The 2000 presidential election, on steroids
This was the week that full-on panic set in among Democrats about the upcoming presidential election.
From a blockbuster cover story in The Atlantic about Republican plans to subvert the outcome of the vote to President Trump's latest hedging about whether he would concede a loss on Nov. 3, the occasions for anxiety seem to be multiplying, with many now openly fretting about the possibility of a power grab on the part of the president's party that culminates in an outright Trump coup. (In the latest example of symmetrical hyperpolarization, some conservatives have taken to making their own parallel prediction of a coming Biden coup.)
But what if the nightmare scenarios that terrify Democrats misconstrue the threat? All of them presume a situation in which Joe Biden has clearly won and Trump refuses to accept it. But another series of events could be far more likely but no less dangerous. This is one in which it becomes impossible to determine who "really" won at all. Imagine the recount anarchy in the late fall of 2000 spread across several battleground states, with the two parties unable to agree on what standards should govern how to count mail-in ballots that will ultimately determine the outcome.
That is the real nightmare scenario, with truth itself getting sucked into the whirlwind of maximal partisanship to such an extent that reaching anything like a national consensus about what actually happened on Election Day becomes impossible.
Of course many other scenarios are possible. Biden could win so decisively that denying the outcome is impossible, even for Trump. From the other direction, Trump could so clearly prevail in key swing states that the Biden camp has to concede the Electoral College loss. Then there are the alternative nightmares — where Trump appears to have won by a wide margin on election night, declares himself the victor, but then ends up clearly and definitively falling behind Biden as millions of mail-in ballots get counted over the coming days or even weeks. That would be very bad and potentially extremely dangerous, as I argued in a recent column, since it could set up the kind of coup-ish power grabs set out in Barton Gellman's chilling Atlantic essay.
But there's a slight variation on this latter possibility that may be more realistic and even more ominous. That's a scenario in which the outcome on the evening of Nov. 3 is so close in enough of the crucial battleground states — in, say, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and North Carolina — that the final result in those states, and therefore in the nation as a whole, is left uncertain. As in the other worst-case scenario, this would leave the final outcome dependent on the accurate counting of millions of mail-in ballots in those states. But in this unfolding timeline, the result would be anything but clear and definitive. It would instead leave us tumbling down a rabbit hole into civic and epistemological anarchy.
Recall the chaos of the Florida recount fiasco. Back then, there were horrible, rancorous clashes between the campaigns of Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore about whether and how to count "butterfly ballots" (the confusing Palm Beach county ballots that led many Jewish voters there to accidentally cast votes for right-wing protest candidate Pat Buchanan) and "hanging chads" (ballots incompletely punched through and so left uncounted by voting machines). All of it was to determine if Bush had won the decisive state by a few hundred votes, which is what the original count produced, or if a manual recount of ballots in four counties would yield enough improperly counted ballots to push Gore into a similarly infinitesimal lead.
The rules governing these processes were hotly disputed as the campaigns filed competing suits in Florida state courts, with the Florida Supreme Court also weighing in and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court acting to stop the latest recount on Dec. 12, leaving Bush in the lead by 537 votes. This resulted in years of recriminations on both sides about who "really" won the election.
Now envision this playing out not in one state that everyone at least agrees is the one that will decide the final outcome, but across several. Each state will likely have millions of mail-in ballots to count. The Trump campaign will raise a thousand objections to ostensible Biden ballots. The Biden campaign will do the same in response to ostensible Trump ballots. Each will go to court to seek relief. Whether the court's members were appointed by Democrats or Republicans will be noted by the media every single time. If a "Republican" court rules against Biden, Democrats will become apoplectic. The same will happen to Republicans if a "Democratic" judge rules against Trump.
If you're a Democrat, the truth will seem obvious. Assuming bad faith and even outright willful deception on the part of Trump and his party is pro forma now. But of course Republicans feel the same way about the Democrats. When the myriad disputes arise — about "lost" ballots, "found" ballots," ballots improperly filled out and requiring interpretation, ballots with illegible handwriting or signatures, ballots that arrive late but with a postmark on or before Nov. 3, ballots that arrive late but postmarked after Nov. 3, mail sacks stuffed with ballots that mysteriously appear in post offices or get delivered to government offices a week or more after Election Day — with each of these and many other disputes, we will need to turn to some trusted authority for clarity and resolution.
But there is no such trusted authority anymore.
Where in the midst of this chaos will be found the objective truth of who "really" won the election? Which count will be the accurate one? The one that includes most of the disputed Biden votes? Or the one that excludes them? What if Trump's side of the fight finds (or claims to find) two or more mail-in ballots from the same voter, "proving" voter fraud? Whether or not it's "really" true will be irrelevant. The story will immediately go viral, instantly discrediting the whole process.
I have no idea where this would end. But it's nowhere good. In such a scenario, the United States will have demonstrated before all the world that we have become democratically ungovernable.
For decades now, Americans have been taking aim at and tearing down public authorities and institutions, denying the possibility of achieving a truly neutral and fair-minded standpoint on the world. In under six weeks, we will begin a crucial test — a test of whether or not a country of 330 million people can function as a democracy when its citizens lack rudimentary trust in any institution or person to adjudicate its differences.
Every day I grow more fearful that we will fail it.