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The Pandemic Election and the Outlook for American Democracy

Ultimately, democratic electorates get the governments they deserve.

Adam Garfinkle

Will America be able to hold an even halfway-normal election next month or a normal democratic transition in January? That question has been on many minds for some time now, and not just in the United States. But while the question has been constant for months, the context into which it falls has refused to stay still.

Before October 1 it was an open question whether anything on or after November 3 would be normal. The election’s very legitimacy and integrity were beclouded by a combination of three disruptive potential influences: foreign interference, COVID-19, and an incumbent president who has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election. This last was no surprise; President Trump made similar statements in 2016, and called even that election, which he won, “rigged” because he didn’t win the popular vote. Then, the sudden news earlier this month that the president was sick with COVID-19, followed by his claim a few days later that he was now COVID-free, added even more uncertainty and complexity to an already convoluted situation.

That is just one reason why recent polls have shown that Americans seem to inhabit different political planets. As Lewis Carroll might say, things just get “curiouser and curiouser.”

Before the COVID Diagnosis

In a news conference on September 23, President Trump was asked point-blank whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost. He had vaguely waffled in earlier weeks. Now, Trump said, “We’re going to have to see what happens.” But two other earlier comments reveal what was really going on in his head.

First, one day earlier Trump said that the election might be decided in the Supreme Court—as the 2000 election essentially was, for the first and only time in U.S. history. Trump’s reasoning: There could be massive fraud, a Democratic “scam,” involving mail-in ballots—a claim for which no evidence exists and which state and appellate courts have viewed with great skepticism.

Second, Trump warned his Twitter followers in late May that “mail-in voting will lead to massive fraud and abuse” and “the end of our great Republican Party.” What did he mean by this? It was not a mere throwaway remark.

The Republican “brain trust” thought even before the first presidential debate on September 29 that Trump would likely lose the election; afterward, their pessimism only deepened. Notwithstanding the unreliability of the polls, Republican leaders and campaign professionals were inclined to believe the prediction because for some time they have been deeply haunted by the specter of demographic shift.

For years now, the nativist right has persuaded itself that “white people” will soon be overwhelmed by an electorate composed of a “majority of minorities” (whether they’re right about this is a separate question). Obsessed by a form of white identity politics, one that is partly about race but also partly about intertwined cultural insecurities and class cleavages, they believed even before the president’s COVID diagnosis that they could not win a fair election. This assumption is more than sufficient to explain the ramping up of voter suppression techniques as practiced for years now in many locales.

But since even those techniques might not be enough to tip the election in Trump’s favor, the Republicans have been readying a scenario to force the election result into the Supreme Court, where, after a speedy replacement of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a youngish, female conservative justice, they will presumably hold a 6-3 majority.

Barton Gellman lays out several possible post-election scenarios in the Atlantic. Suffice it to say here that Trump’s hopes depend critically on leveraging the time lag between counting votes cast on Election Day and counting mail-in votes.

Trump may lead in some key swing states right after the polls close, so his stratagem will be to declare victory quickly, before the characteristic “blue shift” of votes toward the Democratic ticket takes hold. The Republicans have planned to claim that vast numbers of mail-in ballots, statistically more likely to be pro-Biden, are fraudulent or tainted; in states with Republican governors (that is, most of them), the count could be suspended for the duration of a legal hearing. The mess would then be passed up to the Supreme Court, and the 6-3 advantage would decide the outcome in favor of Trump. Such legal moves would likely be accompanied by massive street protests, as well as more than a dollop of pressure through political violence—some of it planned, some of it more or less spontaneous.

“White” Trumps Democracy

Let’s be clear about what all of this means. The Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, has reached an inflection point in its consistent if subtle campaign over the past four years to substitute a form of ethnonationalism for the liberal, Enlightenment-defined civic nationalism that has constituted the mainstream of American political principles.

When President Trump referred to the “very fine people” in Charlottesville, Virginia, that white nationalist bait-and-switch is exactly what he was selling. What has been a marginal discordant descant in U.S. history now threatens to carry the main, Wagnerian melody of the American future. It means, to put it bluntly, that when faced with a choice between perpetuating a “white” nation, whatever that means in the spectral minds of those who imagine it, and perpetuating a democracy, this Republican Party chooses the former.

That is why Trump invoked the demise of the Republican Party—for, the nation’s demography having tipped, he believes that Republicans will never again win the White House. Leftists will push through some national popular vote law that effectively negates the Electoral College even without a constitutional amendment; and, as a result, supermajorities in urban areas will always elect the president. (This is not an entirely fanciful fear.) That is why Trump cannot bring himself to put distance between his political interests and groups like the Proud Boys and avowedly white-supremacist organizations.

Given this view, the Republicans believe they cannot afford to play fair; so, one side will play by the rules and the other will not. The Republicans are willing to instrumentalize even the rule of law itself for what amounts to an anti-constitutional and certainly antidemocratic purpose. Remember the Senate’s sham impeachment trial from this past winter? Same thing, same reason. That, precisely, is what Trump’s comments on September 23 and his September 29 debate performance made clearer than ever.

Democracy ≠ Liberalism

What does this ominous development in a major American political party mean in a deeper sense? The answer lies in a critical distinction: Democracy and liberalism are not the same things.

Democracy is just a form of popular sovereignty through which we elect leaders. It is twinned with liberalism in the American mind only because of historical coincidence. There can be fairly elected parliaments within autocratic polities (think Bismarck-era Germany or, say, Jordan today). Today there are also true electoral democracies that are explicitly illiberal (Viktor Orbán’s Hungary).

Liberalism is a set of philosophically kindred attitudes—a kind of cultivated social temperament toward public life—that emerged from antique antecedents in Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome into its modern form in the 17th and 18th centuries via an intermingling of the West’s budding scientific revolution and the main pro-modern branch of the Protestant Reformation.

Five key hallmarks of liberalism are: secularism, not only in politics but also in relation to the arts; the enthronement of individual liberty over both communal authority and group affinity as the moral metric of political agency; the concept of a loyal opposition that affirms the value of doubt, humility, dissent, and free and open debate; protection of minority civil rights from the tyranny of the majority; and the sovereignty of law over persons within a constitutional framework.

Most Americans neither know this history nor grasp what classical liberalism is about. Worse, the words liberal and liberalism in their original, classical meaning are easily and often confused with pro-statist, meliorist inclinations that in some ways indicate the precise opposite of the classical original.

For most of the past four years, the Trump administration’s main threat to American norms has been aimed at liberalism—both the original kind and the contemporary kind. The waxing far left has also become increasingly illiberal and de facto anti-Enlightenment, which has only further goaded the right. Between racialized cynics on the right and the utopian saints on the left, the Enlightenment-based American center has become besieged—or so a clickbait-oriented mass media has made it seem.

What, then, is the practical connection between democracy and liberalism today? Democracy may be best thought of as a shield, an insurance policy of sorts, to protect liberal values from a would-be demagogue, charlatan, or political shaman—in other words, a man like Donald Trump. That’s why American democracy, warts and all, has now come under attack by the Republican Party, the better to undermine the liberalism that, in their view, enables the shift in political demography they desperately oppose.

But democracy works as a shield only if the attitudes of the people align with basic liberal principles, which themselves compose an inner shield to protect the autonomy of individual, family, and communal life. When—for reasons of affluence-enabled decadence, elite abdication, and a technology-propelled decline in deep literacy—enough people stop understanding or caring about liberal principles, democratic forms are of little use as protectors of what used to infuse the hearts and minds of a free and enlightened people. To disable the shield of democracy in today’s environment is not just to exacerbate elements of non-representative government that have crept into the system but to be able to attack without constraint what remains of liberal norms.

Alas, evidence for pessimism about the American people’s willingness to defend liberalism is abundant. For a prime example pertinent to the liberal enthronement of the individual over any group affiliation or affinity, note that instead of making further progress toward an ideal according to which people are not “judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” Americans today verge on a “cold race war,” thanks to the rise of the kind of identity-based thinking that Martin Luther King Jr. inveighed against in 1963. That thinking sprang from the left but has found a home on the right as well. Moreover, it is a war that might not remain “cold” much longer.

We have been warned that things might come to this. As Judge Learned Hand said on May 21, 1944, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.” Much earlier, on December 17, 1814, John Adams famously wrote: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

A Look in a Mirror

Americans can shudder at the frightening circumstances in which they find themselves, and they can mete out blame: It’s Trump and the Republicans; it’s the politically correct left; it’s the Russians; it’s the big-tech juggernauts that callously shove the digital dilemma up our nostrils as they dance all the way to the bank.

Frightened Americans can point all the fingers they want; but if they dare to be honest, they’ll do their pointing while looking into a mirror. Ultimately, democratic electorates get the governments they deserve. So, as November 3 approaches, consider H.L. Mencken’s prophetic remark from just a century ago:

As democracy is perfected, the office [of president] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. . . . On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

Been there, done that. Has the American nation now learned its lesson, and will it now move on to a better place? We’re bound to find out. Is the president’s illness an act of divine intervention, or is his rapid recovery the act of divine intervention? The answer to that question, alas, we’ll never know in this life. Less transcendently, will it be in the end simply a matter of just desserts that Trump becomes the victim, either political or literal, of his own disastrous handling of the pandemic?

Truth, whatever it is, really must be stranger than fiction, for who could possibly have scripted the para-reality we are now living through? How will anyone explain this to a future, renormalized American body politic, assuming there ever is one? But that is the least of our problems at the moment.

Adam Garfinkle is a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, the founding editor of The American Interest, and a distinguished fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University. A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Straits Times on October 5, 2020.