Thursday, October 20, 2016

This Election Is Not Rigged

I first heard a Presidential election’s legitimacy questioned before me, in real time, in 1992. Oh, sure, the 1876 election still casts a squalid shadow, and the 1824 election, settled in the House of Representatives, probably arose from a secret back-room deal. But history is history; in 1992, I heard someone I trust second-guessing an actual election that hadn’t yet even gone to the Electoral College. That questioner was my dad.

“If people had voted right after the war,” Dad said, referring to Operation Desert Storm, “you would’ve seen this vote go a whole different way.”

Which, on balance, was probably true. Amid the high nationalistic feeling Americans enjoyed (if that’s the word) following our first decisive spanking of Saddam Hussein, George H.W. Bush was practically synonymous with patriotism. But the intervening months saw Bush’s military coalition dissipate, his domestic policy drift, and the American economy wind down. The high feeling of summer 1991 descended into the dejection of fall 1992.

So naturally, my father second-guessed, not the electoral outcome, but the electoral process. A devoted Republican, he thought the election ought to reflect his favored candidate’s career high, not the situation the voters actually faced in November. I was more conservative back then, a reflection not of deep commitment, but a fear of alienating my father. So naturally, I agreed. If the system didn’t reward my favorite candidate, the fault lay with the system.

Chris Wallace, moderator of the
third presidential debate
My father’s message has followed me through this campaign. And it has primarily followed me in Donald Trump’s voice. From the beginning of the primary season, Trump vowed he’d honor the procedural outcome only if he thought he’d been “treated fairly,” a concept he never defined. Into the general election, he’s repeated the claim that the national election would be rigged, implying that only a Trump victory would be truly just and small-D democratic.

I dismissed this language as Dad-like bluster, pure sour grapes from a protest candidate whose ultimate outcome was virtually pre-decided. But in the final presidential debate, Chris Wallace backed Trump into a corner, demanding whether the candidate would accept the legal, constitutional outcome. Trump literally replied: “I will look at it at the time.”

Secretary Clinton called this answer “horrifying.” I couldn’t agree more.

What Trump and my father have trouble accepting, is that elections are arbitrary, but consistent. There’s no reason why presidential elections should happen on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, in years divisible by four, except that we’ve always done it that way. We have a change in government at consistent intervals, and those intervals don’t reflect transitory conditions of popularity or outside issues. Elections happen because it’s time for them to happen.

These victories don’t necessarily mean one person has won the ideological debate. Those can continue for decades. I own a book of essays by Isaac Asimov, entitled Fact and Fancy, in which he discusses global warming. The book is copyrighted 1963, and the specific global warming chapter is dated 1952. So that ideological debate has continued for at least sixty-four years, without reaching any resolution.

(Consider that next time somebody says we’re moving “too fast” on global climate change.)

Other debates have continued even longer. The ebb and flow of America’s race debate has persisted since whites imported the first African slaves in the 1520s. The debate has changed: should slaves be free, should races be equal, how do we define race? What about rights for women and the poor? Where do we define poor, non-white women? The debates mount up. And they don’t get resolved “on time.”

Elections, by contrast, happen at specific intervals. Congressmen need their constituents’ approval every two years to hold office. Presidents (and most state governors), every four. Senators, every six. Some positions, mostly local municipal positions like school boards, may need fresh approval every year. But these intervals happen with absolute, machine-like consistency. They happen because it’s time for them to happen.

And that includes the presidential race. George H.W. Bush lost the election because the election took place in November 1992, not August 1991. The timing must remain immune to the candidate’s personal popularity, because otherwise, skillful politicians could remain in office permanently. President Obama’s current Gallup ratings show a majority approval, yet nobody, Republican or Democratic, should wish him installed forever.

So yes, fairness and justice in elections don’t describe the outcome. My favored candidate may lose—and often has. But justice describes the system, regardless of whatever human temporarily occupies the office. And refusal to accept the system makes the individual, therefore, unjust. That alone should be disqualifying.

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