Monday, September 14, 2020


The Atlantic's Shadi Hamid is not a worrier. He describes himself as
someone who has argued against catastrophism—I don’t believe Donald Trump is a fascist or a dictator in the making, and I don’t believe America is a failed state
I used to argue that Trump isn't a fascist or dictator in the making because fascism seemed to be one of many things he was too ignorant, lazy, and unfocused to achieve. I no longer feel this way, although if he wins reelection, I hold out the hope that he'll get bored with repression and spend his days watching TV and tweeting while trying to obtain a Nobel Peace Prize and a spot on Mount Rushmore. But I think it's obvious that we live in a failed state.

Hamid, who must have a very nice life as a Brookings Institution senior fellow, seems temperamentally inclined to see the glass as half full. In an earlier Atlantic essay, he wrote:
the novel coronavirus has receded into the background—not quite forgotten, but relegated to the ambient mood music of our new lives
That was on June 22, before a godawful summer that saw cases spiking to more than 70,000 a day for a time. (The numbers are now in the mid-thirties. I imagine Hamid is generally cheery again.)

Hamid, in the current essay, tells us he's not worried about the damage Trump can do to America in a second term, or even in a post-election power grab. But he is concerned about something. What is it?
I find myself truly worried about only one scenario: that Trump will win reelection and Democrats and others on the left will be unwilling, even unable, to accept the result.
You see, Trump's not the problem, you're the problem.
A loss by Joe Biden under these circumstances is the worst case not because Trump will destroy America (he can’t)
He can.
... but because it is the outcome most likely to undermine faith in democracy, resulting in more of the social unrest and street battles that cities including Portland, Oregon, and Seattle have seen in recent months.
So Trump -- with all the levers of government at his disposal, and with smart totalitarians (William Barr foremost among them) by his side -- can't possibly harm democracy, but democracy can be destroyed by the scruffy window-breakers who've been stirring up trouble in small swaths of selected cities. They'll destroy democracy, if Hamid is correct, on behalf of a Democratic candidate many of them don't support, assuming they vote at all. Scott Lemieux frquently cites Murc's Law: "the widespread assumption that only Democrats have any agency or causal influence over American politics." It's usually invoked when every Republican in Congress and one or two Democrats vote against a progressive bill. (Conclusion: the failure to pass this bill was the Democrats' fault!) But it fits here as well.

Hamid continues:
I struggle to imagine how, beyond utter shock, millions of Democrats will process a Trump victory. A loss for Biden, after having been the clear favorite all summer, would provoke mass disillusion with electoral politics as a means of change—at a time when disillusion is already dangerously high. If Democrats can’t beat a candidate as unpopular as Trump during a devastating pandemic and a massive economic contraction, then are they even capable of winning presidential elections anymore?
For now, let's ignore the fact that Hamid conflates Democrats and window-breakers, in the way Fox News does. Let's remember that most Democratic voters can easily imagine this outcome. Many believe it's the likely outcome, despite the polls. We're prepared to blame voter-roll purges in Georgia, long voting lines in Milwaukee, and a GOP campaign to discredit and then undermine mail-in voting, but we're also prepared to conclude that Joe Biden might have been an uninspired choice for a nominee, that he's failed to campaign hard enough for Hispanic voters in Florida, Nevada, and Arizona, that Bernie or Liz or Mayor Pete would've won. We're prepared to blame ourselves -- we didn't give enough money or make enough phone calls to swing-state voters. We're Democrats. We've lived through 1988, 1994, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2010, 2014, and 2016. We're used to fallng short.

Hamid writes:
Liberals have convinced themselves that Republicans are, in one way or another, cheating. In addition to all of Trump’s norm-breaking, the GOP is gerrymandering, purging voter rolls, and shutting down polling places in Black neighborhoods.
In other words, we've convinced ourselves that Republicans are cheating because Republicans are cheating. What strange tricks of the mind!
Yet Republicans wouldn’t have been able to do these things if they hadn’t won enough statewide and local offices in the first place. They have put themselves in a position to enact their favored redistricting and election procedures by finding candidates and pursuing policies that made them competitive in formerly Democratic states, demanding a level of party discipline that Democrats can seldom muster, and getting their supporters to turn out for down-ballot races. Republican manipulation is what the democratic process itself has produced, however unfair, and it can be undone only through that same process, however flawed. To some degree, this is just how the game is played, and Democrats need to play it better if they want to win the Electoral College.
So what Hamid is saying is that a period of violent unrest may destroy democracy in America, but persistently unfair elections don't destroy democracy -- even though fair elections would seem to be the defining characteristic of democracy.

He's also arguing that no other institution should step in when democracy is under assault. The courts, perhaps? Maybe in a functioning democracy the judiciary would rule that fair electoral processes are necessary for government by the people?

Hamid writes:
... democracies are supposed to be responsive to voters’ demands and grievances. But they aren’t always. The gap will grow larger under a Trump presidency than a Biden one, and this has implications for mass unrest and political violence across American cities. For democracy to work, the losers of elections need to believe that they can win the next time around. Otherwise their incentives to play the spoiler increase.
The critical factor in deciding whether Trump opponents abandon faith in democracy won't be the outcome of the election -- it will be how it was arrived at and what Trump and his party do as a result. If it appears that there was a reasonably fair election, we'll kick ourselves again and begin planning for 2022 and 2024. If Trump wins by sending thug cops to polling places, impounding mail ballots, and using protests as a post facto excuse for these and other abuses of democracy, we'll lose faith. If Trump uses his victory speech to talk about running for additional terms -- and I guarantee he will if he wins -- we'll lose faith. If he continues filling the federal bench with enemies of voting rights, we'll lose faith. If he and Barr use his second term to try to jail his politcal enemies, we'll lose faith.

In other words, we'll lose faith in American democracy if it no longer exists in any recognizable form.

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