U.S. Election: Some Reflections

October 28, 2020

Much controversy has been stirred up ahead of the U.S. 2020 election, and the suspense is unlikely to be fully settled on Election Day, which is less than one week away.

In a country known for low turnout, amplified opportunities for early voting and mail-in ballots are expected to make 2020 an exception on that score. As a point of comparison, the last dozen presidential votes produced turnouts that ranged from 49.0% in 1996 to 57.1% in 2008. A response of 62.8% in 1960 was the largest since 1908. Starkly different directions for America sought by President Trump and his opponent, Joe Biden, have also fueled interest in voting.

All seats in the House of Representatives and a third of the senatorial seats will also be contested. Democrats control the House and are expected to increase their majority there. Unless the senate swings into Democratic control, which requires a net pick-up of three new seats assuming Biden also wins, the feasible shift in federal government policies will be quite limited.

And even if the Democrats capture the presidency and both houses of Congress, Republicans have secured a huge prize already through the quick and early appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, which gives Conservatives a solid 6-3 majority. This has two very immediate implications. First, there will be an enormous temptation if the electoral count is close to settle the presidency in the courts rather than by careful counting and verification of the voting tally. Reportedly, a greater proportion of Trump’s support than Biden supporters plan to vote in person on November 3rd. All things being the same, this means that early voting results will be biased in Trump’s favor. Biden will need to overcome that statistical advantage in a sufficiently significant way if the Democrats wish to discredit accusations by the Republicans of fraudulence.

The second implication is that critical elements of the laws regarding women’s reproductive rights and health care could be overturned soon. With a 6-3 majority, it may not be long before a case goes to the Supreme Court that could strike down Roe V Wade and fulfill a key objective of President Trump’s loyal base. Democrats fear the appointment of Barrett will also topple Obamacare, resulting in millions of people, including many children, losing heath insurance. Moreover, legislation to protect the environment and slow down the process of climate change could be stymied by the courts. One side’s pro-life agenda strikes the other side as a pro-death recipe via harmful environmental conditions and loss of access to healthcare.

More generally, the current prevalence of distrust will almost certainly outlast the election of 2020, and some of this cultural conflict is hard-baked into the U.S. Constitution. The document replaced an initial government that had been utterly ineffective. Under the Articles of Confederation, sovereignty resided with the states rather than the “people,” and the federal government, such as it was, had only a legislature branch but no executive or judicial branches. In 1787, judicial power was assumed to be non-political, and hence judges were granted limitless terms so long as they conducted their jobs in “good behavior.” The possibility of political factions in the future had been imagined but had not yet in fact emerged.

The Supreme Court of 2o2o is in reality just as political as the legislative and executive branches, yet the Court has become only tenuously accountable to “we the people.” Changes in its composition occur only when a justice retires, dies, or is impeached. The Court appointment process includes the Senate, which is not a proportionately representative body, but excludes the House of Representatives, which is. Changing the term limit for Supreme Court justices would require an amendment, entailing the approval of at least 38 of 50 state legislatures, and that’s not going to happen.

The two to one conservative Supreme Court majority is out of whack with  U.S. presidential election voting splits over the past three decades. The Republican candidate got over 50% of the popular vote in just one of the last seven election, and that was a mere 50.7% in 2004. The Republican standard-bearer took less than 46.1% in 1992, 1996, 2008 and 2016. The Republican candidate’s popular vote was less than the Democratic candidate’s total in both 2000 and 2016 yet emerged the presidential winner in each of those instances.

The American Revolution was fought in large part to secure representative government. A democracy emerged, vesting primary political power with the majority of voters but with the protection of critical minority rights. Scheduled elections are mandatory, set far enough apart to allow government to function effectively, but close enough so that governments would be incentivized to represent the majority will of the people and as that will changes over time.

A wholly different matter from the perceived threat to American democracy that has surfaced during the 2020 election is the assertion that politicians are less equipped to handle the complexities of a big operation like the U.S. government than a person with a business background. Joe Biden has served the public in various capacities for over four decades, whereas Donald Trump had never run for office before his successful 2016 campaign for president.

Would Trump’s background as a real estate executive, a reality show protagonist, and a wealthy private citizen better prepare him for the challenges of the American presidency? The comparatively short list of former U.S. presidents with significant prior business experience does not lend support to such an assertion. It includes Jimmy Carter (peanut farm owner), Herbert Hoover (mine engineering businessman), Warren G. Harding (newspaper owner), George W. Bush (major league baseball club owner), George H. W. Bush (part owner of an independent oil company), and Harry Truman (part owner of a men’s clothing store). Only Truman is widely considered to have been one of America’s greatest presidents. When you think about it, the lack of correlation between good businessmen and skilled public servants is not really surprising because the management skills and essence of decision-making are inherently vastly different in the public sector from those used in private enterprise.

As president, Trump is on an even shorter list than the one of former businessmen. Only Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower also had German ancestry, and in a way, there are parallels in Trump to both those predecessors. Hoover reacted to the Depression much as Trump has to the Covid pandemic by wishing the problem away and predicting that good times are right around the corner. Eisenhower did many good things, but one exception was to allow McCarthyism to flourish in his party and the U.S. government under his watch. Donald Trump and Joe McCarthy each had links to the late Roy Cohn. Also, Trump’s fondness for authoritarian political leaders and attacks on U.S. watchdog institutions such as the press and intelligence community have parallels to McCarthy’s rise to power.

It would be surprising if this week’s shaky financial market conditions do not in part reflect investors holding their breaths against the possibility of a manipulated U.S. election and/or an undemocratic outcome. President Trump has repeatedly warned of fraudulence if mailed in ballots are allowed. And quite a few Democratic presidential contenders have been knocked right out of the box by a dirty trick or untrue smear. Examples include a falsified letter just before the 1972 New Hampshire primary claiming Ed Muskie to be prejudiced against French Canadians, the Willie Horton ad that badly hurt Michael Dukakis in 1988, the unverified Swift Boat ads in 2004 smearing John Kerry’s service record in Vietnam, the “birther movement questioning Obama’s qualifications to be president, James Comey announcing a fresh FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails in late October 2016, and compelling evidence of Russian hacking to influence both the 2016 and 2020 elections. Supporters of Biden expect an unfair playing field because they’ve seen it before, and supporters of Trump fear irrelevance and loss.

Whatever happens in America will have profound implications for people and governments elsewhere in the world. They have no say in next week’s election but will be closely watching events that will nonetheless influence their lives for years to come. With so much mutual distrust and a constitution that no long delivers widespread confidence in U.S. representative government, the coming eleven weeks through January 20, 2021 promise to be challenging ones for America and world financial markets.

Copyright 2020, Larry Greenberg. All rights reserved. No secondary distribution without express permission.



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