The election of the president is a cause of agitation, but not ruin,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his 19th century classic, Democracy in America (1835). “Nevertheless,” he continued, “one may consider the time of the presidential election as a moment of national crisis… The whole nation gets into a feverish state, the election is… the subject of every thought and the sole interest for the moment.”
In the quarter of a century I have been covering American presidential elections there have always been people on either side who thought the outcome would be pivotal for the country, if not humanity. “I fear for this country if [John] Kerry wins,” Burton Kephart, from Franklin, Pennsylvania, who had lost his son Jonathan in the Iraq War, told me in 2004. “God has a plan for the ages. [George W] Bush will hold back the evil a little bit.”
This time, however, the prospect of ruin feels both real and imminent. Voters go to the polls amid an unprecedented range of overlapping crises: a pandemic that has infected more than eight million US citizens and killed close to 230,000; an economic depression that has left more than 25 million unemployed and forced eight million into poverty since May; a racial rebellion that has sparked a violent racist backlash in various parts of the country; and environmental calamity evident in persistent wildfires.
And yet while all of these feature as major issues in the campaign there is one matter that looms larger than all of them: the fate of American democracy itself.
Concerns about the legitimacy of this election, some serious and well-founded, others frivolous and contrived, are widespread.
Polls over the summer revealed that almost three quarters of Americans are concerned about voter suppression or possible election interference this year and half of registered voters expect difficulties casting their ballot, compared to the 85 per cent who presumed it would be easy during the 2018 midterms. In California, the nation’s most populous state, more than half of voters under 30 believe the election will not be fair and open.
“I can’t say this any more clearly,” wrote the New York Times columnist and high priest of neoliberalism, Thomas Friedman at the end of September: “Our democracy is in terrible danger – more danger than it has been since the Civil War, more than after Pearl Harbor, more than during the Cuban Missile Crisis and more danger than during Watergate.”
The danger he describes is real; but the historical context in which he locates it is fictitious. America was a slave state for more than 200 hundred years; an apartheid state for a century and has only been a non-racial democracy for less than six decades. Most of the country couldn’t vote during the Civil War. Black people were not legally protected to vote during Pearl Harbor or the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In the hoopla of the election we should not so easily forget the lessons of these summer’s rebellions. Just as it is the awareness of police shooting black people that has risen, not the number of shootings themselves, so the new-found awareness of the fragility of American democracy should not be mistaken for that fragility being new. Trump’s wilful violations of democratic norms are more accurately understood as a brazen, reckless and incendiary continuation of the US’s racist political culture than a rupture from it. The legal, political and rhetorical groundwork for these violations had been laid long before he came on the scene. He did not create it; he is the product of it.
As such he is not thwarting American democratic traditions in their prime, but throttling them in their infancy. In this he has had many accomplices, not all of whom have been such cartoonish villains. (It should go without saying that with a monarchy and the House of Lords, British democracy remains stillborn – a fact that has been recognised repeatedly in this magazine and elsewhere.)
The source of the current anxiety is not difficult to fathom. With coronavirus running amok (the swing states of Wisconsin, Ohio and North Carolina all recorded single day highs in infections in October) many states have made it easier for people to vote by mail. Democrats, in particular, have encouraged their base to do so.
In the best of times this would create complications. Voting by mail can be tricky, demanding various signatures, postmarks and the correct envelopes. Two studies of the 2018 midterm elections in Florida and Georgia respectively found that young and minority voters are especially likely to have their mail ballots rejected. Lawyers are already swooping. In mid-September, for example, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that ballots not enclosed in a second “secrecy” envelope will be rejected (mail votes without one were accepted as recently as the June primaries). In 2016 Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes: a margin of 0.7 per cent.
[See also: Leader: Why Trump and his clan must go]
But these are not the best of times. With polls consistently showing Trump trailing by significant margins in key states, he has decided to undermine confidence in the entire election. He has repeatedly claimed that voting by mail will inevitably be rigged. There is no basis for such a claim. According to a Washington Post review of the 2016 election there was only one case of postal voter fraud in the whole country.
He tells supporters to vote twice – once by mail and once in person – even though to do so is a crime. He has actively undermined mail voting by deliberately denying funding to the US postal service so that it will be unable to handle the extra workload.
His aim is to create maximum disruption at the polls and drain the process of all credibility. This should come as no surprise. From the outset Trump has had little respect for democracy. He threatened to jail Hillary Clinton and is now doing the same to Joe Biden. “That Biden family is corrupt, a corrupt family,” he said at a recent rally, prompting chants of “lock him up” from the crowd. “We should lock him up. Lock up the Bidens. Lock up Hillary.” His threat not to accept the result if he loses echoes the obstinacy he displayed in 2016, when he said, “I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election if I win.” He attacks the judiciary, lambasting “Obama judges” and calling those who challenge his laws “a disgrace”. He targets the media, branding outlets that are critical of him as “enemies of the people” and inciting crowds against individual journalists, with one reporter requiring a security service escort to her car after one gathering in 2016. He condones and encourages political violence at his rallies, exhorting supporters to “knock the crap” out of protestors whom he hoped to see “carried out on stretchers” and offering to pay the legal bills of those who beat up hecklers. All of this was evident in 2016 and has not abated since.
Credit: Mike McQuade
Only this time, thanks to the pandemic, there is far more opportunity to sow confusion and foment mayhem. Different states have different election laws. In at least seven swing states the ballots won’t be counted unless they are received on or before election day; in five swing states they accept mail votes postmarked as late as election day or the day before, which means they might not arrive for a few days afterwards. In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – three of the most decisive states in 2016 – they are not allowed to start counting the mail-in ballots until election day. There’s a real chance we won’t know who has won on election night itself. With Democrats more likely to vote by mail there is a chance that, if it’s close, Trump could be ahead in some places on election night and yet lose when all the votes are tallied.
Knowing this, his surrogates have been pushing to insist the result should be declared on election day, regardless of how many mail-in ballots remain uncounted. “The elites are traumatised,” said Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, recently. “They do not want to go stand in line and vote. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a game-changer: [the decisive factor] is what electorate shows up to vote on a vote that can be certified. That’s a vote that counts. And right now, what they don’t want to talk about is Donald J Trump leads on people who are actually going to show up and vote on 3 November, by 21 per cent.” That is an exaggeration. But the fact remains that Republicans are more likely to vote in person and less likely to heed Covid warnings.
Moreover, Trump has called on his supporters to patrol polling stations ostensibly to monitor them in case there is fraud. “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen,” he said at the end of the first presidential debate. “I’m urging them to do it.”
Given his rhetoric and the fissile state of country this is tantamount to encouraging voter intimidation.
“Chances are really high that we’re going to see militia members, armed groups, or Trump supporters who are armed at the polls,” Cassie Miller, a senior researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the New York Times. “Not only are these people willing to participate in voter intimidation, but they’re hoping to create this chaotic moment.”
There is a distinct possibility that there will be anarchic scenes at the polls and on election night for the simple reason that the president has done everything he can to delegitimise the electoral process, disrupt proceedings and cast doubt over the result. This is clear evidence of his desperation. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t work. His refusal to disavow white supremacists and conspiracy theorists gives some sense of his core audience: their indifference to democratic niceties, entitlement to power and inability to engage with a reality they neither respect nor recognise. They have their man in the White House. They have no intention of going quietly.
In the past month alone the Department of Justice has uncovered a plot by white supremacists to kidnap the Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, and a man was arrested after threatening to kidnap the mayor of Wichita, Kansas, slit his throat and turn him into fertiliser, in protest at the city’s face mask mandate. I cannot imagine a Trump concession speech in which he does not inflame his supporters’ racialised paranoia with claims that the election was stolen from him and, by association, their country was stolen from them.
The challenge with Trump has long been to distinguish what is truly aberrant from what is a crude and flamboyant continuum of that which came before. Racism, xenophobia, misogyny, lying or conspiracy theories in politics – up to and including at its highest level – long preceded him. But he has exploited and articulated them in a more forthright manner than any of his predecessors and in ways that are substantial and consequential.
Divining the line that separates transgressions that are a question of magnitude and those that represent a more fundamental change is difficult but necessary. To downplay these new transgressions would be to normalise the unacceptable, to fetishise those that are a continuation would be to accept what went before as normal.
The truth is that the US’s electoral system was already violating democratic norms in ways that almost certainly determined the outcome of elections, including the one that gave us Trump.
Starting with the most obvious, according to the Sentencing Project, 2.27 per cent of American adults cannot vote because of a current or previous felony (serious crime) conviction. Disenfranchisement rates vary considerably state to state – in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee it is around 8 per cent of the electorate.
The Sentencing Project estimates that, despite a 2018 ballot referendum restoring voting rights to those who have completed their sentences, 900,000 Floridians remain disenfranchised at this election. This is either because they cannot afford to pay the court-ordered fines or because the state does not have to tell them how much they owe. Trump won Florida by only 112,911 votes in 2016.
[See also: America and the politics of pain]
Then there are voter ID laws requiring onerous levels of identification which many people do not have. According to the American Civil Liberties Union around 11 per cent of Americans do not have government- issued photo ID. Acquiring these documents can be expensive and time-consuming, and the demand is most likely to fall on the poor, who have the least money or time to spare. Over the past two decades, laws demanding them have been introduced by Republican-run states ostensibly to prevent voter fraud. But, as with Trump’s claims about mail-in ballots, that threat barely exists. In the 2016 election there were four documented cases of voter impersonation; a 2017 academic study put the upper limit for incidents of double voting in the election of 2012 at 0.02 per cent.
A 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that strict photo ID laws could reduce voter turnout by 2-3 percentage points. In 2016 such an amount exceeded the margin of victory in six states.
Then there is gerrymandering. This is a longstanding practice whereby both political parties carve up constituencies in order to maximise their chances of winning the most seats by corralling as many of their opponents’ voters in one seat, leaving the rest for themselves. For example, in 2012 Republicans received 46 per cent of the popular vote in Wisconsin state elections but received 60 per cent of the seats in the state assembly. Nationwide that year Democrats got 1.4 million more votes in House races. Republicans won 33 more seats.
The targets of these democratic assaults are not random. In around 20 years white people will become a minority in the US. The anxiety that this has produced among a section of white America in no small part explains Trump’s victory in 2016. Research by Diana Mutz, a politics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, indicates that there was little relationship between voting for Trump and having lost a job or income, or living in an area dominated by manufacturing jobs or scarred by high unemployment.
“It’s not a threat to their own economic well-being; it’s a threat to their group’s dominance in our country overall,” Mutz told the New York Times. “It used to be a pretty good deal to be a white, Christian male in America, but things have changed and I think they do feel threatened.”
These efforts to suppress the vote are aimed primarily at the black and the brown though they often catch the poor and young in their snares too. In 2012 the South Carolina Republican senator Lindsey Graham stated: “The demographics race we’re losing badly. We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
In the absence of sufficient numbers of angry white men, they are instead disenfranchising black and brown voters. They do this by compounding the systemic discrimination that already exists and shifting it from the criminal justice system and the economy to the electoral system.
Felony conviction rates, for example, are as much a product of discrimination as criminality. Drug use is equally prevalent among African Americans and whites, but the former are six times more likely to be imprisoned for it. Black people are also seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder and 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of a drugs offence than white people.
One in 16, or 6.2 per cent of African Americans are currently deprived of the vote because of felony laws, which is four times the rate of those who are not black. In seven states – including Florida – more than one in seven African Americans does not have the vote. The Sentencing Project’s “conservative” estimate is that more than 2 per cent of Latinx voters (of Latin-American identity) are currently disenfranchised.
“Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of colour ‘criminals’, and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind,” writes Michelle Alexander in her 2010 book The New Jim Crow. “As a criminal you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America we have merely redesigned it.”
Similarly, African-American voters are three times less likely to have government-issued photo ID than white voters: the same GAO study found such laws were particularly effective in keeping African Americans from the polls. And since race is one of the most accurate predictors of voting habits, when gerrymandering takes place the constituencies are carved up with the express intention of putting as many black voters in one district as possible and leaving them thinly dispersed elsewhere.
There is a storied history of black people being denied the vote. Prior to civil rights legislation in the 1960s, in the South officials might present any African American brave enough to go to a polling station with a jar of jelly beans and tell them they had to say how many beans were in the jar before they could vote. Others were presented with a bar of soap and asked how many bubbles were in it. Elsewhere, they employed literacy tests for people they had denied an education to prevent them from voting. And when none of that worked, they would beat you up or even kill you.
In March 1965 ABC News interrupted its screening of the film Judgment at Nuremberg, a drama about Nazi war crimes, to show mostly black protesters being beaten bloody as they tried to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma, Alabama, demanding the right to vote. A few months later came the Voting Rights Act, with federally mandated protections to guarantee that African Americans could vote and be represented, particularly in the former Confederacy. In 2013 the Supreme Court, with judges appointed by Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, ruled that states should be freed from special federal oversight under the act.
The results can be most clearly seen in the state of Georgia, which has a close senate race and could, at a stretch, go for Biden. Before the Supreme Court judgement the state would have needed federal permission to close polling stations – now it doesn’t. As a result the number of polling stations has been cut by almost 10 per cent even as the voter rolls have grown by almost two million. The cuts to voter access and the growth in voter population have mostly taken place in the same areas, disproportionately affecting the black, brown, young and poor. The metro Atlanta area, for example, has almost half of the state’s active voters but just over a third of the polling places.
An analysis by the Stanford University political science professor Jonathan Rodden of the primaries in June this year revealed that the average waiting time to vote after 7pm across Georgia was 51 minutes in polling places that were 90 per cent or more non-white, but only six minutes in polling places that were 90 per cent white. Trump had nothing to do with it; though he and those like him will be the clear beneficiaries.
Arguing before the Supreme Court in 2013 the attorney Bert Rein opposed the Voting Rights Act, stating: “There is an old disease, and that disease is cured. That problem is solved.”
He was right on one count. It is indeed an old disease; one for which they have yet to find an effective vaccine and from which no American can fully isolate themselves. It is the same disease infecting American democracy that killed Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and countless others, and that has been blighting black and brown people disproportionately throughout the pandemic. That disease is called racism: Trump is the super-spreader.
[see also: The return of American fascism]
This article appears in the 28 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning