In August, I posted an old Firing Line with Richard Pipes. Before Buckley and Pipes discussed particulars, Kinsley summed up Pipes’ argument that the Russian revolution was arguably the most important event of the 20th century, setting a pattern copied by Hitler, Mao, etc. and unfortunately etc. First, clear the stage for a one party state, then give omnipotent power within the state to the political police, and finally enforce that power with deadly terror and “re-education” camps.
Now, a couple of elections and more months of Covid, we seem farther down the path. The “political police” with help from the tech giants have made almost everything political and then started pruning, “cancelling.” Standing our military down to facilitate self-inspection and self-awareness training, fear-mongering about white nationalist extremists all intensify “white fragility” courses. The mainstream news celebrates the appropriateness of Biden’s speech at the Prayer Breakfast, but to others his speech of dark times and enemies within is worrisome. By “within,” despite the occasion, he didn’t mean ever present temptation but rather the “other” – white nationalist insurrectionists. Re-education for that “other,” re-education in the 1619 project, in federal fragility workshops, and now, the military, standing down to spend time in self-flagellation.
Tight-knit associations of family or interests or faiths keep total politicization at bay as does our tradition, “Don’t tread on me” flags remain in many homes. Independence is stronger in red states. Still. That televised discussion from decades ago moved in the back of my head this fall: the election came, Covid waxed and waned, and I wondered if Republicans could ever win elections with new rules, new states, new judges. We were, it is clear, the brush to be cleared away and not the ruler in the one-party state. My fears may be hyperbolic. I hope and in my calmer moments think so. But then we need frustrate the Democrat’s dream.
And that means, as some of the sharper knives in the Congressional drawer have noted, making election laws clear and just.
Americans are American – our culture values autonomy more than most. The last year of lock-downs has shown which states saw rule from the top as a good (New York, California) and which did not (listen to the governors from Florida, Texas, Nebraska, and especially Kristi Noem). Some believed their constituents had enough sense to come in out of the rain, that they were prudent and life-loving enough to make good choices. Not surprisingly, those citizens and not Cuomo nor Newsom listened to the science, if not always the scientists. It was our lives. And elections are the expressions of power from the bottom up. But Texas and New York, California and Florida will need, to be true to themselves, different forms of election reform.If we nationalize reform we will not be true to our founders and will accumulate a good many problems. We’d eliminate that great American set of petri dishes; each grows in ways true to itself. Down the line hybrids will emerge. National leaders should support – in person and in voice – necessary reforms. But with humility: each state has its own geography, culture.
But all reform will need to value the individual and the individual’s vote. Wise takes often come with laughs at the Babylon Bee: in Mike Lindell’s appeal to socialists – “Our Pillow” – lie sharp observation. As “she” and “he” merge in a “they” that doesn’t signify number, the never individual, always communal triumphs. In a later book, Pipes noted the importance of “my” in terms of our property and our selves. We say “my family” as well as “my book” as well as “my country.” Our nation is a union of those “mys”, made up of individuals, who are recognized by the scrupulous limits of government; each of us chooses what to say, publish, believe and befriend. And, of course, it is my gun, my boundaries as well. Most importantly, it is my vote – not my tribe’s, not my family’s, but mine.
The founders’ assumption should be those of reformers. There is greater knowledge within crowds – the sum of independent and individual knowledge and experience – than in expert theories. And that a vote is both gift and responsibility. They were writing in a heady time, the Declaration of Independence published the same year as Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. And in the Great Awakening, only a few years earlier, minds were moved by a dual argument. Man has a great capacity for understanding and thought, love and sympathy, but man is fallen. Devising a system that respects our strengths but also our capacity to do wrong (often calling it good). They would understand the temptation to swing an election prompted by pride, by unearned certainty. Democracies require virtue and virtue requires the habits of virtue; they also require humility.
In this time of tribalism and grievance, the independent, secret vote must be treasured. One danger is suppression, making voting too difficult. My husband’s mother remembers her father returning in tears when the Klan blocked his way to vote – whether it was because he had a strong Czech accent though born in America or because he was Catholic she was somewhat unsure. After all, she’d been a little girl then. A century has passed. Few of us have experienced anything worse than inconvenience at a polling place, few have known a Klansman or anyone with such beliefs. Indeed, where have we seen voter suppression in the last few years? Where did men with bats patrol the way to the polls? Which administration refused to prosecute that suppression?
However, every illegal vote dilutes the voice of a legal one – these aren’t “surplus” but give a counterfeit meaning to vote totals. Illegal voting profanes the vote. How often do boxes of votes show up hours or days or weeks later? How many after the counting was about to end and the margin was known? Is it possible that there were more legal voters than voters registered? Or even living?
Voting changes hastily enforced and enacted by fiat do not give confidence. Changes were not debated, were not constitutional, and they were barely understood by the voters. Some changes seemed designed to make voter fraud easy – one can argue, of course, that given fears of Covid, they were merely meant to make voting in a pandemic possible. Nonetheless, politicians who saw crisis as opportunity were not likely to produce good election law.
Some practices have sufficient fraud potential to be banned: voting machines linked to the internet, harvesting votes, deadlines that stretch beyond election day. (How can they still be recounting four months later in New York?) The absurdity of “suppression” coming from picture i.d.s should be greeted with the laugh it deserves. (Demands for these suppress many a minor from buying liquor, but that’s the point.)
My opinion (not wildly popular) is that election day should be given respect and authority. This might make fraud more difficult, but, more importantly, voting together, at a local poll with your neighbors, strengthens community. Voting is a “civic ritual” – the central ritual of our democracy, And waiting for the returns as the polls close continues that precious sense, as each private individual vote joins the precinct’s, county’s, state’s, nation’s as part of that total.
The “welcome wagon” is important in states like ours, but getting the voting right is even more important. Then we can reason our way – trusting in the wisdom of Americans – to solutions.