Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Are We Losing a Shared Faith in the Process?

Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm too young to remember pre-2000 elections well enough. Maybe I'm just old enough that my memory is starting to go. So I'm not all that confident in what I'm about to say.

But my impression is that there is more and more doubt about the legitimacy of our electoral system - which is a very dangerous thing. It seems, based on decidedly non-scientific observations of the state of political discourse, that there's a lot less trust in two things about our elections process: the validity of the process itself, and each other in the context of elections.

The validity of the process, of course, was famously called into question in 2000 by the "butterfly ballot" debacle. But nobody makes butterfly ballots anymore, and with the advent of electronic voting machines the problem of hanging chads (and pregnant chads, and detached chads, and dimpled chads...) has gone the way of the IBM Selectric typewriter - we still have a few hanging around, but they don't matter very much.

Yet in this cycle, we see increasingly panicked vigilance on both sides for process monitoring. Voices raising questions about the fundamentals of the system have gotten mainstream traction. The first story about an electronic machine supposedly tampering with a vote came out within hours of the polls first opening. People have set up "action hot lines", not just to defend their voting rights (which is entirely appropriate) but to report on the smallest bits of suspicious activity. I can guarantee that, whichever side wins, some of the losing side's supporters will be muttering darkly tomorrow about the election having been "stolen".

More to the point, we don't trust the people involved in the process - in particular, we don't trust the people on the other side. There's been so much frothing and fuming about "voter fraud" and polling-site manipulation that it's hard to believe we might actually be living in a functional democracy. Stories about poll workers wearing candidates' hats and shirts, or about busses of mentally ill folks being taken to polling stations and told how to vote, are rampant. The dead rise to vote, fistfights break out in polling places - it's pandemonium (if stories are to be believed). To those promulgating these stories, there is apparently no level of vile trickery to which the other side will not stoop.

About these sorts of claims (that partisans on one side or the other are actively engaged in "dirty tricks" to steal the election), one of three things must be true:

1) These stories are pure fantasy, delusions brought on by the feverish paranoia that often goes along with partisanship run amok (a condition that should be added to the DSM V when it comes out.)

2) There are isolated and sporadic attempts by individuals or small groups to engage in ad hoc manipulation, but they are small-scale and as such highly unlikely to affect the outcome of the election.

3) There exist widespread conspiracies within one or both parties, involving large numbers of people, that are attempting to subvert the electoral process and insure the victory of "their man" at all costs.

Neither of the first two is particularly problematic. #1 is just an issue of manic partisanship, suggesting that the rest of us should take these poor, deluded souls out for a nice cup of tea and help them calm down. #2 is only modestly troubling, like discovering that there is in fact a crime rate in most cities. We know there are criminals among us, and we do our best to stop them, but we don't think that the existence of those few threatens our way of life.

Condition #3, if true, would represent a serious threat to democracy. It is also, given the difficulty of keeping secrets known by large masses of people, vanishingly unlikely. It is the kind of extraordinary claim that, as scientists will point out, requires extraordinary evidence. One or two shaky cell-phone pictures don't establish a nationwide conspiracy any more than grainy footage of possibly moving lights in the sky proves that there are UFOs.

But what bothers me most about the ongoing claims about the subversion of democracy "right under our noses" is that making these claims in public does real damage to our political process. The more we hear paranoid fantasies, the more we start to listen. We trust each other less. We listen less. And when the time comes not to campaign but to govern, we don't do it very well - because neither side trusts the other enough to bargain, or even talk, in good faith.

There are still bumper stickers hanging around from 2008 proclaiming that "Barack Obama is not MY President". The more we question the legitimacy of elections, the more we call into question the legitimacy of the government itself. And as every political scientist will tell you, legitimacy is the primary strength of every government. Lose it, and all you have are soldiers, guns, prisons, and state-controlled media. You become North Korea.

So to those inclined to throw around wild stories on this election day, and for those who will want in the coming days to blame your side's loss on the cheating of the other side: shut up. By telling these stories, you are doing far more harm to American democracy than any politician can. Because ultimately, it is we the people who have the power. If we act like we live in a (basically) functioning democracy, critiquing it vigorously where necessary and accepting the rules we've agreed to, then that's what we get. If we act like we live in a dictatorship-on-the-cusp, and everything is going to hell in a hand basket - and if we get enough people to believe it - it will be true.

In a different context and a long time ago, Walt Kelly said it best: We have met the enemy, and he is us. We will see - not today, but tomorrow and in the next week - whether we can pull back from being our own worst enemy, or whether we will continue to dump trash and toxic sludge on our body politic.

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