Monday, November 28, 2016

Why the Quarrel About the Popular Vote?

As if the now finally finished presidential campaign, the ensuing election, and its bewildering aftermath have not been weird enough, we now have President-Elect Trump's strangely surreal claim that millions of voters voted illegally and that, if you subtract their votes, Trump really won the popular vote! What on earth is this about?

Surely only the most kool-aid consuming true believers really believe in the myth of "voter fraud" that some have been peddling in recent years. Even counting the one case everyone by now knows about of the voter caught trying to vote twice for Trump, surely such instances of "voter fraud" are rare. The idea that there could have been more than 2 million illegal votes cast (the number needed to switch the popular vote in Trump's favor) is mind-boggling, to say the least!

On December 19, 306 duly elected Electors will cast their votes for Donald Trump and Mike Pence, and another 232 will cast their votes for Hillary Clinton and Tim Keane. Possibly a "faithless elector" or two will cast their votes for someone other than their party's officially nominated candidates. (Prior to the election at least one Democratic Elector from Washington State had made noises about refusing to vote for Clinton, no matter what.) We'll find out when the electoral votes are counted by Congress and the tally officially announced by Vice President Biden in January. But, barring some apocalyptic scenario, does anyone seriously doubt the ultimate outcome and whose name Biden will announce as the next President? Surely President-Elect Trump has a sufficient grasp of reality and is secure enough in his victory to realize that he will win this election and will be inaugurated President of the United States on January 20!

So what is the point? Of course, as Jill Stein's current recount antics suggest, the ultimate outcome need not be a motive for someone to make surreal claims about voting irregularities.

Like most people - but perhaps with a greater intensity than most of us - Donald Trump wants to be liked. So maybe he really just wants to be able plausibly to pretend that he was the majority's choice for president. Perhaps. But, eve if that be so, I think more is involved.

Given the deep divisions in our society and the way the nation is almost evenly split, contemporary presidential elections are seldom landslides and rarely reflect any sort of "mandate." Yet, amazingly, from Kellyanne Conway to Paul Ryan there has been no lack of Republicans who have labelled Trump's win a "mandate." Congressman Darrell Issa has even compared Trump's mandate to that of Theodore Roosevelt! And all sorts of right-wing pundit-types have sought to highlight how decisively the country has rejected the Democratic agenda. 

Actually what the 2016 election has highlighted is the extent to which two competing cultures are at war within America. This is not the old "culture war" of Pat Buchanan and the Religious Right. That "culture war" has largely spent itself. And we all know which side has won. But there is a wider "culture war" between the coastal, cosmopolitan, well educated "winners" and those others whom free trade, globalization, and identity politics have largely left behind. And, as befits such a fundamental life-style conflict, it is important not just to win power but in some sense to vanquish the other side. Had Hillary Clinton won, we would undoubtedly be hearing a lot about the Democrats' demographic destiny and how they are on "the right side of history." So, perhaps, it is not surprising that the actual winners want to portray the result as more than just the acquisition of power but also a true ideological and cultural triumph.

What gets in the way of that claim, of course, is the inconvenient fact that more voters - some 2 million more - voted for Clinton over Trump. Yes, Trump won the election and will soon be inaugurated as the legitimate 45th American President. But neither he nor his adopted party (his adopted party even less than he) has been given any real "mandate." Power yes, but a moral "mandate" no.

We remain a deeply divided nation, a deeply polarized people. Perhaps Trump (who, whatever else may be said of him is certainly no Republican ideologue) can overcome some of that, a truly worth accomplishment for him to aspire to. Time will tell. But surely a prerequisite for overcoming our divisions and our polarization must be to acknowledge it and its sources. Pretending to have attained a fake "mandate" may make some sort of sense in a post-factual world of fake news. But it will not overcome our divisions or advance the national unity we would actually need to "Make American Great Again

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