What with all the talk of “red lines” out in the political universe, let me offer my own warning about a red line we are at least in sight of, if not quite ready to cross: the line between fighting an election, and delegitimating elections themselves.
Here’s the thing: in our democracy, elections are one of the primary ways we establish the legitimacy of the government. I may not like who wins, but the mere fact that I had the chance to vote (even if I didn’t) is seen to make the outcome legitimate. So long as I was not unfairly denied the chance to vote, and so long as the votes were fairly counted, and so long as I have the fair chance to vote in the future, I’m stuck with the result. The other side won. Get over it, to channel Mr. Justice Scalia.
This three part test—the fair chance to vote, the fair counting of votes, and the fair chance to vote in the future—is a pretty tough, but extremely important, combination to pull off. Citizens of countries that manage this generally trust their governments, believe that they have a real say in shaping the decisions that affect their lives, and otherwise perceive themselves as part of a healthy national community. By contrast, people who live in countries that don’t figure out how to meet the three “fairs” often believe their leaders to be corrupt, their fates to be limited, and their governments bad.
Unfortunately, we seem increasingly hell bent on blowing this. We try to drive voters off voting rolls while claiming that we are really interested in preventing the non-occurring epidemic of in-person vote fraud. We put political hacks in charge of counting the vote and watch as they litigate what is or is not a real vote. We accuse one president of getting in office just because his daddy picked the Supreme Court justices who ruled in his favor (George Bush), and then accuse the next one of being illegitimate because he’s supposedly not an American and/or was elected through voter fraud — or, perhaps more seriously, because he is an Other (black, Muslim, you name it).
While I get how all this works as a short-term political tactic — the politics of corruption and fear are hardly a new phenomenon — I am afraid that we are at risk of crossing the infamous red line: the point of no return. At some point, the endless bombardment of negative ads, of claims that some candidate or another is illegitimate, and of ceaseless assertions that the election’s results were corrupted may well have the effect of convincing large numbers of Americans that their political system is their enemy. Ronald Reagan’s famous quip, that the nine scariest words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” speaks exactly to this point. It “works.” But it might not work.
Irony lies in the fact that our strengths are our weaknesses. Winning elections might well destroy the point of elections. It’s something to think about.