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Historical Perspective, disquieting and hopeful

Your Humble Blogger had intended to write about justice issues. And I probably will. It is dispiriting. As Our Only President-Elect simultaneously gathers his cabinet and whips up tweet-froth in advance of his victory rallies, he seems to be confirming my worst fears. Many of my friends on the left are pinning their hope on recounts (which I’m not against, but with little evidence of tampering they seem unlikely to change the outcome) or some sort of semi-constitutional anti-democratic revolt of faithless electors. As if, in either case, we would just call it a blip and settle in to a new administration without consequences. Don’t get me wrong—a Trump administration would likely be worse than those consequences, but oh my goodness gracious it would be a disaster. Well, anyway.

One thing—a minor thing, of course, but something I could bear thinking about—that has been on my mind that I haven’t already seen lots of people write about is that we are in an unusual situation with a bunch of very close elections in a row. I had written (before the election) about my reluctance to get rid of the Electoral College. I wrote:

I can’t really get worked up about it either way, though. Essentially, if it’s not a close election then the Electoral College and the popular vote will go the same way. If it is a close election, then the Electoral College and the popular vote would be fucked up in different ways.

Well, here we are with a close and fucked-up election. And I wondered—it seems like we’ve been having an awful lot of close presidential elections lately. Yes? And the answer is, kinda. The vote share in four out of the last five elections has been within 5 percent; in two of those the Electoral College winner lost the total vote. The election in 2008 was not particularly close by historical standards; Barack Obama took 7.27% more of the vote than John McCain did. Of the last 49 presidential elections (the ones where we have something like a popular vote total) 23 were closer than that. But the other four were very close, by our historical standards. I compare them to previous five, the first five elections I really remember from 1980-1996, the closest of which was Bill Clinton’s 5% margin over Poppy Bush and the other four of which had margins bigger than that 2008 one (up to the real blowout in 1984 with a victory margin of 18%).

I think my expectations of Presidential elections were formed by those five elections (I retain a dim memory of the much closer 1976 election, but I was seven years old and only the goofiest stuff stuck in my memory) so I expect most elections to have a clear winner and loser, with a lot of space between them. I think of close elections as anomalies, 1960 and 1968 with the Ike re-election blowout of 56, the LBJ re-election blowout of 64 and the Nixon re-election blowout of 72 around them. I don’t expect there to be a series of close elections like that, with four elections in 20 years within five points.

Which is, in fact, historically unusual. The last time we had a real series of close elections was the end of the 19th Century, when there were six consecutive within five points, including two where the candidate with fewer total votes became President. Starting with the disastrous 1876 election, which was pretty much flat-out stolen by Rutherford B. Hayes, there was James Garfield’s completely regional victory in 1880 in which less than two thousand votes separated North from South. Grover Cleveland won the next three votes by miniscule margins, losing the electoral vote in the middle one. And then 1896 William McKinley won by more than 4%, the biggest margin since Ulysses Grant in 1876, and started a new era of politics. So there was a twenty year period of chaos and razor-thin elections followed by something new that was more or less normal until the world blew up twenty years after that.

In other words, it looks to me like we are in a period that people will look back on as the chaotic preparation for something new, something that is just starting out. This is our time to try and shape what that will be, whether it is Trumpism or not. It is a bad time for American democracy, yes, and I worry about that a lot, but doom is not inevitable.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I find myself dubious about recounts. First, because I doubt they'll change anything (though I'd like them to), and secondly, because of they do change anything, what then? At that point we have the question of what Trumpian supporters will do if they feel cheated...

On the other hand, enough has happened since the election that some Trump voters appear to have become disillusioned. But enough that a sudden change of President Elect wouldn't cause ructions?

I am pessimistic about everything, though.

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