With less than a week to go until polling day, there is the comforting illusion that, one way or another, the whole US election thing will be over in one long evening.
But of course everyone knows that it’s not going to happen that way. Barring a Biden victory of Brobdingnagian proportions across the board based on non-mail ballots only, it’s going to be an unholy mess.
The almost perfect storm has descended upon the American polity: an electoral system designed in the 18th century and not much modified since, ramshackle at the best of times, is now going head-to-head with an out of control pandemic, a mendacious president, a gangster administration and a stacked Supreme Court. What else could possibly go wrong?
Oh yeah, it’s legal to open carry guns into a polling place. Thank God there’s nothing aggravating about voting in the US, like an hours-long wait in line, with the distribution of food and water prohibited. Last, best hope of man, everybody.
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There’s no even-handedness about this. Democrat-run states may gerrymander their districts — they have to, for parity — but it’s Republican states that suppress the voter rolls with lifetime voting bans on felons, removal of polling places and understaffing of those that remain. Now, with the universal right to mail-in ballots due to COVID-19, the brand-spanking new Supreme Court has ruled, on a Wisconsin case, that mail-in ballots stamped as mailed before polling day but arriving after will not be counted.
This, after the Trump-installed head of the US Postal Service initiated a campaign of withdrawing hundreds of mail sorting machines from service before workers refused to co-operate.
With state and county government determining most election conduct, the lawsuits are running wild. There are more than 300 currently underway, a large proportion focused on the key swing states of Florida and Pennsylvania. Should there be challenges to the result in these or other swing states, it seems likely that these will be the cases which are rapidly shuffled up to the Supreme Court — which has complete discretion to take up whichever appeals it likes.
In the Wisconsin decision Justice Brett Kavanaugh affirmed both the notion of “stopping the count” on election night or soon after to avoid “confusion”, and the supremacy of state government election codes over any challenge to their constitutionality by state courts. Since most of these governments are Republican, well.
The stage is thus set for a multi-directional car crash: hundreds of thousands of rejected votes, stand-offs at polling places, queues so long people are denied the chance to vote, followed by razor-thin state results which might be reversed into a final result in which an electoral college majority diverges from an overall majority.
This would test the system to close to breaking point beyond anything of recent decades. It’s an extraordinary situation, arrived at in no more than a decade and a half from a point of relative stability and consensus. It’s a product of the “wrecking crew” approach to government by Republicans — to do government so badly that all consensual norms collapse and power becomes sheer exercise of force.
This has relied on the establishment nature of mainstream progressivism, and its leaders’ ultimate commitment to order and legitimacy over success — above all in Al Gore’s capitulation to George W Bush in 2000. But that was then.
After years and decades of the slow remorseless advance of inequality, indeed of the increasing impossibility of life for many, of the steady fusion of capital and tech into monopoly dominance, of opportunistic captures such as the new 6-3 conservative constellation of the Supreme Court, in an era of Black Lives Matter and much more, there is far less likelihood of accepting such.
Would a real double cross of the popular vote push people beyond all restraint? For all the swagger of gun totin’ militias, it’s far more likely to be progressives who could field a mass movement against a barely legal powergrab.
None of it may happen this way, but it’s the logical conclusion to a process of power that is many decades old, and was initially projected outwards onto client states as “exported democracy” — manufactured elites, a dodged-up process, a systemic exclusion of progressive change.
That process of masking power with pseudo-democracy has become inwardly folded, as America lost its projective power. The USA has become its own client state — which accounts for the somewhat uncanny nature of the events, the simultaneous feeling of reality and unreality.
Maybe that will all end next week. But the questions of legitimacy will not be resolved by a Biden victory. A Biden era might be far more interesting than many are counting on.
And whether it is or not, whatever happens, there will be at least another two and a half months of the Trump administration. During which he could do anything…
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