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In praise of slow democracy

Summary:
Steve Landsburg wrote a excellent short WSJ oped  adding one more good reason for our apparently cumbersome electoral practices: Imagine a future presidential election in which the incumbent refuses to concede and enlists the full power of the federal government to overturn the apparent democratic outcome.Now imagine that the election in question is actually run by a ...

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Steve Landsburg wrote a excellent short WSJ oped  adding one more good reason for our apparently cumbersome electoral practices: 

Imagine a future presidential election in which the incumbent refuses to concede and enlists the full power of the federal government to overturn the apparent democratic outcome.

Now imagine that the election in question is actually run by a federal agency or by some nationwide quasigovernmental authority charged with collecting and aggregating the results from all 50 states.

I don’t know about you, but I might worry a bit about the pressure that could be brought to bear on that single authority. I might worry a bit about the objectivity of the attorney general and the federal election commissioners who would be in a position to ramp up that pressure.

 I might even cast a sober look at what tends to happen in other countries where leaders are chosen in elections conducted by the national government—countries like Russia, where two years ago Vladimir Putin claimed 77% of the vote

I might also be tempted to meditate on the general perils of centralizing power, and the specific perils of centralizing the power to decide who will yield power. [my emphasis]

By then, I might be so worked up that I’ll manage to forget why the Electoral College is a threat to democracy, and how its abolition—and the nationalization of presidential elections—would help make democracy function more smoothly.

But I’ll know who to ask for a refresher. By and large, it seems like the people who are most in a dither about the current president’s attempt to retain power are the same people who think we ought to make it easier for the next president who wants to do the same thing. I’m sure they can explain that to me.

Our slow, cumbersome method of collecting votes has great resilience. The electoral college means that politicians must gather widespread support, not just run up totals in a few places. It means that in a close election, we only challenge recount and fuss and bother about a few states or districts, we don't send armies of lawyers out to challenge every vote in the country. It makes the election practically unhackable. And, Steve's point, much harder to steal. 

I think Steve understates his point. He imagines an election which is called for the opponent but the incumbent refuses to leave. If presidential elections are run by a single Federal bureaucracy, it will never get to that -- the election will not be called for the opponent in the first place, as it is not in Russia. 

The first point of democracy is a peaceful transfer of power, and acceptance of the legitimacy of the new regime. That does not mean a fast transfer of power. Our slow election process is in the midst of doing its wonderful job of convincing the losers that they really did lose fair and square, even though the election was very close, and that the new regime is legitimate. 

To  Democratic readers in a huff that Trump needs to concede now, and to the media and commentators hyperventilating about it: Take a deep breath, and let the system work. Let the votes be certified, let the legal challenges fail, let the electoral college vote, and then, and only then, start worrying if it isn't all over. 

That losers accept the legitimacy of the winner has been the sore point of our recent presidential elections (and a few state ones as well, see Stacey Abrams), since Al Gore's challenge to Bush's narrow win (yes, dear hyperventilators, please remember it was Gore that filed the legal challenges, they lasted into December, and Bush really did win by about 500 votes when the recount was done). Too many of Trump's political opponents spent four years denying his legitimacy. You of all people should understand how vital it is that Trump's supporters do not feel as you have for the last 4 years! 

Which they will if this thing is rushed. You have every interest in undercutting a narrative, sure otherwise to emerge, that there were some votes out there that didn't get counted.  Sometimes just sitting back and letting the other side figure out the battle is lost is the best strategy. 

Where's the fire? The climate can wait a month -- it will anyway. The transition cannot go worse than the Obama to Trump transition, with FBI investigating the new administration. (On NPR I hear lots of praise about the Bush to Obama transition. There is a great big silence after that.) There is a whole month after the electoral college meets. That's plenty of time to learn everything the new administration wants to learn from Trump appointees (not much, I suspect). Again, our slow democracy shows great wisdom. 

Steve's last point is a good one. Why is it that "the people who are most in a dither about the current president’s attempt to retain power are the same people who think we ought to make it easier for the next president who wants to do the same thing?" Steve's charitable interpretation is that they just haven't thought about it. 

A less charitable interpretation beckons. "What is the question to which this is the answer?" is  the economists' usual approach, not "what question do people say they are pursuing?" Federalizing a single, fast national election  fits nicely with abolishing the electoral college, abolishing the filibuster, stacking the Supreme Court, increased intrusion in to politics by Federal law enforcement, widespread censorship of social media, election "reform" that allows much more political interference (see Kim Stassel). If the question were "take power with a narrow majority and then make sure you keep it" these would surely be sensible answers (see Understanding the Left). The authoritarian danger to a democracy like ours does not come from a single, now friendless individual. It comes from a well organized movement that can control the institutions of government and society. 

But let us be charitable today. The Great War for the soul of the Democratic Party is on, and half of it does value the great institutional machinery of our constitution. That half, at least, should welcome our slow, cumbersome, but very resilient process for the peaceful transfer of power and conferral of legitimacy. 

Update: In reaction to many comments. We seem to be in a moment where many on the left desire large constitutional changes. Beware what you ask for. Setting up constitutional changes because they happen to advantage your party at the moment is a dangerous business. Do unto others as they certainly will do unto you when they get a chance. Unless of course the game is to seize power and keep it forever, but the wailing about "save our democracy" can't mean that, can it? 



John H. Cochrane
In real life I'm a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I'm also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. I'm not really grumpy by the way!

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