I haven’t posted here for some months. Now I have something to say that I think is best covered with deeper reflection. As I had feared, this administration has been very toxic. Timothy Snyder, in his book On Tyranny, has warned that if we are to learn the historical lessons of the twentieth century, we will understand it takes only a year or two for a democracy to transition to a totalitarian system once an authoritarian leader has been elected to office. Fresh on the heels of a victory for participatory democracy – the apparent failure of the Senate health care bill – as I began this post, two steps had been taken that further threaten our already compromised electoral process: The so-called “Electoral Integrity Commission” and Rex Tillerson’s dissolution of the cyber security unit at the State Department. Six months into the first year of the Trump administration, the move toward tyranny is right on track.
We have never had a strictly democratic vote because of our representative form of government. In an earlier post, I wrote about the electoral college. I didn’t have it exactly right, although I was partly on track. I said that the electoral college was put in place because the founders didn’t trust the popular vote. This is partly true, but a popular election of the president was not on the table when the Constitution was written. The Electoral College was chosen over the option of having Congress elect the president, in order to protect the separation of powers. That’s a good thing. Then, it turned out not to work, because the president and vice president thus elected would be rivals. At that point, there was debate and the electoral college was not scrapped, but pledged to vote for whomever was elected in each state. The argument was that the popular vote could be wrong and the electoral college could change that, which didn’t hold true in 2016. The electoral college does play a part in the way the popular vote has been manipulated. Areas in which the vote was very close in battleground states were targeted for ads, fake news, and cyber attacks via social media. A few votes in small areas could and did throw all of a state’s electoral votes in one direction.
Number two on my list is gerrymandering. This has been with us since 1812 and is still
legal. It is the practice of redrawing districts to favor a particular political party. Although this practice has been with us for most of the history of our democracy, it has changed in recent years. Computer technology has made it possible to redistrict with mathematical precision, turning what would be majorities in two or three districts to minorities in six or seven districts and majority in none. This greatly affects the make up of Congress as is evidenced by the huge Republican majority in power now. 1812 political cartoon showing gerrymandered districts in Massachusetts.
Voter suppression is nothing new, either. It is the third method of interference with free elections on my list. The Constitution says nothing about who may or may not vote, other than in later amendments. At the time it was written, only white male landowners were allowed to vote. This was an unchallenged assumption. We started out with unquestioned voter suppression. Years later, amendments specifically gave the vote to African-Americans, women, and young people. No amendment specifically mentions voting rights for Native Americans or other non-white citizens. Now the general belief is that all citizens have the right to vote, but voter suppression continues in many guises. After the Reconstruction period in the South, African-American rights to vote were circumvented by Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, and literacy tests. Native Americans were denied the vote in many states well into the mid twentieth century. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 did much to improve the situation, but it was partly struck down in 2013. This resurgent voter suppression was a factor in the 2016 election. A subtle form of voter suppression happens when people feel powerless and doubt that their vote counts, so they don’t vote.
Number four: Big money, corporate money, and dark money in campaign funding is a steadily growing factor in national elections and one of the reasons people suspect their vote doesn’t count. In fact, the opposite is true. The only thing that equals the power of money in determining the behavior of politicians is concern over losing votes. In fact, having money to fund a campaign is important because it helps to amass votes. The power of the vote is tremendously important. The Supreme Court decision in 2010 named for the plaintiff in the case, Citizens United, a large conservative PAC; overturned a 2002 law and a century-old precedent that did not allow political contributions from corporations. Since then, campaign spending has increased many times over, allowing campaigns to target certain audiences both in favor of their own candidate and against the opposition. The growing importance of social media and the biases of news media are also big factors in making this targeting possible.
Fifth on my list is cyber tampering. Apparently, this was undertaken in 2016 both by the Trump campaign and by Russian artificial intelligence experts to specifically harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign efforts. There is growing evidence that they worked together, as we all know if we watch the news. Whether or not there was collusion, it is pretty clear that both the Trump campaign and the Russian government attempted to damage Clinton’s image and ultimately undermine her lead, particularly in battleground states. This was done through web sites and social media. Certain populations were targeted in areas that were known to favor Clinton by a narrow margin. Among the groups targeted were African-Americans and women. The idea was to sway these voters away from Clinton, not necessarily to get them to vote for Trump. They might be induced to vote for a third-party or just not to vote. This is kind of an extension of the nasty campaign ads we’ve gotten used to, but again, what is new is the use of artificial intelligence to pinpoint specific voters in specific areas and the use of social media to reach them. Tillerson’s disbanding of the cyber security unit at the state department leaves us open to tampering coming from outside our country again in the near future, perhaps 2018 or 2020.
Now we are coming to more recent events. The sixth thing that has happened is Donald Trump’s so-called “Election Integrity Commission.” Based on his bombastic, inane assertion that the 2016 elections were “rigged” and that he really won the popular vote, this commission is demanding voter roll information from every state. Some states are not complying with this request, others are complying only in part, so there has been resistance to the action on the part of state governments. When I bring the topic up in conversation, people say “That’s not going anywhere – the states aren’t complying.” Well, it’s not over. From the actions of this administration, we could understand that nothing is “over” as it would be in normal times. The health care repeal and replace bill has died many deaths and keeps coming back. Many of the actions this government has taken have happened behind the scenes. The states don’t even have to comply. Many people have de-registered as voters to keep the Trump government from obtaining their personal information. That’s fewer voters, a bad thing for anyone who isn’t a conservative Republican. This commission is a move toward wholesale voter suppression.
Finally, I want to address something that hasn’t yet happened, but could easily happen in this climate. A recent poll of Republican voters by The Washington Post shows that 52% of Republican voters would support postponement of the 2020 election until the country can make sure only eligible voters vote. This of course is a reference to the above-mentioned commission, which is ostensibly investigating voter fraud. Postponing elections is a common tactic of dictators. Taking away the vote, even “temporarily” would be a radical and dangerous route for our country. Even more Republicans (56%) would support postponing elections if Members of Congress also supported the move. Further supporting the activities of the election commission, 47% of Republicans believe that Trump won the popular vote. A whopping 68% believe millions of illegal immigrants voted in 2016. Even more, 73% of Republican voters polled believe that voter fraud happens often. In fact, it is rare. This is a recent poll. The base that pushed Trump over the top is still strong. The movement away from Democracy in our country is gaining momentum. Recent events in Charlottesville could serve to remind us that the situation is lethal.