This presidential election was initially entertaining, but is now infuriating and ugly. What will things look like the day after the election? We should be concerned about the damage that the election is inflicting on our democratic institutions — and focus on how to repair them.
The campaign seems to have been more about the character and fitness of the candidates than their ideas for governing the country.
On December 13, 2000, more than a month after the November Election and after the most prolonged, and perhaps the most rancorous battle for the presidency in American history, then-Vice President Al Gore came before the nation to announce that:
“Just moments ago I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States . . . I offered to meet with him as soon as possible so that we can start to heal the divisions of the campaign and the contest through which we've just passed . . . I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country.”
Vice President Gore’s remarks were not surprising. The recognition that, at some point, country is elevated over partisanship had always been part of the partisan battle.
But it is increasingly hard to imagine that the loser of this election in 2016 will be saying to his or her supporters: “I congratulate our president-elect; we need to accept the legitimacy of this election and work with the new administration.”
The fact that this is hard to imagine now is evidence of long-term damage this election is inflicting on our democracy.
And, I’m afraid it is getting worse as one candidate whips up his supporters with fears that the election results may be “rigged” and the election stolen. At rallies in Pennsylvania, Donald Trump has urged his supporters to visit polling locations in “certain areas” and make sure no “cheating goes on.” And how would they do this other than by harassing and challenging those who they believe shouldn’t be permitted to vote?
Do we blame the media? The media is an easy target, but it is too simplistic to claim that this is all concocted by a mass media that is only interested in selling ad space, building its ratings or entertaining its audience. You can’t expect that the media will ignore the outrageous claims or embarrassing mistakes that candidates make during their campaigns.
What does this mean for January, when the election is (hopefully) over and somebody is supposed to get down to the business of governing?
▪ Will the submission of Cabinet and judicial nominees be opportunities to continue the rancor of the campaign?
▪ Will all future presidential legislative agenda items be dead on arrival — because they originate from an “illegitimate” administration?
▪ Will governing the country come to a grinding halt?
For nearly the entirety of our nation’s history, our democracy has involved the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to those newly elected. Have we turned a corner in American politics, never to recover the “after the people have had their say, it’s country over party” days again or is 2016 an aberration?
Part of the answer may lie in what other democracies have achieved. Maybe it’s time to take a look at other countries and how they run — and fund — their elections, to begin the long and difficult process of reforming our system. Public funding of presidential campaigns, for example, may limit candidates’ ability to sow contempt and distrust in our fellow citizens.
But even that may not be enough to repair the damage to our core institutions that this election has wrought.
Whatever the results of this presidential election, whoever wins, we need to begin to work to remember the common values we all — supposedly — share as citizens, and if necessary, reform our election systems to better reflect those values.
Howard L. Simon is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.