Elections Are Neither a Ruler’s Toy Nor a Sacred Panacea

Some Republican leaders have, at last, started to blame Trump for burning the bridges behind him after being fired by the electorate or, perhaps more exactly (nothing is grandiose in that presidency), for breaking what he thinks are his toys after he felt scolded. (Will he also scratch graffiti on the oval office desk?) This is more or less what the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper that tried to love Trump, argues, although more prudently, in two pieces: “A Bogus Dispute Is Doing Real Damage,” November 19, by columnist Peggy Noonan; and Lindsay Wise, “Some Republicans Call for Trump to Back Up Claims of Fraud,” November 20, 2020.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported on weekend tweets of Mr. Trump attacking the Republicans who have called him to stop trying to subvert the election results (Catherine Lucey and Ted Mann, “Trump Continues to Challenge Election Results as Legal Options Dwindle,” November 22). Against the (Republican) governor of Maryland Larry Hogan, who had said that “We’re beginning to look like we’re a banana republic,” Trump tweeted that “Hogan is just as bad as the flawed tests he paid big money for!” Interestingly, this jab refers to a story revealed last week by the Washington Post, one of the newspapers that Mr. Trump used to blame as “enemies of the people.”

At the exact opposite end of endangering American democracy to serve one’s political self-interest, lies the danger of sacralizing it. In the piece linked to above, journalist Lindsay Wise reports about Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyoming):

Ms. Cheney, the top ranking Republican woman in the House, said that if Mr. Trump can’t stand up his fraud claims and show they would tip the election in his favor, he should “fulfill his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States by respecting the sanctity of our electoral process.”

In a classical-liberal perspective, nothing is sacred about ballots. They just need to be cast by eligible voters and be counted correctly. Perhaps this is what Rep. Cheney wanted to emphasize by speaking about the sanctity of the process.

In the mind of populists (as I and other analysts define them), elections are supposed to reveal the will of the people, and they blame the electoral process if it doesn’t achieve that. In reality, the electoral process cannot reveal the will of the people, which is unknowable because it does not exist. It suffices for liberal democracy that the process deliver a good count of the votes cast by a majority or a plurality of the electorate. The populists have it exactly backward: they idolize democracy for what it cannot deliver and undermine its useful process.

We can understand that moral rules develop to support voting because it is an institution that often fosters prosperity and offers some protection against tyranny. Contemporary economists who have formalized this theory of morals include Friedrich Hayek and, in game-theoretic terms, Robert Sugden. But this does not mean that democratic voting is a sacred panacea.

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