November 10, 2020

I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!”, tweeted President Trump on Saturday. Then, on Sunday: “This was a stolen election.”

Many were shocked to hear him speak in such terms. But in Africa, this sort of language is commonplace, and disputed elections are routine. I remember one presidential ballot in Togo, during which the incumbent stopped the count and declared himself the winner. I quipped that his was “le vote d’or”, and an African friend just reminded me of this, seeing sharp parallels with Trump’s behaviour.

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As a society polarises, so questions of legitimacy surround elections. In the past few months alone there have been allegations of voting irregularities, fraud and cheating in Cote d’Ivoire, Tanzania and Guinea — the losers crying foul, and calling for civil disobedience, supporters being beaten to death. This isn’t just a question of bad losers; this is about the destruction of democracy. Indeed, in many places in Africa, such as Tanzania, it seems close to death.

Many Americans, not least Trump himself, will doubtless find this comparison demeaning. The myth of American exceptionalism will die hard. But what the nation is facing fits a generic pattern: America would be wise to learn from Africa, before the damage is such that it cannot be repaired.

Once a society is split by polarised identities, each seeing the opposing group as an existential threat, any losing candidate benefits from claiming that the winner cheated. It seeds a narrative that in the eyes of supporters — such as the 70 million Americans who voted for the Trump — undermines the legitimacy of the winner. And the consequences can be devastating.

The business of a democratic government is to achieve the collective purposes for which it was elected. This depends upon many people accepting that they should comply with actions necessary for achieving those purposes, even though they would prefer not to do so. Conversely, they accept that they should refrain from other actions that would frustrate those purposes. This acceptance is the practical meaning of legitimacy.

In America, even more than in Africa, once opponents are able to tell themselves that they are under no such obligation, they will stop at nothing to frustrate a presidential agenda. America has so many potential checks and balances that if abused, like filibusters, specious court cases, and misleadingly phrased plebiscites, government can grind to a halt. The slide towards opposition without bounds does, as we are seeing now, seem well under way — and the Democrats have inadvertently helped it along. First with Bush, and then with Trump, they questioned the validity of the electoral process. And when it becomes a salient bipartisan political activity to challenge the prevailing rules and procedures of the electoral process, democracy will start to unravel.

What, then, can be done to halt and reverse the damage

The courts can’t help. In fact, they’ll probably make things worse. Trump has already threatened to try it. While Biden will, of course, win, in the eyes of many Trump supporters this will not restore legitimacy. Lawyers for each side will put forward rival narratives, and polarised supporters will accept their own side’s version. The judges, however, are no longer seen as above politics: they are widely seen as having been appointed for their political allegiance. This is especially so among Trump’s supporters, who perceive lawyers and the judiciary as being predominantly Democrat. So, Biden’s success in the courts will merely accentuate, in the eyes of Trump’s people, the intransigent self-righteousness of Democrat activists, which is already part of the problem.

In my experience, there is only one way of resolving these sorts of differences — and it doesn’t involve the courts. The first mover has to be the winner: think Nelson Mandela, and Yitzhak Rabin. Instead of victor’s justice, there has to be a “dialogue” established on the electoral process which establishes a “common core” of agreement. A “dialogue” is not a shouting match: it is a non-abusive conversation between equals, in which each party accepts that the purpose is to find some mutual understanding on the basis of which something can be agreed. It is how American politics used to be conducted.

A “core” is a concept in game theory: the deals that neither side would walk away from, back into the status quo of limited legitimacy, rather than accept. That will require mutual agonising. I fear, though, that the “common core” is going to be quite limited. I will suggest two propositions that might make it into that zone of agreement, one on the Electoral College, the other on vote eligibility. Given the temperature of current hostilities, both would doubtless provoke outrage — from both sides.

Repeatedly in American elections, disputes have centred on a tiny number of votes in a few large states. This arises because of the practice, followed in most but not all states, that all of the state’s votes in the Electoral College should be awarded to the winner. The motivation for this practice is that it inflates the political importance of the state at the expense of those that divide their College votes in proportion to the vote of their citizens. This is a zero-sum game which skews government attention and finance between states for no good reason.

In the process, it results in a common loss to all: ambiguous results and the consequent loss of legitimacy. It would, therefore, be better for all if the practice already followed in two states – Nebraska and Maine, one Republican the other Democrat — became mandatory. They both divide their delegates according to the vote of their citizens. On reflection, it is extraordinary that on such an important matter there has been no nationally-agreed rule. Perhaps it is a legacy of “state’s rights”. An agreed rule would be like mutual disarmament. It could prevent another presidential election being determined by a few hanging chads.

The second proposition concerns postal voting, which, perhaps because of the pandemic has suddenly become far more common, and which Trump is most exercised about. When postal votes were negligible, there was no cause to be concerned about them. They are, though, inherently less satisfactory than in-person votes. Most obviously, there is no means of guaranteeing the fundamental principle that the casting of a vote by an individual is secret to that individual. More subtly, it systematically lowers the cost of voting to people like myself: well-educated and familiar with planning ahead, who take it in our stride to write to request a form, fill it in, and send it off well ahead of time. Not everybody is like that: they face the higher costs of voting in person.

There is a reasonable argument for ensuring that the voting behaviour induced by Covid does not become part of the “new normal”. Not only should every citizen have the right to vote, but we should also all face the same cost of doing so — in person on the same day — unless there are clear and agreed grounds for a postal vote, a medical-certificate, say. In retrospect, it was perhaps a mistake of the Democrats to direct the passion of their supporters into postal votes. I doubt that it was necessary in order to get the Democrat vote out; hatred of Trump is at least as widespread as support for him. While fully justified when linked to the pandemic – and matched by the socially distanced Democrat rallies — inadvertently it opened a line of attack which Trump supporters will embrace.

These lines of attack — not only from the Right; the Left got busy after the last election — are now creating dangerous fissures in American democracy. The trouble with democratic societies is that those insiders who run them can become dangerously complacent, as if there were some magic gold dust making their societies existentially immune from problems common elsewhere. This is why Americans won’t care to be compared with Africa. But the US urgently needs to wake up: the longer polarisation is allowed to take hold and fester, the more difficult it will be to reverse.

The lesson from Africa is that in the long run there are no real winners from polarisation. Society is left struggling to function with an ineffective state and the consequences play out in both social and economic distress. We can see America already going down this path. Both its health care and its education system have become staggeringly expensive at the top, and embarrassingly inadequate for everyone else. Its tax system has become a bad joke, even among the billionaires; and its once-lauded product markets are no longer as competitive as those in Europe. Given the potential from the technical progress in which America still excels to improve all American lives, outcomes such as these are manifest symptoms of severe public policy failure. And that, in turn, is ultimately attributable to dysfunction in democracy. If the sacrifices needed to avoid it aren’t made, then everyone, not just Trump, is a loser.