America: The Broken

The first presidential election in which I voted was in 2000. Then, of course, Al Gore won the popular vote while uncertainty remained about who actually won the electoral vote.

While Bush was certified as the winner of Florida, putting the electoral vote at 271-266, the Florida Division of Elections reported that he won the state by less than 2,000 votes. This result led to an automatic recount, a manual recount, and further court proceedings up to the Florida Supreme Court and, eventually, the US Supreme Court.

In December of 2000, the US Supreme Court eventually decided, along ideological lines in Bush v. Gore, to effectively stop the proposed recount (which they had previously stopped, also along ideological lines), letting the certification of Bush as the winner in Florida stand.

Since then, folks have long debated who would have won the election had the recount been completed. I remember feeling devastated at the time, certain that Gore would have won but for the Supreme Court's interference. Multiple post-election polls in December 2000, showed that roughly 40-50% of US adults believed that if all the Florida votes had been counted, Gore would have won and that the process of deciding who won had been unfair.

Now, of course, what's done is done. That Bush became President was a travesty for many progressives and people across the world, no matter how it happened. But, that it happened how it happened is something I believe we still, as a nation, reckon with, particularly as we navigate our way through the wake of the 2016 election.

In his Bush v. Gore dissent, Justice Stevens warned that while we may never know for sure who the real winner of the 2000 election was, the loser was certainly "the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law." That its decision to stop the recount even lent the appearance of the Supreme Court having handed the presidency to Bush against the will of the voters, was itself a blow to the legitimacy of our democracy and, more specifically, the US electoral system.

At least some of the lingering unrest about the electoral process, from what I remember, seemed to be quelled after 9/11, when the American public rallied behind George W. Bush. Before the attacks, Bush's approval rating hovered in the mid-50s. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, his approval ballooned to the high point of his two terms at 90%.

That is, 9/11 seems to have bolstered the legitimacy of George W. Bush's presidency, at least inasmuch as legitimacy is derived from the approval of the populace. Although, by the end of his second term he had become one of the most unpopular presidents in US history, in part because he squandered his legitimacy by leading the nation to war on the basis of lies.

A lesson from George W. Bush's presidency, then, is that a security crisis can confer legitimacy to a President who begins his term lacking it. And, the people will hunker down and rally behind an undeserving leader during a scary time, out of a sense of fear, loyalty, and nationalism. History shows that bad leaders will squander this trust, rather than accepting it with responsibility and grace.

For these reasons, my first point today is that we ought to be gravely concerned that the man who holds this office today is historically unpopular, obsessed with his popularity, and is widely seen as illegitimate.

My second point is that by virtue of his office, Donald Trump is now entrusted to preserve the legitimacy of the electoral system, something which, I argue, for him is an impossibility. His very ascension to that office reveals a fundamental brokenness of our democracy, the supreme rule of which his rise has confirmed to be not "the law of the land" but "win by any means."

Cyber-security expert Bruce Schneier has written, on electoral legitimacy (emphasis added):
"Democratic elections serve two purposes. The first is to elect the winner. But the second is to convince the loser. After the votes are all counted, everyone needs to trust that the election was fair and the results accurate. Attacks against our election system, even if they are ultimately ineffective, undermine that trust and ­ by extension ­ our democracy.

In two of the past four presidential elections, the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral college.  
In contrast, Republicans - including the current administration - erroneously questioned the legitimacy of President Obama for eight non-stop years. Although President Obama won the popular vote and electoral college twice.
Because of the inherent unfairness of the electoral college and the rotten toxicity of the conservative right, it is not difficult to foresee a future in which the US never again has a President who is widely viewed by the 'losing side' as legitimate."
To build on Schneier's comments, since at least 2000, the US electoral system has been suffering from both the reality and perception that it no longer produces a legitimate winner.

Ari Berman recently noted in The Nation that the US electoral system is under real attack by both foreign cyber-espionage and Republican vote suppression efforts. Pointing out that Russian interference went significantly beyond theft of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails, Berman also makes note of the Republican-led domestic threat to our electoral system:
"Since the 2010 election, 22 states—nearly all of them controlled by Republicans—have passed new laws making it harder to vote, which culminated in the 2016 election being the first in more than 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

According to a new study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 12 percent of the electorate in 2016—16 million Americans—encountered a problem voting, including long lines at the polls, difficulty registering, or faulty voting machines. And last year’s election was decided by just 80,000 votes in three states.
These efforts are accelerating. And, when an entire party seeks to disenfranchise voters, we have fair reason to question the legitimacy of electoral outcomes.

Other times, we do not.

Falsehoods, for instance, about a system being "rigged" can be just as effective in eroding legitimacy as actual rigging, if they gain enough traction.

Donald Trump has been chipping away at the legitimacy of our electoral system since at least 2011, when he began publicly questioning President Obama's citizenship, and thus eligibility to be President. Indeed, during Obama's time in office, polls consistently showed that roughly a quarter of US adults believed this lie, effectively believing that "the system" was somehow rigged to unfairly allow an "ineligible" person to win.

People also imagined the electoral system to be unfair when they believed Donald Trump's repeated, yet baseless, claim that the 2016 election was being "rigged" against him in favor of Hillary Clinton.

During their final presidential debate, Donald even refused to say whether he would accept the election results if Hillary Clinton won. Trump echoed this claim from the Bernie Sanders camp, even though, no, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) did not "rig" either the primary or the general election for Hillary Clinton, even by any stretched definition of the word "rigged."

The effect of Donald's rhetoric was to prime the beliefs of his supporters to believe the electoral system was unfair to him. In October 2016, 64% of Trump supporters said they would have serious doubts about the accuracy of the election results if Hillary Clinton won.

Particularly during our anti-establishment zeitgeist, I predict that this type of "rigging" messaging will continue to be used going forward if we are not vigilant in interrogating it.

As just one early sample, labor activist and Bernie Sanders' supporter Roseann DeMoro recently tweeted:

[Text: "The Centrist #Democrats are trying desperately to Manufacture a Candidate to compete with @SenSanders. In so doing, could cost everything."]

"Manufacture a Candidate." What could this possibly mean? Nominate a candidate per The Democratic Party's Presidential Nomination Process? The horror! The implication seems to be that a Democratic candidate in 2020 who is not Bernie Sanders is one who has been "Manufactured" by an unfair system, and not voted on and selected by the Democratic voter base. This is the sort of claim that ought to be interrogated and, if baseless, denounced, particularly by the politicians who benefit.

Of note, DeMoro's tweet led to many replies about how Kamala Harris is insufficiently progressive. So, it has begun, and sadly, neither the politicians who benefit nor the mainstream media seem willing to push back on the propaganda.
For a nation that takes great pride in its democracy, it's notable how so many people care so little about the  reckless attacks on our electoral system. But, they should.

Before the election, as now, few Republican politicians condemned Trump's attacks on democracy. Now, hoisted by their own petard, Trump's Republican Administration is at the helm of this shaky system they've directly trashed and allowed to be trashed on their watch.

Most Americans now believe Trump has done something illegal or unethical with respect to his dealings with Russia. His approval rating is historically low, suggesting he has no popular mandate. A May Politico poll showed that 43% of respondents believe Congress should start impeachment proceedings against him. Another poll found that a majority of voters don't believe Trump is the legitimate President. Profiles of Trump portray a lonely, distracted man, bored with his new job and surprised by how hard it is.

One can go to dark places wondering what options he might be considering to establish his legitimacy.

I know it's popular for Trump fans to mock us with the "HE'S YOUR PRESIDENT" taunts. But, here's another thing about electoral legitimacy. Perhaps the most important purpose of elections is to convince the people that the system worked and that we are not, now, under the thumb of cheating despots.

In that endeavor, Trump, his fans, and the Republicans have failed.

Donald Trump is the inevitable Republican politician for a rotten-to-the-core Republican Party that has condoned the use of any means necessary to win. To enact their regressive, cruel agenda, they have enabled a man to become President who is not only temperamentally-unsuited and unqualified for the office he holds, but whose very presence there is a daily, stark reminder of their contempt for both democracy and the people of this nation.

America: we are broken.

The path out of this hellscape depends on the extent to which those with large platforms in the media, and politicians, discern and care about the difference between the threats to our electoral system that are truly unfair and those that are merely perceived as such due to the toxicity of US politics and social media.

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