The Morning After

Paul Greenberg

11/7/2012 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

It's over at last, Now we know. Or do we? The voting may have ended, but the counting continues. Here's hoping that by the time these lines appear in print we'll know who'll be the next president of the United States.

Elections are supposed to be provide finality in a democracy, and when they don't, when they just prolong the uncertainty, democracy has been deprived of decision. The country is denied clear leadership, the new president a clear mandate. Nobody wins if nobody wins.

Someone once said that final decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court aren't necessarily right; they're right because they're final. So it is with presidential elections. If they don't provide finality, if they don't mark The End of the campaign but only continue its uncertainties and divisions, they have failed.

See the Bush-Gore match of 2000, which went on for 36 days after the polls closed, leaving a residue of distrust. The bitterness of that contest may have faded over the next four years, but it never completely evaporated, continuing to poison the political atmosphere.

As with other bitterly disputed presidential elections -- like those of 1876 and 1824 -- the result was continued division rather than the unity and consensus an election is supposed to give a republic. In 2000, the indecision went on for 36 days of legal wrangling and bad feelings.

Between election night and the Supreme Court's final ruling after a protracted legal struggle, the country's political system was held in a state of suspended animation. That's not the way presidential elections are supposed to work. Their purpose is to provide legitimacy for the next president, not undermine it by leaving doubt and suspicion in their wake.

After every such hotly disputed election, there are calls to reform the electoral system. Its problems are evident, but the remedy for them remains unclear. The great challenge of all such discussions in not to point out the problems with the country's electoral system, but to propose a better one. And each alternative to it has its own problems.

With all its faults and eccentricities, a better electoral system than this one, which dates back to the 18th century and the founding fathers, has yet to be suggested, or at least win enough support to be adopted. So the country struggles on with its time-tested Electoral College. Even if it fails the test from time to time.

Like democracy itself, the present electoral system may be the worst ever devised -- except for all the others. At least its dangers have been explored and debated time and again, complete with object lessons, while any theoretical substitute might work better only in theory.

And so Americans stick with the devil we know, rather than switch to an alternative untried by tested by history. Even at the risk of extending the tumult and uncertainty of a presidential campaign for another 36 days. Or longer.

No wonder Election Day itself, that calm between two storms, is so welcome. It has the air of a civil sabbath, of a nation called into solemn assembly from coast to coast, a day of rest between the campaign and an aftermath that could prove just as contentious. It's a 24-hour respite from all the sound and fury.

People do get carried away. And the final days of the campaign do little to ease our spirits. On the contrary, emotions are roused to a feverish pitch as Americans are told the decision we reach at the polls will be the most important one of our times. Without a clear winner, the furor is just extended.

During the campaign, the election may be depicted by both sides as a final battle between good and evil. "We fight in honorable fashion for the good of mankind; fearless of the future; unheeding of our individual fates; with unflinching hearts and undimmed eyes; we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord." --Theodore Roosevelt at the convention of his new Progressive Party in 1912.

Having been enlisted in so noble a cause, how go back to politics as usual once the votes are in?

The remarkable thing about a hard-fought presidential campaign is not the depth of the passions aroused, but how readily they are soothed afterward. The best defense against allowing the emotions of a presidential campaign to extend beyond Election Day is not some theoretical reform of the electoral system but the good sense and self-restraint of the American people. There still is such a thing, isn't there?

When it comes to continuing the rancor of a presidential campaign the morning after by fighting over the election results, perhaps the fault lies not with our electoral system, but with ourselves -- and how readily we are ruled by our passions.