If Your Side Wins, Do You Care How the Winner Was Selected? 

Politics

Divisions over the nature of voting are pushing American democracy into a new phase.

United,States,Capitol,Building,Silhouette,And,Us,Flags,At,Sunrise

On February 16, the Epoch Times, a conservative, broadly Trumpy outlet, published a report worriedly headlined, “Scant Election Reforms Since 2020 Forebode a Repeat in November.”

The article explained, “With just months left ahead of the 2024 election, Republicans say little was mended, especially in contested states where they thought fixes were needed most.” More: “Much concern is centered around five key swing states that became the focus of 2020: Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan, and Wisconsin.” Those states, boasting 71 electoral votes, swung from Donald Trump in 2016 to Joe Biden four years later. We might add that of those five states, four have Democratic governors and attorneys general, and three have Democratic secretaries of state. 

Perhaps that realization inspired Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip “Dilbert,” to poll his 1.1 million X followers, “Given the demonization of Trump, what are the odds our 2024 election will be rigged?” Of the more than 23,000 answers, 78 percent said “definitely rigged,” and 18 percent more said “probably rigged.” 

To be sure, that’s not a “scientific” sample, but it’s surely a representative sample. Given that the Trump faithful have been hearing, for so long—including from the 45th president himself—that the 2020 presidential election was rigged, how could they not think that 2024 will be rigged? 

Some might puzzle over why people who think the fix is in are nonetheless so fervent in their electoral engagement. Of course, many of them also enjoy pro wrestling, that most theatrically rigged of sports activities. We might further speculate that the faithful expect a miracle. The essence of QAnon, after all, is that the problem of Trump’s battle with evil has already been solved, and so Trump’s destiny is ordained. (The fact that various promised Trump returns to office have not happened—nor have we seen the return of his supposed boon companion, the late JFK Jr.—well, that’s a mystery beyond the ken of this article.) 

At the risk of heresy, this author is on record: QAnon’s graces notwithstanding, the Democrats are unlikely to yield power to a figure they increasingly regard as authoritarian, Putinian, even Hitlerian. So, yes, Scott Adams’ followers are probably right. 

Still, Republicans have proven that they can win plenty of elections, with or without Trump’s help, and they are working to make sure they win more. Republicans can’t win everywhere, of course, but they can double down on their home turf. That same Epoch Times article noted that 13 red states, mindful of the very real threat of vote fraud, have tightened their balloting. 

At the same time, many blue states, more relaxed about election fraud, have loosened their voting procedures. In fact, in addition to Blue’s blasé attitude toward voter ID, lots of states have no hard rule against non-citizens voting—which could make quite a difference at a time when millions have flooded across the border. In fact, many localities actively encourage non-citizens to vote. 

We can step back and see: Red states are going one way on voting, while blue states are going the other way. Republicans and Democrats are both seeking to secure their vision of just politics. (Read: assure a winning formula for their party on their side of the red-blue split.) 

In these starkly polarized times, when each side sees dégringolade if the other side wins, the parties’ high commands have both declared: Failure is not an option. No time for losers, only champions—in their respective sectors. 

Republicans would protest, of course, that they want free and fair elections, in which only living citizens can participate, and this author agrees with them. However, Democrats, too, say they are on the side of the people and their general will. And if Republicans disagree with the Democrats’ methods? Tough. Blue states will move toward more voting by mail, and even voting by app. Will Republicans win any elections under those terms? Let’s ask our woke friends at Google how conservative thoughts will fare in its regime. 

But what of purple, or swing, states? There are about 10 of them in the U.S., and my my, they do get a lot of attention from presidential candidates. But the other 40 states are fortresses for either Red or Blue, and getting evermore fortress-y, as the population sorts itself according to ideological and partisan polarities. 

Some will ask: Is this symmetrical entrenchment bad for democracy? The answer is, it depends on how we define democracy. The ancient Greeks gave us the very word, and yet the Athenians expressed people-power through sortition, drawing by lot and ruling through councils. Athens did not have political parties and election campaigns. That doesn’t make them bad democrats, it makes them a different kind of democrat. And maybe their past is our future. 

Here we might pause to assert that direct elections are not the only way to make sure that political leadership represents the will of the people. 

The great constitutionalists, from Aristotle to Montesquieu to Madison, believed that the populace should have a voice, but they also thought, with Cicero, that the well-being of the people was the highest law. Survival and flourishing is most important, not pandering to popular passions. 

Any small “r” republican knows that a good society divides up power among authorities, repositories, and mysteries, such that all are checked and balanced; neither the bounder nor the mobile vulgus can become tyrannical. Pluralist theory seeks both safety and stability in multiplicity. The wisdom of crowds—and brokering institutions. 

Yet others wish to hear the public’s voice in other ways. The U.S. Justice Department, for instance, operates on the quota theory. Invoking the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, as well as accumulated legal lore, the department has long demanded of Southern states that they create elective districts that are all but guaranteed to be won by black candidates. 

Four decades ago, this author, then working in the Reagan-Bush 41 political apparatus, heard an exasperated Rep. Webb Franklin, a white Republican representing a mostly black district in Mississippi, say, “The Justice Department wants to appoint a black to my seat.” In the 80s, the department was led by a Republican attorney general, and yet the Civil Rights Division, enforcing VRA, had considerable autonomy. No visiting Republican appointee wanted to intervene in its doings and be called, inevitably, a racist. 

So the unimpeded DOJ kept demanding changes in Franklin’s district until the black population was deemed large enough, and in 1986 the white incumbent was duly defeated. The seat is now held by Rep. Bennie Thompson, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. To Main Justice, and its many allies in the Democratic Party, this was the correct outcome. Per their left-of-center vision, the higher purpose of democracy has been served.

Still, all these decades later, Franklin’s use of the word appoint sticks with me. Sometimes, in the minds of the powerful, the end justifies the means. In fact, long after the last Jim Crow has crowed, VRA enforcement continues: Just this year, new black seats in the U.S. House have been created in both Alabama and Louisiana. It’s not quite right to say that the DOJ is appointing Members of Congress, but it’s surely helping to designate them. 

And yes, yes, supporters of the VRA have their arguments, based on past discrimination. We might acknowledge that and then reply, what about present-day discrimination? The federal government has been discriminating against conservatives for the past six or so decades—doesn’t the right now have the right of redress? 

Indeed, if Blue thinks about designating favorites to seats, why shouldn’t Red? Maybe sometimes—oftentimes, in fact—what’s most important is that your side wins. After all, fair is fair: Since they’re doing it to you, you do it to them

The result of this approach would be a kind of representational equity. If the country is evenly divided between Red and Blue, isn’t it fitting and proper that the partisan lineup in Congress, and among the governors, reflects that parity? If quotas are good for the left, maybe they’re good, too, for the right. Our quest for justice thus takes on a new direction: gerrymandering, and otherwise protecting, the diversity of ideology and partisanship. 

Recalling past precedent—and the good conservative knows there’s always a past precedent—we might think back to the conciliarism of medieval Europe. In ye olden days, cities and nobles and bishoprics each had their designated place and rights; in general, it was believed regions and classes and guilds had inherent and permanent privileges. Or we might recall the Estates-General in France; big blocs that had special status within the ancien régime. Those venerable prerogatives were swept away, of course, in 1789. Did France get better amidst that radicalism? For the answer, we can brush up on our Burke

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So in America today, we might need our own version of the estates: A Red Estate and a Blue Estate. In the best days of the Roman Republic, two consuls would keep a watchful eye on each other, the better to prevent overreach. Today, since we live in a time when Red can’t stand being ruled by Blue, and vice versa, it’s sensible to code the necessary autonomies right into the national algorithm. We can add: with articulated differentiation comes the possibility of innovation; out from under the federal government’s regulatory wet blanket, who knows what the states, those laboratories of democracy, might come up with. 

Some might ask: Is this really the best way? The instantiation of division? Winning through designation? Hard to know, although if present trends continue, we’ll have some answers.

Yet in the meantime, Red and Blue both know one big thing: Victory for their side beats losing to the other side.

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