An election in a time of distrust

We can define trust as a form of confidence or faith in others. It implies a reliance on others. In democratic societies, elections and adhering to the results of elections are built on trust. Trust that the system is fair, that it represents the will of the people and that the election means that the agendas of the winner can be achieved, at least in some small measure. None of this applies to the 2020 U.S. election. It was an election built on a turbulent and unsettling lack of trust, not only of the results but of the system as a whole, and just as important, a distrust in the future.

There is now a profound lack of trust in the U.S. political system. Trump did not create the U.S. constitution. What he did, however, was reveal its fundamental flaws. Trump’s presidency revealed its antidemocratic origins arguably more clearly than any President. It began with the 2016 election which he lost by almost 3 million votes but won because of the Electoral College, an institution designed specifically to blunt the popular will of the people. Then Trump’s use of presidential power showed clearly that the U.S. was a flawed Republic not a functioning democracy. A Republic founded by white men of property in large part to ensure the continued rule of white men of property. Over the years, democratic accountability has reformed this basic structure, but Trump showed even this transformed constitution, with an imperial Presidency and a spineless Senate, could be used to run roughshod over democratic norms. Trump was the revenge of the bewigged grandees who ideally wanted a Rome of Cicero rather than an America of Obama.

Trump was a massive stress test of the U.S. constitutional system. The system clearly failed. The divided powers of Congress, the Presidency and Supreme Court, long heralded as a way of dispersing power, was a comforting illusion of less partisan times. The federal system was revealed as flawed and inadequate. The Supreme Court is now filled with political hacks. Three of its current members, Roberts, Kavanaugh and Barrett, served on the Bush legal team that contested the 2000 Gore v. Bush result. A significant number of the jurists espouse an originalism doctrine, made famous by former Supreme Court Justice Scalia, that harks back to those self-same white men of property as their only reliable legal guide. Trust in the Supreme Court, once the most revered branch of government, has plummeted. That this flawed, undemocratic institution may be the arbiter of 2020 election only adds to the distrust.

Distrust is heightened by the separate political universes inhabited by Americans. A 20 million Fox-viewing audience, for example, sees Biden as a socialist and Trump as a national savior only criticized because of the bad faith of “fake news.” A significant number of Americans, however, see Trump as an existential threat to the Republic. The election results will not move the opinions or basic beliefs of either side. Distrust is heightened by the very flawed nature of voting in the U.S.. The voting system with its lumbering inefficiencies, gerrymandering, discriminatory voting requirements and downright harassment, are all designed to suppress the vote.

The lack of trust in the system as a whole is compounded by the fact that no one group feels dominant. That raises the stakes from compromise with opponents to their subordination. The Republic is turning into a super-nasty, zero-sum game with each group seeking to maximize its advantage while in power. The Republican Party acted like a predatory political elite in pressing home its partisan advantages while performing minimal governance. Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme court was rushed though in a matter of weeks while millions of Americans still waited for legislation to provide much needed relief from the pandemic induced recession.

And we have lost trust with ourselves. One poll found in 1997, 64 percent of Americans had trust in the political decisions of their fellow citizen. By 2020 it was below 34 percent.

There is distrust of the future. The U.S. was long admired for its optimistic belief in the future. The rosy assumption that the arc of justice arced inexorably upwards, that the future could be and should be brighter than the past, was long a hallmark of the U.S. That optimism has been shattered. The long decline in the real wages of middle-income Americans, the dispiriting and sapping experience of endless wars in foreign lands and the threatening rise of China have all weakened American optimism in the future. The Trump era was a present of constant anxiety between an invented past and a fearful future. It was an exhausting period of permanent indignation that will continue long after the last votes are counted.

Election results are important. And they can herald a change. But the difficult job of rebuilding trust in the system, in the Republic as a whole and indeed in the future will likely take more than just one Presidential election, especially one with no clear cut and agreed mandate for change It will require a major constitutional overhaul. Republics do not suddenly die; they wither and atrophy from their unwillingness to adapt their constitutions from an idealized past to an anxious present. But to do that, we need to trust each other.