A dog and pony show and the case for the American Party

There are now about a dozen Republican senators who say they won’t vote to certify the results of the presidential election unless an “emergency 10-day audit” is done of all of the votes cast. This follows dozens, possibly over 100, of Republican representatives in the House saying they will also contest the results.

Anyone for a Dog and Pony Show?

Since it only takes one representative and one senator to force a debate over a state’s results, it’s now virtually guaranteed that Congress will waste time on January 6 doing a dog-and-pony show for Donald Trump and his supporters. There’s no chance it can succeed: Democrats have control of the House and – barring a bizarre defection of several Democratic representatives to the Trump side – eventually each state that’s disputed will be upheld, because both the House and the Senate would have to vote to throw out results and potentially replace them with alternate electors. So, no, that’s not happening.

The whole thing is performance art, and Republicans, especially those senators who are up for re-election in 2022, will need to make a difficult decision: decline to participate in this nonsense (and potentially get a primary challenge from a MAGAite two years from now) or go along (and give their future Democratic challenger plenty of attack ad fodder). I’m guessing at least a few more will join in the fun, now that they’ve been given cover by the first dirty dozen.

Who are they really doing this for? The hardcore Trumpites/MAGAites are always going to vote for “whoever isn’t the Democrat.” But there are significant numbers of voters who occupy the center-right and even the center who might be swayed – one way or the other – by the way each senator votes in a few days. You remember, those centrists who everybody on the left and the right dislike so much because we can’t make up our minds which extreme we want to throw our weight behind.

My guess is that there are at least 50 percent of Americans who might identify themselves as either center-left, center, or center-right. I haven’t found a poll that asked the question that way; Gallup asked people whether they were “conservative,” “moderate,” or “liberal” in 2019 and got the following results:

Source: Gallup

It’s interesting to me how consistent the percentages are across demographics. Men and women differ in their leanings toward right and left, and younger people are more moderate and liberal, but generally the cumulative percentages are pretty consistent. Let’s assume that not everyone who self-identified as “conservative” in this 2019 poll is rabid Trump fan who buys his hats and flags and goes to every rally that comes near their hometown, but instead voted for Trump because he was nominally a Republican and was absolutely not Hillary Clinton.

Using the percentage of homes in my neighborhood that still have their Trump flags and yard signs out two months after he lost an election versus the number who had them up before the election, let’s say that maybe 20% of Americans are hardcore Trumpites. Using the concept of a standard distribution, or more-or-less perfect bell curve, let’s say there are also 20% of Americans who are solidly, even over-the-top, left-wingers (this would include any real socialists or Communists, which certainly isn’t a majority of Democrats, no matter how many times Trump says so).

Admittedly, this isn’t scientific, but think about it – if the people on the fringes were really equal to the overall percentages who voted for Biden and Trump in November, we’d already have a full-scale civil war underway. The fact that we don’t seems to me to prove that most people are in the middle and aren’t willing to fight for either the current president or the next one.

Okay, so that leaves 60% in the middle. Even if we fudge a bit and give each wing an extra 5%, you still have 50% of voters who aren’t interested in being on the fringes and might be willing to work together.

This is how government worked, most of the time, anyway, when I was growing up. It wasn’t perfect, but there were Blue Dog conservative Democrats and there were socially liberal Republicans and there was a playing field in the center where they could meet, negotiate, and make things happen. That’s gone right now; compromise is evil and consorting with the enemy is punishable by the worst possible threat – a primary challenge.

Because the two parties had members across the spectrum back then, the two-party system worked. It doesn’t anymore. We need a third party that appeals to the 50 to 60 percent in the middle. That won’t be easy; both existing parties have millions of reasons (dollars and voters being two categories that come to mind) to make sure it doesn’t happen. But if you could do it, you could dominate American politics for generations, holding the center with half of the seats in Congress while the Rs and Ds play backbench games on the right and left.

Let’s call it the American Party.

Enough with the conspiracy theories. Where’s the evidence?

There are not 74.2 million Americans who are willing to march in the streets to overturn the outcome of this year’s presidential election. Many Americans are disappointed, even angry, about Joe Biden being elected the 46th president of the U.S. But only a small number of them are still going to Trump rallies (that are supposed to be about people who still have a chance of winning an election but end up being all about him, naturally). A few have turned to domestic terrorism. But mostly people have gone back to just wanting to be left alone when it comes to government.

There’s always been a lunatic fringe. Media coverage of conspiracy theories and other silliness used to be pretty sporadic, reflecting their value as topics worth serious discussion. You could listen to Coast to Coast AM overnight on many radio stations, with Art Bell, George Noury, and others spending hours discussing paranormal phenomenon, imaginary government cover-ups, and more. Occasionally, a best seller would come out purporting to have the inside scoop on the Kennedy assassination or the secret workings of the world financial markets and mainstream media would discuss it, usually with a wink to the camera. Once in a while, you’d have a congressperson or two make a fuss over something that was pretty obviously false, but they were usually shut down by their colleagues before people started thinking the whole group was crazy.

Right now, though, there’s an entire political party that’s devoted itself to trying to get enough of us to believe that the recently-concluded election was so rife with fraud, illegal ballots, and other shenanigans that the only solution is to make the person who lost the election into the winner. If true, their claims would mean that our elections are vulnerable to all kinds of interference and malfeasance and that results can’t be trusted.

There’s only one problem: There’s no evidence that any of their stories are true. In every one of the court cases brought by the Trump campaign so far, in every public appearance (like Rudy Giuliani’s in Michigan last week), in every friendly media opportunity, no facts are offered. No evidence is presented. Because there isn’t any. To believe the election fraud story that Trump is selling requires believing in the biggest, widest-reaching conspiracy of all time, one that reaches into every large city and small town in America and involves members of both political parties, even people like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a dependable Trump lackey (at least until Nov. 3).

I voted for Biden, but if there was any evidence, I’d want it to be heard in a court of law, using our time-tested legal standards and procedures. If there was proof that the Biden campaign (or anyone else) had interfered with the election results or attempted to fraudulently affect the outcome, I’d be outraged. But there’s no evidence of that at all. Only increasingly incredulous stories that would be crazy even on an AM radio station at three in the morning.

This is lunacy, but it’s no longer on the fringe in the nation’s capital. It’s standard operating procedure among Republicans right now. The Washington Post asked every GOP member of Congress (249 in all) whether they agreed that Biden had won the presidency. Only 27 said yes. Two said they were sure Trump was the winner, despite there being no evidence that’s true. The other 220 either didn’t reply or said they weren’t sure yet.

This is the desperate flailing of a party that has seen the demographics of the country moving against them for a generation. They could have tried to be more inclusive, as their 2012 election post-mortem suggested. (The party’s chair at that time, Reince Priebus, called the report a chance for “growth and opportunity” for the GOP, but when that didn’t happen, he was willing to serve as Trump’s chief of staff for the first six months until he, like everyone who’s ever come into Trump’s orbit, was dismissed for being insufficiently “loyal.”) Instead, they doubled- and tripled-down on the kind of “Make America White Again” rhetoric that has always existed but just didn’t get said out loud very often.

When you can’t win a fair contest, you have two choices: 1) concede gracefully and move on to the next election, as candidates have done for nearly 250 years in America; or 2) lie, cheat, and steal. Nearly every Republican at the national level has chosen #2. When they lose – and they have already – these GOP enablers will try very hard to distract you from their part in this fiasco. Don’t let that happen. Remember who was responsible for this dark time in our history. This is not a time for national reconciliation, because there’s no reconciling when one side refuses to acknowledge facts. It’s past time for a national reckoning, where we push the lunatics back to the fringe and make those who gave credibility to this nonsense pay for the damage they’ve done to this country – to us! – over the past four years.

Election wrap-up – for now

So Joe Biden will be the next president. I’m not surprised, that seemed pretty much what the end game was even late on Tuesday. I appreciate the work that was done by poll workers, municipal and county clerks, and secretary of state staff members all over the country. As usual, there were few mistakes and no evidence of any conspiracies to steal the election, despite Trump’s claims of fraud. As I suggested a few days ago, regardless of whether city or township clerks are Republicans or Democrats, they want to run an honest election, because if they don’t (or it’s even suspected that they didn’t), they have to live in that town and deal with the consequences. They are your fellow Americans from all types of backgrounds and with all types of personal beliefs, and in the end, they always do what’s right. We owe them our thanks.

Despite some concern that there could be violence after the election when it was obvious that either Biden or Trump had lost, there’s been only a handful of isolated protests and no injuries or property damage. So far anyway. I didn’t expect much and still don’t. In the end, what most Americans want is to be left alone and for our families to be safe, even if we’re angry or frustrated by events in the news. When I went for a ride yesterday, nearly all of the Trump flags and signs are gone already. We’ve had elections before and in a lot of ways, this one wasn’t really that much different for most people. My candidate won, nice. My candidate lost, oh well, time to move on.

There will be many loose ends to tie up over the next few weeks. The big one will be trying to convince Trump that he really lost. In his mind, he’s never lost in his life. Of course he has, but in every case he’s justified it to himself that someone cheated him or rigged the game against him. These will be potentially dangerous days ahead as he deals with being a lame duck president – he’s still in charge until noon on January 20.

Finally, I’d like to point out – one last time, I promise – that the “ballgame” model of covering the presidential election is seriously flawed. Every state that Biden won (and every state Trump won) was won at the same time, regardless of how long it took to count the ballots. Trump never had a lead in Michigan, or Pennsylvania, or any of the other states Biden won. The final score happens at once as soon as 100 percent of the votes are officially counted. If we’re going to keep doing mail-in voting – and I believe we should – we need to allow them to be counted as they come in. No running totals would be issued, of course, but they would simply be added to the Election Day totals and reported all at once.

Time to move on.

No “late surges” or “comebacks”: Elections are not football games

I touched on this yesterday, but since it doesn’t look like we’ll be moving away from mail-in voting any time soon, I think we need to reconsider how presidential elections are covered. A big reason why Trump and his supporters can claim that the election is being “stolen” is because the initial numbers on Election Day favored them, while mail-in votes have been significantly skewed toward Biden, so the final results keep inching toward a Biden victory.

That’s partially the president’s fault: he spent so much time deriding mail-in voting (despite doing it himself) that much of his base wouldn’t consider taking advantage of it for this election. In at least one case, Trump supporters held a protest in Michigan where they burned the absentee ballot applications they’d automatically received in the mail:

So we expected a “red mirage” on Election Night, and had a pretty good idea that the initial numbers would shift blue as the mail-in votes were counted. This was made worse by the legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, who refused to allow early counting of those ballots, likely to support the Trump campaign’s narrative that votes counted after Election Day would be invalid and fraudulent.

(The Trump campaign is currently trying to have it both ways: In the states they’re slightly behind, they want all of the votes counted. In the ones they’re ahead in, they want to “stop the count.” Basically, the message is that the only valid vote is one for Trump.)

If elections have changed, why should we keep covering them the same way? The networks have an agreement between themselves not to call the results of individual states’ voting until the polls close in each state (but not necessarily the overall winner if it’s obvious they’ve collected the necessary electoral votes). I realize an informal agreement to not report preliminary election numbers until a winner can be confirmed would be extremely hard to enforce and might even be a violation of the First Amendment. But are clerks’ offices and secretary of state offices required by law to provide those preliminary results? If not, might they be able to take a day or two or even 72 hours to do all (or at least most, say 95%) of the counting before releasing results?

It would reduce the impression that elections are football games, with the score going back and forth until a last-minute comeback wins or falls short. After all, if a candidate ends up with more votes after they’ve all been counted, they always had the lead – always – not just after some imaginary surge at the “end.” Ironically, the “last-minute surge” is mostly made up of votes that were cast well in advance of Election Day, making that description of the changing numbers even more inaccurate.

I’m not blaming the media. We need them to tell us what’s going on, because they have access that the average citizen lacks. But it would be careless of them, especially the major television networks that still command a significant percentage of viewers on Election Day, to not consider that the way they cover elections might also be contributing to our current problems.

A Very Special Episode ends in a Cliffhanger

It makes sense that Donald Trump, who was a reality television star before we’d even come up with the term, would expect that last night’s episode of “American Nightmare” should have had a nice, clean conclusion at the end. That’s how TV works, right?

Except that sometimes we have cliffhangers. They give a boost to the ratings, which is something The Donald understands. So last night’s episode ended with a big “TO BE CONTINUED” card, and today we’re watching Part Two. It is, after all, a Very Special Episode.

Another reason we expected things to be wrapped up last night is a half-century of televised election night coverage. Ever since computers started to be widely used to tabulate election results, the networks have put the scoreboard on-screen and made a big deal as each state could be “called.” Older folks will recall that they used to call the entire election fairly early, both because we were less evenly split nationally, but also because they were competing with each other to make the call first – to get that scoop! They’d do that before the west coast polls had even closed. So under pressure from the FCC, they voluntarily agreed not to call states until their polls had closed, which is still the way they do it.

The 1972 election was the first one I stayed up to watch. My parents preferred CBS News to the others, so we watched Walter Cronkite for four or five hours. It became obvious early that Richard Nixon was going to be re-elected, so my parents went to bed, but I stayed up until CBS ended their coverage. My memory is that it was quite late, certainly after 11:00 p.m., and that I put myself to bed while everyone else was asleep, probably the first time I’d ever done that (I was nine years old).

Walter Cronkite covering the 1972 U.S. election for CBS.
Walter Cronkite covering the 1972 U.S. election for CBS.

Things have changed since then. We’re very closely split down the middle right now, especially as it relates to the Electoral College (which is an idea that’s outgrown its usefulness, but that’s another discussion). And increased mail-in voting, both in states that already do it (Oregon, for example), and others that expanded it this year due to the pandemic, has ironically taken us back to the days before modern communication, when election results had to be “transmitted” physically, in person, a process which could take weeks.

Because of our long history of televised election nights, we’re used to having everything “end” by midnight on Election Day. Except that it never really ends that way. The “technicalities” that happen after we vote are legal steps in the process to certify the outcome of the election. They can’t be skipped. Trump didn’t win anything last night just because the clock seemed to have run out. This isn’t overtime; this is still part of the game. To do anything else would be a criminal disenfranchisement of millions of American voters.

I’m pretty sure that Trump isn’t going to like the end of Part Two. The problem going forward is what he and his gang might have planned for the rest of the season.