinates your children with snobbish intolerance disguised as moral sophistication.  And so on.  The only ones left that are still genuinely noble and good are the American people themselves, especially the white working class.  But America is a sham.

Meanwhile Hillary represents just the opposite view, that the system is working well, or at least good enough.  The basic trajectory of post-Cold-War life – increasing globalization, identity politics at home, professional-class meritocracy, free markets – is positive and promising, and the more of it the better.  She parrots all the same old clich├ęs about how we’re stronger together, and diversity is our strength, and we must open ourselves to the world, blah, blah, blah.  She doesn’t mean it and no one believes it, but it’s part of the charade that our politics have degraded into, a charade that Hillary’s donors so desperately want us all to keep playing.

What Trump and his supporters get right is that they want to end the charade.  They see clearly the central truth of our current situation: American elites don’t really care about America, only their stunted, self-serving ideologies.  What we are really living through, what Trump really represents, is a crisis of faith.  That’s why Trump’s supporters are so ready to believe in stolen elections and why they’re not alarmed at Trump’s appalling flouting of democratic outcomes and norms.  They support Trump because they’ve lost faith in the system. 

What the Trumpians miss is their own culpability.  Large sections of the grassroots gladly went along with all the foolish mistakes of the last decades, mistakes our elites sold us like so much snake oil: financial deregulation, free trade, the Iraq War.  And now that all of those are seen for the disasters they really are, those same grassroots righteously rise up in rebellion against their foolish masters.  The main ingredient in Trump’s snake oil is irresponsibility.

And if the whole system is corrupt, and none of us regular people is at fault, then anything that cleanses that corruption is justified. Cynicism plus irresponsibility equals rage.  This is the real danger, and the real fear lurking behind Wallace’s questions and the media’s horror: that mistrust of the system leads to civil disorder, to violence.  This is the dark beast skulking in the heart of our current political chaos, the beast that Trump so carelessly summons.

The strange thing about this Trump-disses-democracy controversy is that by questioning the voting process Trump is picking on one aspect of the system that actually works the way it should.  That is, the mechanics of our voting system are quite clean.  Our democracy is being stolen, not by treacherous conspirators shuffling around buses of illegal immigrants to multiple polling stations, but by a campaign finance system that allows donors to weed out real challengers, and by two ossified and brain-dead parties with a stranglehold on the process, and by a media more addicted to horse-race and spectacle than to political substance, and by propagandists encouraging anger and fear rather than generosity and sobriety, and by social justice warriors undermining freedom of expression by sniffing out the tiniest whiffs of dissent, and by elites who feel more allegiance to their hypertrophied cosmopolitan vanity than to their fellow countrymen.  And now by a public too cynical and too irresponsible to want more than to throw bricks through the windows.

But Hillary’s windows don’t need to be broken.  They need to be rattled by crowds of citizens loudly demanding an economy that works for Americans workers, and an elite culture that doesn’t disdain popular sensibilities, and a political system that responds to people’s real needs.  But those crowds need to accept their obligation to constructively engage with our problems, rather than just vent their frustrations.  The Trumpian diagnosis is largely correct, though quite overstated, and contaminated by white nationalism, and led by a deranged and dangerous clown.  Hillary is at least an adult, and as such proposes some marginally beneficial policies, but the status quo she represents is not sustainable.  Don’t buy the Trumpian line that America is dying, and don’t let Hillary lull you with happy talk while proposing to tinker around the edges.  In effect, they’re both cynical; they’re both saying that fundamental constructive change isn’t possible.  But that’s a copout, and a recipe for national decline.  Don’t give in to it.  It’s not easy striking a balance that’s realistic without being cynical, and idealistic without being utopian.  But that’s what maturity demands of us. And that’s how we positively address our very real problems.  And that’s how we fight for democracy.