As a journalist of my acquaintance joked on Twitter this week, I’m so old that I remember when it was dangerous and unpatriotic to question the validity of election results.
Ah, yes. Those halcyon days, back when Hillary Clinton said that to not accept the results of an election was “a direct threat to our democracy.” In the modern political era, that’s a lifetime ago: six weeks.
In the course of that lifetime, Clinton lost an election she had been widely expected to win. And then this weekend, the Washington Post broke the news that a secret CIA assessment had concluded that “Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, according to officials briefed on the matter.”
These conclusions seem to be somewhat contested within the intelligence community, but that didn’t stop social media from lighting up with calls for the Electoral College to overturn the results of the election. Most of this was probably the sort of idle chatter that used to fill barrooms instead of newsfeeds after elections, but I saw some sober, serious people I respect arguing that this completely delegitimized Trump’s presidency, and at least one person say Trump hadn’t really won. Now John Podesta, former chairman of the Clinton campaign, has joined electors urging that the Electoral College be given an intelligence briefing before they vote.
Democrats were right the first time. It is dangerous and unpatriotic to suggest that you won’t abide by the results of an election, either by lobbying to overturn the vote through some procedural trick, or by declaring that the victor has no real right to execute the functions of the office.
I’m no fan of Trump, so it’s not self-interest when I say he should receive the Electoral College’s support and become president.
And I’m troubled by the allegations that Russia is working to destabilize or sway U.S. elections, so it’s not that I see these latest allegations as no big deal. They’re a big deal. But they don’t undermine the outcome of the election.
If it became known, for example, that Russia had tampered with the voting machines, so as to make them record phantom votes for Trump, I would support throwing out the results and calling another election. If the intelligence community had hard evidence that the Trump campaign had conspired with Russia to hack the Democratic National Committee, then I would be the first to call for indictments of those involved — or for impeachment and removal of the president-elect, if he knew.
But that’s not what is being alleged, as far as I can tell. What is alleged is that Russia hacked the DNC and released information intended to make Clinton look bad. That’s a criminal act, and we should prosecute anyone we can get onto U.S. soil. On the other hand, it’s poor grounds for invalidating an election. “The American voter had too much information about the Democrats” is not a ringing slogan to argue your party should really have won.
So. Short of invalidating the election outcome, what can be done? I share the horror at the thought of Russian meddling, and I too would like something to be done. But it’s rarely constructive policy to set out to just do “something” in reaction to a horrifying event; you have to do a specific thing, ideally with good reasoning behind that specific thing. And you need to take care that that specific thing does not create problems even worse than the one it was meant to address.
For example, at a panel last week, I was asked what we should do about fake news. Much of the audience was unhappy with my answer: “Nothing.” I’m not too happy with it either. But this sort of news is often hosted outside the U.S., and it propagates through multiple channels — websites, email, social media. Imagine the government apparatus you’d have to create, and the powers you’d have to give it, to prohibit people from sharing links to those websites with each other. Then imagine what could be done with those sorts of powers. By someone like Trump. Better to do nothing about the problem of fake news than to create an even-worse problem.
So it is with this election result. There’s good reason that we’ve never let faithless electors nullify an election. The democratic nation-state is not a natural institution. It takes a lot of work, and a fair amount of magical thinking, to get 300 million people to the point where (most of the time) they will abide by sweeping decisions made by far-away people they’ve never personally met.
That magical thinking is a mix of what my colleague Virginia Postrel would call “glamour” and what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt would call “sacred values,” which “bind us and blind us.” One of those sacred values is that once an election is over, it’s over, and whoever won by the rules that were written at the time gets to hold office. John F. Kennedy was really president no matter what happened with those Cook County votes, and Ronald Reagan was really president even if the ayatollah’s foot-dragging the resolution of the Iran hostage crisis helped him win that office.
The value of this is rarely much appreciated by the losing side, but it is the same emotional logic that guides the legal doctrine of stare decisis, which is to say that stuff that already got decided stays decided, even if the decision wasn’t necessarily very good. Sometimes we get stuck with some real stinkers of election results and judicial decisions. But the alternative is even worse: a nation in which no one can ever plan or move forward, because nothing is ever final.
While a mutable past may seem splendid at the moment when your opposition controls the immediate future based on that decision, wise citizens know that not long from now, there will come a moment when your party gets to run the future for a while — and if you won’t accept the results of the elections you lose, then your opponents won’t either. When a country reaches this state, things get pretty bleak, pretty fast.
Our sacred norm has already been tested in recent years, from the left-wingers who called George W. Bush the “President Select” to the conservatives who said that Barack Obama was “not my president.” But this is minor grumbling compared to what you’d see if the Electoral College went into a secret intelligence briefing and came out with a president other than the one who won the vote.
If the intelligence community has serious evidence that election machines were tampered with, or that the Trump campaign actively conspired with Russia to commit a felony, then that information should certainly be given to the Electoral College. But it should also be given to the rest of the American public, so that we can debate whether these circumstances rise to the extraordinary level required to invalidate an election, either through the Electoral College or through impeachment.
However, if all they have is information that was widely available to the American public before the election — that someone, probably Russia, hacked the DNC and released stolen emails — combined with the speculation that Russia really, really wanted Trump to be president, then the electors should stick with Trump. And Democrats should say “He is my president” — even if they have to say it through gritted teeth.
American voters had their chance to disagree with Russia, and didn’t take it. Maybe the deciding votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania were swayed by those DNC emails. Maybe not. Regardless, their vote is sacred. And if we don’t keep it that way, then the gates of political hell yawn wide indeed.