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A Lesson in Civics and a Call for Civility

We are experiencing a riveting piece of history in the making. As I write this, Joe Biden has been declared the projected winner of the 2020 presidential election by numerous media outlets. His supporters are literally dancing in the streets while Trumpians coast to coast – and particularly in between the coasts – are stunned, angry, shell shocked, saddened, and defiant.

I am not going to congratulate Joe Biden just yet, but not for any emotional reasons. I did the same thing in 2000; I’m going to wait until his opponent concedes (as Al Gore did back them) or otherwise once the election is officially ratified (on January 6).

Meanwhile, I think a lesson in civics is essential here, even though the typical TNH reader is considerably better-educated than the average American and probably already knows this: in that case, please share with those in your circle who may not. I hate to break it to everyone, but you, I, and the rest of the American voters do not elect the president of the United States. All we do by casting our vote is provide an opinion. Think of your vote as, say, holding up a Biden/Harris sign, or wearing a MAGA hat. It is merely an expression of how you would like your state’s electors to vote.

Granted, by overwhelming proportions, a state’s electors elect the candidate who received most of the votes in that state. Far from the people’s vote meaning nothing, it almost guarantees who the next president will be. But legally and technically, there are no guarantees.

I really don’t mean to share more bad news, but here’s another tidbit many (if not most Americans don’t know): if you have a Visa or MasterCard and your total debt on the card is around $5000, but you make a minimum monthly payment and get by, and sometimes you save enough money to make a payment beyond the minimum so as to pay down the debt, the credit card company can, at any time, demand the entire amount. Yup, that’s right – when Visa or MasterCard don’t ask for the whole amount at once, it’s because they’re being nice to you. More practically, they know if they start doing that, most people won’t use their credit card services any longer.

Similarly, if electors don’t vote to honor the majority of voters in their respective states, there will probably be tremendous upheaval, and the Electoral College’s future may be in serious doubt.

To elaborate, suppose that Biden and Trump do the unthinkable: they meet in Washington, DC and actually start throwing punches at one another. The two septuagenarians make complete fools of themselves, huffing and wheezing as they throw ill-timed haymakers, wildly missing with each swing, and manage to lose the respect of much of the nation. In that case, suppose that electors decide to cast their votes for president for, say, General and former Defense Secretary James Mattis. They figure he’s respectable and with broad appeal: Republicans love him, but so do a lot of Democrats because he stood up to Trump and, consequently, found himself without a job. Could the electors vote in Mattis as president? Sure. But they would be “faithless electors,” and those have been extremely rare and never have they even come close to contradicting the will of the people.

This time, however, things are different. President Trump is challenging the legitimacy of various categories of ballots not cast in person in several states, backing it up with numerous lawsuits, likely to be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. Think of it like a supersized version Bush-Gore (2000). As if celebrating Thanksgiving during COVID wouldn’t have been weird enough, for the first time in 20 years, we are likely to be eating turkey and stuffing without yet knowing for certain who will be sworn in as president on January 20.

What is certain no matter who wins is that this was a particularly close election, with half the country roughly for one candidate and the other half for the other, and so we remain a deeply divided nation and our differences are vividly pronounced. This is not a friendly competition of who should be the NBA’s most valuable player: Giannis, LeBron, or James Harden. We’ve heard for years, beginning with the 2016 Democratic nominee herself, that half of Trump’s supporters (over 60 million at the time) are “irredeemable” and belong in a “basket of deplorables.” Conversely, many on the left are ostracized for “hating America” if they hold progressive views. The most grim but revealing example of this ugly toxicity is that people are worried about placing political signs in their front yards for fear of experiencing vandalism, or even violence, in retaliation. In 2000, George W. Bush said “I’m a uniter, not a divider.” And, indeed, he enjoyed wide bipartisan support as governor of Texas. “But I’ve never seen anything like Washington,” he confessed. Barack Obama was going to usher in hope and change, but much of the inspiration for the Black Lives Matter movement was based on unarmed black men killed by white police officers during Obama’s presidency. Trump couldn’t bring the country together either, and I doubt Biden will do any better. And it’s not their faults. Bill Maher said the other day: “the president can’t unite us, we need to unite ourselves.” Though he didn’t explain how, which I will do now: the first step is to insist on honest, evenhanded, dissemination of information intending to promote, not to persuade, from the media, academia, and Hollywood. They are the culprits who perpetuate this vicious cycle with half the country believing them, the other half angry because the first half believes them, consequently inspiring the first half to become even more critical. If we are all exposed to accuracy, we will not bitterly oppose those who sincerely believe in the validity of their information every bit as much as we do.

Let us pray for that day to arrive soon. Until then, there are no meaningful winners, no matter which side you’re on.

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