Nineteenth nervous breakdown
Daniel Lazare denounces the checks and balances that make what passes for ‘democracy’ such a shambles
Is the US on its 19th nervous breakdown? Or is it all just for show? America is a place of excess - not only of material goods, but of emotions and moods - so it is hard to be sure. After all, this is the country that Saul Bellow once called the “moronic inferno”, while Tom Wolfe could not stop writing about the craziness of it all - the hustlers, the flak-catchers, the Wall Street “masters of the universe” riding out the financial storms, etc - all of which he regarded as quintessentially American.
But after one of the most tumultuous weeks in political memory, panic seems justified. The process began on September 29, with a debate between two senile old men - one frail and bewildered, and the other exploding with rage, as he instructed his fascist followers to “stand back and stand by”, because “I’ll tell you what - somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left.”
It continued on October 1, when Trump tested positive for Covid-19 amid unmistakable signs of White House panic and disarray. And it ended on October 5, with the president’s triumphant return from Walter Reed hospital, as voters in a bellwether county in north-western Pennsylvania told The New York Times that the country was heading for civil war. “It’s going to be hell, no matter what,” one person declared. “This man has put us in a dark place,” another said of Trump, while another confessed: “I’ve never been afraid. Now I’m scared to death.”1
Such sentiments are correct. America is indeed heading for a crunch - even the most sober observers warn of a looming disaster starting on election day and continuing to no-one knows when.
As tens of millions prepare to vote by mail due to the pandemic, Trump has made it crystal-clear that he regards such ballots as fraudulent and that Republicans will mount a legal challenge. With some 260 election-related lawsuits already filed, the legal snarl will likely wind up in the supreme court, where Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s ultra-right pick for the high court, could tilt the balance in favour of the Republicans.
If so, the results would be a rerun of December 2000, when a Republican-controlled supreme court awarded the presidency to George W Bush, even though he was trailing by more than 500,000 popular votes. If the court punts, on the other hand, the election could move to the House of Representatives, where, according to the US constitution’s 12th amendment, adopted in 1804, members would be required to vote on a state-by-state basis, meaning that Wyoming’s lone congressman would have the same clout as California’s 53.
It is an outrageously undemocratic exercise, given that one state has nearly 70 times more people. But it is an exercise that Trump would likely win, since Republicans control 26 out of 50 state delegations, with two more split down the middle. For the third time in a little over two decades, a minority president would slip into the Oval Office courtesy of a centuries-old constitutional warp.
Meanwhile, rightwing militias would almost certainly go into action with White House encouragement. This, too, is reminiscent of the November 2000 ‘battle of Florida’, in which upscale Republican operatives succeeded in shutting down the vote count in Miami in what has come to be known as the ‘Brooks Brothers Riot’. But instead of yuppies in Hermès ties pounding on office windows and doors, pro-Trump forces this time around will likely sport assault rifles and bullet-proof vests, as they go after leftwing antifascists in state after state. Instead of Florida 2000, the results will be more like Weimar Germany circa 1929-33.2
Fears have been multiplying since July, when Trump refused to say what he would do if the official tally went against him. “I have to see,” he told Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. “No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no.” He made the same point at a press conference two months later: “We’re going to have to see what happens. You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.” So in Trump’s mind, it is not a matter of refusing to abide by the official tally, but of refusing to abide by a tally that he has decided will be rigged against him due to fraudulent mail-ins.
The New York Times has repeatedly dismissed such complaints as “baseless,” but there is little question that mail-ins will provide Trump with a perfect opening. Thanks to them, two New York City congressional primary elections ended up stalled for six weeks this summer, as lawyers for opposing Democratic candidates scrutinised some 400,000 ballots, searching for flaws that would render them invalid. Thousands wound up in the waste basket due to missing postmarks and other irregularities. More alarms went off last week, when the New York City board of elections revealed that as many as 100,000 mail-in ballots in Brooklyn had been misaddressed, rendering them invalid as well. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, was livid, while Trump chortled with glee. “THEY WANT TO REPLACE THEM,” he tweeted in his usual all-caps, “BUT WHERE, AND WHAT HAPPENS TO THE BALLOTS THAT WERE FIRST SENT? THEY WILL BE USED BY SOMEBODY. USA, END THIS SCAM – GO OUT AND VOTE!”
Trump was talking out of both sides of his mouth, since he obviously could not care less about honest elections. But the system is so dysfunctional that, after months of championing mail-ins, the The New York Times was forced to recant and advise New Yorkers to vote in person instead.3 Given all this, it is hard to see how chaos will not erupt - not just in New York, but from coast to coast.
That is not all. Local election officials are meanwhile so short of funds due to Covid-related costs that they are reduced to appealing for private donations. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have agreed to contribute $300 million toward filling a $3.6 billion gap in operational expenses, while Arnold Schwarzenegger has offered to kick in more. But the fact that all three lean to the Democrats has prompted Republicans to mobilise in opposition. Private contributions, one Republican lawyer complained, “undermine, over time, the way we view elections”, with the result that “one group of billionaires will own this city, and one group of billionaires will own that city”.4
The fact that the lawyer works for a conservative non-profit organisation known as the Thomas More Society does not mean he is wrong. In fact, both bourgeois parties are facilitating a billionaire takeover for the simple reason that, when electoral machinery breaks down, private capital will inevitably step into the breach.
With its usual timidity, The New York Times has delicately broached the possibility that the problem might be structural. “For some election experts,” it observed on September 24, “the extended uncertainty underscores the fragility of the greatly decentralised American electoral system - something Mr Trump and his allies seem to be suggesting they could exploit in any post-election litigation about the outcome”.5
“Greatly decentralised” is an understatement. The US will not have one election in November or even 50 separate contests run by the states. Rather, it will have more than 10,000 run by counties and other local jurisdictions. Screw-ups are all too predictable amid such anarchy, while opportunities for mischief abound. Yet there is nothing Americans can do in response.
State officials in Republican-controlled Texas have thus closed some 750 polling places in mostly urban neighbourhoods since 2012 in order to tamp down the minority vote. Even though Floridians voted nearly two-to-one to allow 1.4 million convicted state felons to cast ballots after completing their sentences, Republicans managed to stymie the initiative by requiring them to first pay thousands of dollars in fines and other legal fees - a burden that few impoverished ex-prisoners can afford.
When Michael Bloomberg offered $16 million to allay such costs and celebrities like Steven Spielberg, Ariana Grande and basketball stars LeBron James and Michael Jordan threw in millions more, Republicans threatened to launch an official investigation into whether the money amounted to an unlawful inducement. It was a case of one set of billionaires going to war against another, because they belong to the wrong faction of the ruling class.
Republican billionaire Louis DeJoy, whom Trump has appointed to head up the US Postal Service, may try to hold up mail-in ballots, according to worst-case Democratic scenarios, while Republicans are reportedly recruiting 50,000 volunteers to monitor polling places and challenge voters they deem suspicious in 15 swing states - an effort aimed at scaring away Democratic voters as well.
Then there is the ‘blue shift’. With blue the Democratic colour, the phrase refers to the party’s purported predominance among mail-in voters - a preponderance that might not make itself felt until days after the polls close. If Trump takes the lead among in-person voters on election night, therefore, the fear is that he will then move to shut down the vote count before all Democratic mail-ins arrive.
This is what happened two years ago in Florida, when Republican gubernatorial and senatorial candidates saw their lead shrink by as many as 20,000 votes, as mail-in ballots continued flowing in. “The Florida election should be called in favour of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis, in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged,” Trump finally tweeted in exasperation. “An honest vote count is no longer possible - ballots massively infected. Must go with election night!”
Scott and DeSantis managed to squeak by regardless. But, having tried to cut short the vote count once, it is hard to believe that Trump will not try it again. That does not mean the gambit will work. But, with the supreme court in his corner along with the House of Representatives, according to the rules outlined in the 12th amendment, the odds are certainly in his favour. With arcane constitutional procedures again overriding the popular will, the days when Americans actually elected their presidents will fade into memory.
What is to be done? One solution is for a non-partisan national commission to take charge of America’s fragmented electoral system and impose order on a welter of local rules and regulations. This is something that ‘backward’ countries like India take for granted. But you cannot get there from here, because America’s 18th century constitution places elections almost entirely in state and local hands. This may have seemed perfectly normal back in the days of the New England town meeting. But it is utterly abnormal in an age of modern democracy.
Yet nothing can be done, because the constitution, by certain measures, is better than twice as rigid and change-averse than it was at its inception. Reform is thus impossible, no matter how catastrophic conditions become. Democrats will cry foul, liberal outlets like the New York Times will wring their hands in despair, while ordinary people will reach for their guns. Yet the ancient machinery will stagger on regardless.
In the end, American democracy may wind up looking like Joe Biden - a man so frail and decrepit that a strong gust of wind might send him tumbling into the nearest ditch.
See my article, ‘Weimarisation of politics’ Weekly Worker September 17.↩︎