Four years ago, I was writing about how Donald Trump’s rise had led to some hand-wringing on whether democracy is a good idea. Now that question is more urgent, because the United States is at some risk of losing it.
In the present election, Joe Biden has held the most consistent lead in the history of modern polling. So far, not once has Trump moved ahead of Biden in the polling average. (Compare 2016.) Yes, a lot can happen in two months, but this election will involve so much early voting that there is now not much time left for Trump to turn it around. So, I feel very confident in predicting that more Americans will vote for Joe Biden than for Donald Trump. That wasn’t enough for his predecessor to actually become president, of course, since, like Al Gore before her, she was caught out by the indefensible atavism that is the Electoral College: one needs to win a specific subset of states, irrespective of the number of votes one receives. Still, Biden’s lead is such, and his support among those who dislike both candidates so much stronger than Hillary Clinton’s, that I think it is quite likely that he will get more votes in the necessary swing states as well.
Even that, however, does not mean that Biden will become president on inauguration day.
There are two, potentially connected, ways in which Biden could get more votes than Trump, in enough swing states to win the Electoral College, and still not actually become president. First, Democrats say they are much more likely than Republicans to vote by mail, because of their higher level of concern for preventing COVID-19. If Trump can get a large enough number of mail ballots thrown out or not delivered (given that his appointee is in the post office), many votes that were cast for Biden will not count for him, allowing Trump to become president. Second, even if those votes are counted, Trump can proclaim them fraudulent, refuse to concede, and declare himself the legitimate president – using the various levers of power currently at his disposal, especially the brazen capitulation of his fellow Republican politicians, to make it actually happen.
I find this all concerning for multiple reasons. Perhaps the biggest is the arguments of the excellent Democracy for Realists by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels. Achen and Bartels are cynics about the justifications we normally offer for elections, for reasons backed up with social-scientific data. Effectively they argue that there is no such thing as “the will of the people”. Princeton’s book blurb sums up the case well:
voters—even those who are well informed and politically engaged—mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues. They also show that voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties. When parties are roughly evenly matched, elections often turn on irrelevant or misleading considerations such as economic spurts or downturns beyond the incumbents’ control; the outcomes are essentially random. Thus, voters do not control the course of public policy, even indirectly.
An argument like this makes it sound like Achen and Bartels might be against elections. But they are not. They support elections as a system of selecting rulers – for reasons that have nothing to do with the will of the people. And a major such reason is the peaceful transfer of power.
In non-electoral systems like the People’s Republic of China, government tends to remain in the hands of a single clique of élites, often leading to a corrupt capture of the state apparatus by those élite groups. In an electoral system – what we usually refer to as a democracy – that government regularly changes, in a way that helps stave off that corruption. And it changes without the military coups and bloodshed that so often characterize non-electoral transfer of power.
Or at least, that is what is supposed to happen. And it is what has happened, more or less, in every American election since at least the Civil War. Hillary Clinton accepted defeat to a man she clearly found abhorrent in every way, even though she won the popular vote. She did this because she accepted that American elections work according to rules. She accepted that, however unfair the rules of the Electoral College are, they were the rules the country had agreed to play by, and she played by them. So she conceded defeat and allowed Trump to become president, just as Gore had done with Bush in 2000. When Bush’s father lost the election of 1992, he too surrendered the presidency to his rival. That is how elections are supposed to work, and they have worked because there has been a shared agreement, even among enemies, that they will work that way.
Now, however, we are faced with the very real possibility that Trump will get fewer counted votes – will lose according to the rules – and will not transfer power. Or, alternately, he will not transfer power because he is breaking the rules enough to ensure that the votes are not counted. That is to say that in such a situation, the peaceful transfer of power, according to an ordered set of rules, will not happen. If that were to be the case, the United States would, for the time being at least, cease to have possibly the most important benefit of electoral democracy. Power would either remain in the hands of a corrupt clique with no way of ousting it, or it would be achieved with bloodshed – or both. This is hardly a merely theoretical risk: it has effectively happened in Hungary and Turkey, and could happen here.
Practically speaking, it is of the highest importance that this election not be close – that Biden’s votes outnumber Trump’s so decisively that his machinations make less difference. In terms of political philosophy, the present election puts in bold focus just how important elections are – for reasons that have nothing to do with the will of the people.