Tell me what democracy looks like

It is impossible to disagree with Hillary Clinton’s blunt comment that Trump’s threat Wednesday night not to respect the election results was a “horrifying” thing to say. No doubt it was the most newsworthy moment in a debate that mostly consisted of the candidates saying things we already knew about their positions, and about what they think of each other (though if there were any minds left to be changed by this debate, I suspect the unhinged misogyny of  the moment when he muttered “such a nasty woman” will sway more of them than anything else either of them debatesaid).

But the pundits and the Twittersphere coalesced around a response to Trump’s comments that I think people should think twice about. The standard line goes something like this: Trump’s coy threat to keep us “in suspense” on whether he will accept the election results is “beyond the pale.” It goes against 240 years of tradition of peaceful transitions of power (it seems worth pointing out that the number is actually somewhat lower, since it would be hard to describe the election of 1860 as a peaceful transition). This statement violates “the most basic principle of democracy” (sometimes of “American democracy”) and is—even according to some Republican pundits–“disqualifying” (as if Trump hasn’t made statements daily for a year that should have disqualified him long ago).

Here’s the thing: while I agree that Trump is nutty and fascistic and that his reasons for threatening not to accept the election results are delusional and dangerous, I have cringed and squirmed at the dominant response to his statement, which has been to hold up the US electoral system as the paragon of unsullied democracy, and to hold up the uncontested transition of power as the highest principle of that democracy.

First, the US electoral system. I could settle this point by saying two words: electoral college. Isn’t the idea that the person getting the most votes in a head-to-head contest should win a pretty high principle of democracy? Beyond that aspect of the system, and everything else in our Constitution that was put there not to enable democracy but to prevent it, it’s important to look at how terrible our electoral system is from top to bottom, from election day not being a holiday to the pervasive efforts at highly racialized forms of voter suppression in dozens of states to the fact that our election “system” is really fifty different systems, mostly run by volunteers supervised by political hacks and appointees.

No, the election can’t be “rigged” in the way Donald Trump means that term, but there are innumerable ways that elections are rigged racially, rigged against broad participation, rigged against candidates outside the D/R duopoly, gerrymandered, and rigged by party machines on both sides. For a variety of reasons most of that rigging these days benefits the party Trump recently captured, but the Republicans’ styles of rigging have been matched by Democratic styles in the fairly recent past.  (I wrote about this kind of election corruption in an op-ed I published back in 2004 about my experience poll-watching in Chicago in the late 1980s).

But we are obligated to be shocked, shocked, that anyone could use the word “rigged” to refer to the election process. Again, I think Trump’s claim is baseless and stupid in its specifics (or lack thereof). But I won’t let his stupidity force me to pretend I think we have a wonderfully democratic process.

As for elevating the uncontested and peaceful transition of power to the highest principle of democracy, instead of two words, I have one number: 2000. I can’t be the last person on earth who thinks that the fact that millions of people did not turn out in the streets when that election was stolen was a sign of the anemic weakness of American democracy, not of its strength. No, I’m not saying Al Gore should have been installed by force (the idea that he could have inspired that level of loyalty is pretty laughable). But a serious commitment to electoral democracy should have resulted in mass demonstrations—long before the case got to the Supreme Court—demanding that every vote be counted, that an election in which bad ballot design resulted in thousands of Jews in Florida having their votes tallied as for the anti-Semitic candidate was fatally flawed; that an election in which sheriffs closed off roads between African American neighborhoods and polling places should have been re-done…I could go on. Instead it was the right that mobilized thugs to intimidate vote-counters (does anyone remember the phrase “Brooks Brothers riot?” Google it), and it was the right wing of the brooks-brothers-riotSupreme Court that nullified democracy by stopping the vote counting and installing Bush and Cheney.

In short, I’m arguing that in 2000, a commitment to the peaceful transition
of power resulted in more damage to democracy than anything else could have. (And, to be clear, I am wishing there had been massive nonviolent civil disobedience and not saying there should have been riots in the streets; I’ll leave arguments that democracy requires that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” to out-of-the-mainstream radicals like Thomas Jefferson). And, as a result, Bush and Cheney were free to use 9/11 as an excuse to trample on innumerable democratic principles at home and abroad, not least by joining Tony Blair and other “democratic” leaders in ignoring the largest anti-war demonstrations in the history of the world and launching the invasion of Iraq.

Those of us who went into the streets to try to prevent that crime, and who chanted “this is what democracy looks like,” were invoking and embodying a richer and deeper understanding of democracy than the one held by those mainstream liberals who glorify the US electoral system and elevate the peaceful transition of power above all else. I’m perfectly happy that Trump’s statement is being used to further discredit him, and at a more general level I’m relieved that the Democratic standard-bearer has proved stunningly effective at baiting Trump and quashing his electoral chances. But even as I share the desire to denounce Trump’s thuggish threats, I can’t go along with these two dubious claims about U.S. democracy.