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An Unspeakable Consensus

Why are Democrats fighting over everything except domestic election interference?

Photo: Getty

How did you feel about the news that Wisconsin could have been stolen? It’s mostly gone away, inasmuch as it registered at all. There are endless other controversies about the 2016 election to talk about.

Wisconsin might not even be a controversy. Hardly anyone is talking about it. It’s easy enough to say the claims about Wisconsin make no difference. If you take the estimates of the 12,000 or 23,000 or 45,000 possible voters — mostly in Democratic strongholds — who were blocked or discouraged from voting in the presidential election, and you put them up against Donald Trump’s 23,000-vote margin of victory in the state, that difference may or may not have flipped the result, and even it it had flipped it, Trump still would have had the advantage over Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College.

To say it didn’t matter, though, feels strange. A key swing state in a presidential election may well have been swung not by its citizens’ preferences but by the winning party’s voter-suppression efforts, efforts that were part of a coordinated national campaign, openly partisan and often openly racist, to keep the losing party’s voters away from the polls. In a democracy with party politics, this would seem to be a drastic event.

Maybe the problem is that it is too drastic: unspeakably drastic, or even unthinkably drastic. Ari Berman, the lonesome reporter who has paid the most attention to the anti-democratic and anti-Democratic program, noted in his latest and most thorough Wisconsin coverage that the decision to turn away from it was instantaneous and bipartisan:

As the months went on, pundits on the right and left turned Clinton’s loss into a case study for her campaign’s incompetence and the Democratic Party’s broader abandonment of the white working class. Voter suppression efforts were practically ignored, when they weren’t mocked.

Berman points to a piece on Talking Points Memo, two days after Election Day, which argued that to complain about voter suppression “will be just as effective as the increasing calls on social media for Republican electors to not vote for Donald Trump.” This is hard to dispute, if effectiveness is the standard, but effectiveness doesn’t seem to be the standard by which we’ve chosen which disputes from 2016 will survive into 2017. (If it were, Donna Brazile, whose party’s congressional candidates ran 4 million votes behind its presidential ticket, probably wouldn’t have managed to seize a news cycle.)

What does effectiveness even mean? Nothing is going to undo Trump’s election. It was not a mistake. It was a perverse consequence of the structure of our politics, pursued and achieved through bad faith. But the people who made it happen, pulling off an electoral bank shot for the presidency to go with their straight-line domination of Congress and state governments, made it happen on purpose. They were effective.

To talk about Wisconsin is to talk about the fact that American democracy, as a matter of self-rule by the people, is not effective. The machinery of it is broken, and there are powerful incentives to keep it broken — to treat electoral politics as a game, in which all that matters is to force the rules to work to the winner’s advantage.

Sometimes it seems as if the most important figure in 21st century politics was whichever nastily inspired Republican came up with the “Sore / Loserman” slogan to defend George W. Bush’s lead of a few hundred votes in Florida in 2000, in a race with tens of thousands of malfunctioning ballots. The mechanics of the voting, as was, became the definition of legitimacy; to complain about the numbers that the voting mechanics had produced was to defy the will of … the system. The voting. Democracy.

Quickly enough, the entire Florida debacle exited the mainstream political conversation. The leading solution to the dispute over hanging chads and butterfly ballots and confusing write-ins was to switch over to touchscreen technology, in which there would be no physical ballots for anyone to dispute with anyone else. Any malfunctions would be invisible and uncheckable; the data could only be confirmed by a receipt generated by the machine on the premise the data was valid.

In the silence, the winning premise of 2000 — that votes lost to malfunction weren’t really votes at all — spread. It was not just what had happened in the voting booth, but on the voter rolls, where thousands of Florida residents had been removed after being identified, incorrectly, as felons. Republicans discovered a sudden terror of voter fraud, which could only be solved by strict identification laws, in state after state, so that people who’d previously been eligible to vote would lose their right unless they found a new set of documents.

Under some theoretical models of democracy, it would be the state’s responsibility, if it required identification, to make sure every citizen had it — and to ensure there were plentiful enough polling stations and long enough voting hours to enable everyone to vote who might want to. But the United States has chosen to be incompetent at administering elections. There is a visible effort to interfere with the electorate, extending from uncooperative local clerks through corrupt state legislatures all the way up to the president’s top election-integrity advisor and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. In Wisconsin, it seems to have achieved full success.

Yet the party defeated by it would rather fight about almost everything else. The only interference under discussion is Russian interference, not domestic. And the various camps of the losers are mostly intent on telling stories about how the other camps of the losers made the defeat happen — the establishment was too complacent and corrupt, the left was too bitter and intransigent, there was too much identity politics, there was too much pandering to the suburbs.

The result, in the intraparty conflict between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, has been a strange reversal of their original roles. The Democratic primary and post-primary were framed — not comprehensively — as a clash between establishment centrists supporting Clinton and anti-establishment leftists supporting Bernie Sanders. More subtly, and more precisely, the Clinton faction believed the safest and most practical politics called for a coalition of traditional Democratic supporters, under a problem-solving technocratic banner; the Sanders faction believed that incrementalist technocracy stood in the way of an opportunity to take a bold and popular turn toward social democracy.

After the general election, though, the terms of the camps flipped. Technical and moral authority swapped places: Clinton supporters pointed to her huge popular-vote margin over Trump; Sanders supporters brushed that off as the whining of a campaign too dumb and complacent to have fought for blue-collar votes in Wisconsin and Ohio, where they counted. This retrenchment led, eventually, to a situation in which the people identifying themselves as leftist were insisting on the fundamental validity of the election process. Stop whining about Russia and the FBI and take your richly deserved loss.

In all this, the people of Milwaukee were more useful as figures in a moral drama — why could Clinton not inspire them to vote? — than as citizens whose votes would have been counted if they could have been cast. But the center, ashamed and defeated, couldn’t bring itself to look at them that way either.

This, not the failure to raise the red banner high enough for single-payer, was where the Democratic establishment ran into its fatal ideological limits: It defines itself as the political mainstream, which is to say, it defines itself as part of a fundamentally legitimate system. When the party wishes for things to be better, it wishes for the betterment of the existing institutions.

The political press, too, expects and presumes that the system it’s reporting on is essentially reliable. The stories it tells take place within a stable functional framework — the parties are competing to mobilize and motivate their voters, in a contest under a known set of rules, with a final score representing a real decision the people have made. Electoral politics is decided by messaging and momentum, by the character of the candidates, by the mood of the public. If the scoreboard itself is broken, or if the contest is otherwise rigged, none of those stories mean anything.

One reason that the voter I.D. campaign is so insidious and successful is that the people who hold political power and set the terms of discussion in this country, and especially in the Democratic Party, have gotten there in large part by being willing and able to fill out their paperwork. The professional class understands in the abstract that, say, the SAT is a biased instrument that measures and cements young people’s preexisting material advantages and disadvantages — and yet they did do well on it themselves, which left them well positioned in turn for the LSAT, the bar, the mortgage papers, the competitive preschool application, the nanny-tax sheets. It’s a lot of paper, but they have never been stopped by it.

Who really wants to turn the whole thing over to the disorganized, the disorderly, the unstable, the broke, the ill, the homeless? The people who were organizing the poor were rooted out, too, in the staged panic over illicit voting. Nobody fought too hard to keep them going. One wants to represent a coalition of solid citizens making a go of it, to help hard-working families to consolidate their gains and have the opportunity to do more. With luck, this will produce economic justice across the board, a rising tide that will lift the truly impoverished as well, and perhaps wash them off as a bonus.

Till that day, what matters is keeping the whole system together, so that someday good people can once again operate it to the benefit of all. Yes, the Republican Senate refused to allow Barack Obama to nominate anyone — specifically, a scrupulously inoffensive moderate — to the final Supreme Court vacancy of his presidency. But no respectable Democrat will throw a 5–4 Supreme Court decision in the trash and declare it null because the pretender Neil Gorsuch cast the deciding vote. Not even a disreputable Democrat would suggest that a citizen, turned away from the voting registry because the middle initial on their birth certificate doesn’t match their driver’s license, ought to come back with a mob and demand their rights.

And no one will say that this presidential election was illegitimate. It was only one state, probably, where the cheating changed the outcome. At some future date, when the results from some larger number of states are in doubt, or are unknowable — well, maybe before then, we’ll have the chance to fix things.

Meanwhile, duty demands that the process be treated as legitimate. Hillary Clinton went to the inauguration. In that, she could agree with the Sanders supporters and with Trump himself: She was the loser, and her job was to play the role.

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