How the Electoral College made America's pandemic response worse
As the terrible human and economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic accelerates in the United States, the Trump administration seems bent on finding new ways to communicate its total indifference to widespread suffering. In a recent interview with Axios' Jonathan Swan, President Trump dismissed the country's nearly 160,000 COVID-19 deaths by saying, "It is what it is."
It wasn't a gaffe.
Last week, Vanity Fair published an infuriating insider account of the administration, and one of its many shocking and dispiriting revelations was that the president's wastrel son-in-law Jared Kushner and many other senior figures long viewed the coronavirus crisis as a "blue state" problem that consequently needed no robust federal response, planning, or investment. One expert who worked for the doomed Kushner testing operation remarked: "The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy."
The proximate cause of this heartless indifference to widespread death, suffering, and immiseration was of course Trump and his bottomless supply of unearned confidence, kook-fueled misjudgments, and foaming hatred for anyone who didn't vote for him. But the underlying cause transcends this miserable little man and his foibles and will distort our politics long after he is gone: the Electoral College.
Future generations will marvel at the various and sundry stupidities of our shambolic era, but perhaps none more so than the poisonous, media-driven division of this country's provinces into "red" and "blue" as a consequence of the single dumbest democratic mechanism in the recorded history of humankind. The Electoral College, a poorly-thought out mess of an institution that doesn't even operate in any way remotely conceived by the architects of the Constitution, has now five times awarded the single most important office in the land to the person who got fewer votes than his opponent.
It would be bad enough that this "inversion," as scholars call it, has happened twice this century, each time elevating an ill-prepared, cartoonishly inept, trust-fund-enabled Republican to the presidency, with predictably ruinous policy consequences, the knock-on effects of which will accompany to their graves anyone they didn't directly kill. But the Electoral College does more harm than just grossly distorting election outcomes and wrecking the legitimacy of our democracy. It is at least partially responsible for Trump's brain-wormed lack of interest in doing anything productive about calamities or ongoing problems in the states that voted against him.
You can see this on any number of other levels. It became clear early on in his presidency that he would only set foot in blue states to visit golf clubs in Virginia and New Jersey or government offices around the ramparts of D.C. Apart from that, nearly all the rallies and trips have been in red and swing states. Why waste time trying to govern a place full of people who will never vote for you?
Consider also his recent habit of announcing federal projects on Twitter. On July 29th, he trumpeted some Department of Transportation airport projects in five swing states (Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania) and Arkansas, likely a safe state for Trump but where the only poll of the cycle had former Vice President Joe Biden within 2 points of the president. Super subtle, my dude! Why not just call it the Swing State Economic Rescue Plan.
Depressingly, this kind of swing state nepotism probably works to some extent. A 2014 study found that respondents were 11 percent more likely to support federal transportation spending after being told projects were being launched in their home states. Republican presidential nominee John McCain did better in counties that received significant increases in federal grants. President Obama, in the run-up to his re-election campaign in 2012, sent bellwether Ohio clean energy grants that were four times as large as the national state average. He won the state by just under 3 points.
So election-year machinations are one thing, and they are not new or unique to Trump. What the president has brought to the table is an ongoing and open derision for Democratic states, cities, and citizens. Trump's contempt for Blue America is even embedded in the language he uses to describe states. If you reside in a red state or a battleground state, you are the lucky denizen of "the Great State of Texas" or the "Great State of Pennsylvania" or "The Great State of Wisconsin." If you live in a blue state or city, you are both ungreat personally (perhaps you are one of the poors trying to disturb the Suburban Lifestyle Dreams of white Americans) as well as having the misfortune of living in a mediocre place governed by feckless enemies of Real America. Californians live in a state "well known for its poor management and high taxes." Chicago is "embarrassing to us as a nation." In December Trump whined that "New York City and State are falling apart" because of its Democratic leaders.
A national Democrat talking about Republican regions the way Trump routinely trashes blue cities and states would be unfathomable. Of course, if he thought for a moment that he needed a single vote in any of these places to win the Electoral College, he would hold his tongue.
This is about more than just rhetoric, though. More urgently, it's about resources. When considering whether to bail out cash-strapped states this spring, Trump told a Fox News Town Hall that "it's not fair to the Republicans, because all the states that need help, they're run by Democrats in every case." This isn't just immoral, it's politically idiotic. Most Republican-led states are in the same dire straits as their blue counterparts. An imploding economy in Florida, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, is one of the chief reasons Trump is a massive underdog in November.
Those of us who live in landslide states destined to be totally ignored by presidential candidates were accustomed to the sad situation imposed by the Electoral College well before 2016. What is new and transgressive and uniquely destructive about Trump's presidency is that he took what was an unfair if acknowledged incentive structure that resulted in, at worst, some marginal policy gains for swing states and transformed it into both a culture war weapon and a governing philosophy.
This philosophy has distorted President Trump's every desultory maneuver. And now we see its greatest danger yet: When faced with a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe that menaces the lives and livelihoods of every single American, the president and his allies and millions of his voters approached it through the lens of the infernal Electoral College, rather than seeing New Yorkers and Bostonians and Californians as fully American and thus deserving of a robust and serious response to fight the virus, save lives, and sustain the economy.
The really depressing thing about the Trump administration's homicidal indifference to the early-pandemic suffering of blue states is that, had it been right — had COVID-19 been less likely to take root in less dense red states, where warmer weather at the time was thought to arrest the disease's spread — the administration might actually have made a politically astute, if morally monstrous, calculation.
But of course, we now know that the coronavirus is an equal opportunity mass murderer, as indifferent to internal state borders as a CR-V careening south on I-95 from New York to Florida. Team Trump believed otherwise because it listened to the ill-informed ravings of hucksters and op-ed columnists rather than the considered (though sometimes shifting) recommendations of scientists and disease experts. This unforgivable gamble has led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, particularly in states that Trump's sinking re-election campaign desperately needs to win, like Florida and Arizona.
You can rest assured that legions of Republicans can churn out flimsy justifications for the ongoing travesty of the Electoral College's existence, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who has spent more than five minutes studying how democracies operate outside of Exceptional America who thinks the thing is a good idea. But short of a constitutional amendment or a legal agreement among states to award their electors to the winner of the national popular vote, the Electoral College is here to stay.
The best mitigation effort we have is a decisive Biden victory in November. Biden must make it clear even to residents of the deepest red states that he is their president too, that he cares about them, and that he will not use the federal government of the United States as a political weapon designed to reward allies and crush critics.
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