A Democracy, If You Can Keep It

Even if 2020 weren’t a presidential election year in the United States, I’d still spend this fall celebrating democracy. Not only is this the 100th anniversary of American women getting the vote, but I’m teaching a class on the Cold War, a conflict that began with the defeat of one authoritarian regime and ended with the collapse of another. For all the injustice and hypocrisy that we find in American history, teaching and writing about it never fails to make me grateful to live in a democracy.

So it’s jarring to teach about that past even as the present-day president of the United States regularly demonstrates that he doesn’t believe in democracy.

Trump earlier this year, after being acquitted on two impeachment counts – White House

Look, I don’t prefer Donald Trump to Joe Biden. But if more of my fellow citizens do, their candidate should become president. My vote is only meaningful because it’s possible that my candidate won’t win.

But the same has to be true for Trump voters. They have to vote knowing that their candidate can lose power.

Yet at a press conference yesterday, Trump again refused to say that he would abide by the results of the election and participate in the peaceful transfer of power that has marked every American election save one. “We’re going to have to see what happens,” Trump told a reporter — which should, by itself, be enough to disqualify him.

But let’s just imagine that democratic leaders actually do get to wait and see if they’ll abide by the people’s choice… Trump proceeded to complain again about “the ballots,” calling them “a disaster. Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.” It’s his incoherent way of alluding to the supposed problem of more citizens opting to vote by mail rather than going to crowded polls in the midst of a pandemic that has killed 200,000 Americans under Trump’s leadership.

Election integrity is a grave concern for democracies around the world. But no expert believes that election fraud is a problem in this country. Just ask the Republican election lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg, a member of the conservative Federalist Society who advised the campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. He wrote earlier this month that “after decades of looking for illegal voting, there’s no proof of widespread fraud. At most, there are isolated incidents — by both Democrats and Republicans. Elections are not rigged. Absentee ballots use the same process as mail-in ballots — different states use different labels for the same process.” In 2016 and 2018, for example, fewer than 400 out of over 14 million ballots cast were even possibly illegal. Another study found 31 credible cases of voter impersonation between 2000 and 2014… out of 1 billion ballots cast. Trump’s own attempt to prove otherwise fell apart when his hand-picked commission simply disbanded.

Indeed, Ginsberg wrote when he did because Trump himself had just encouraged election fraud, telling supporters in the battleground states of North Carolina and Pennsylvania to vote twice: once by mail and then again in person. It’s doubtful Trump thought he’d actually garner additional votes in this way, but it’s obvious that he hoped yet again to foster doubts about the validity of our electoral system. “The president’s actions — urging his followers to commit an illegal act and seeking to undermine confidence in the credibility of election results — are doubly wrong,” warned Ginsberg.

An Ohio polling place in November 2016 – Creative Commons (Tim Evanson)

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The same day Trump again refused to accept the principle of peaceful transfer of power, The Atlantic published this astonishingly well sourced nightmare of an article. Based on conversations with election scholars and Republican officials, Barton Gellman makes the compelling case that this November will push the machinery of American democracy to a breaking point.

It’s a long, complicated article, but I beg you to read the whole thing. Because unless you persist in believing in what Gellman calls “the fictitious threat” of voter fraud, his reporting will lead you to this conclusion: the Trump campaign is actively working to suppress as many Democratic votes as possible in order either to win the election outright or to make a Biden win seem closer than it is; then, if necessary, Trump strategists are identifying legal loopholes that would let Republicans ignore even that vote total (e.g., arranging for Republican-controlled state legislatures simply to seat their own slate of electors, whatever the result of the popular vote, which would likely end up throwing the matter to the same Supreme Court whose newest opening Trump is rushing to fill).

What I’m about to write is not easy, especially for a 20th century historian who so often teaches about democracies that devolved into dictatorships. But I don’t see any way around this truth:

To vote for Donald Trump under these circumstances requires you either to proceed in ignorance, or under the belief that holding on to power is an end that justifies all means. Neither attitude is compatible with the functioning of democracy.

Put another way: no democrat — Democrat or Republican — can vote in good faith for a candidate seeking to suppress and ignore the votes of their fellow citizens.

Cartogram of the 2016 presidential vote, with county size scaled by population – Creative Commons (Mark Newman)

Fortunately, democracy can prevent its own demise… if Donald Trump loses in a landslide. He needs to lose by so many votes that no accusation of voter fraud is even remotely plausible, even in Republican-controlled battleground states like Florida and Arizona.

The thing is, I think Donald Trump actually knows that he’s likely to lose in this way. Lost in the mix yesterday was the latest poll from Quinnipiac University, which found Joe Biden maintaining a ten-point lead nationwide among likely voters. The model at FiveThirtyEight currently gives Trump only a 23% chance of victory.

To recast George Will’s description of Trump as a “weak person’s idea of a strong person”… in a democracy, a politician who tries to sound like a strongman is actually a weak candidate.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t ruin democratic norms in the process of losing a close, contested election and provoking a constitutional crisis.

So here’s my advice: (to all but Trump’s true believers, who won’t acknowledge the truth of any premise in this post)

1. If you’re already opposed to Trump, don’t let his bluster discourage you. Have the courage of your convictions, and vote for Joe Biden.

2. If you held your nose and voted for Trump in 2016, your business with him is done. Your vote got you a third of the Supreme Court; it doesn’t get Trump your undying loyalty. Now you can hold your nose again, and vote for Joe Biden.

3. If you’ve been wavering, don’t stay home, don’t leave the presidential line empty, and don’t choose a third party. Vote for Joe Biden: in person if it’s safe; by mail, if not.

Maybe you disagree with Biden about taxes, climate change, gun control, foreign policy, or something else that’s significant to you. (I disagree with him about abortion.) Maybe you simply find him uninspiring as a candidate. Neither reservation should stop you from casting your ballot for Biden, knowing that in two years you can vote Democrats out of the Senate and House, and that in four you can return the White House to GOP control. But you can’t do either of those things if the 2020 election allows Donald Trump to undo the core principles of our constitutional democracy.

Let me tack on one note of explanation. No doubt several of you have noticed that my title cribs from a quotation famously attributed to Ben Franklin, but I’ve chosen to substitute “democracy” for “republic.” I know that the United States is usually defined as a republic or democratic republic; I know that the classical definitions of republic and democracy are different. Mostly, I’m just trying to emphasize that even in a representative form of constitutional government, the power (kratos) does reside with the people (demos) in the moment of voting, if not in more direct participation at other points in the process.

But I’m also using democracy in the broad sense in which that word is defined by Larry Diamond and Marc Plattner in the first issue of the Journal of Democracy in 1990: “a system of government with three essential features: (I) meaningful, extensive, and peaceful competition among individuals and organized groups for all effective positions of government power through regular, free, and fair elections; (2) highly inclusive and genuinely independent political participation in the selection of leaders and policies, such that no significant adult group is excluded; and (3) a high level of civil and political liberties—freedom of speech, religion, opinion, and information; freedom of peaceable assembly; freedom to form and join organizations; and equal protection and due process under the impartial rule of law—sufficient to ensure the integrity of political competition and participation and the accountability of the rulers to the people.”