November 4, 2020 Reading Time: 4 minutes

In the old days, which seem behind us, people were invited to marvel at the workings of the American system. For all the problems with the vote in a constitutional republic, at least it assures the peaceful transition of power. That was the core argument that old liberals made for democracy. It kept violence at bay. Instead of killing each other for power and control, we went to the ballot box, and acquiesced even when the vote didn’t go the way we wanted. No more violent revolutions! Bring the peaceful cooperation of market action to politics itself!

That result somehow seems impossible this year, a year when the stakes are higher than ever because governments have never controlled so much of our lives. We found out some things we did not know. We discovered that government can stop our travel plans. They can shut the stores and restaurants. They can force us to stay home. They can ban us from recreation. They can shut theaters and concert venues, not just piecemeal but all at once. They can ban us from access to doctors and dentists. They can forbid weddings and funerals. They can abolish our traditions – Easter, July 4th, Thanksgiving, and even Christmas – under the pretext of public health. 

After election night, we discovered something else. Many governments have trouble counting ballots. Here it is a day after the great election, and conclusive results still elude us. It seems like this whole thing could go to the courts and stay there for weeks, if not months. It certainly doesn’t feel very peaceful. It feels botched – not just the polls and media reporting (which has been 100% for a Biden sweep for many months) but even a basic function of democracy itself. It seems we’ve discovered yet another fatal flaw in voting: it is managed by an institution that is really poor at managing things. 

Glenn Greenwald writes:

The richest and most powerful country on earth — whether due to ineptitude, choice or some combination of both — has no ability to perform the simple task of counting votes in a minimally efficient or confidence-inspiring manner. As a result, the credibility of the voting process is severely impaired, and any residual authority the U.S. claims to “spread” democracy to lucky recipients of its benevolence around the world is close to obliterated…

No matter what the final result, there will be substantial doubts about its legitimacy by one side or the other, perhaps both. And no deranged conspiracy thinking is required for that. An electoral system suffused with this much chaos, error, protracted outcomes and seemingly inexplicable reversals will sow doubt and distrust even among the most rational citizens.

He is right that the damage to public trust is severe and probably lasting. For several decades now, each election winner has enjoyed less credibility than the last. And now we seem to have come to the point that half the country will not recognize much less legitimize the ostensible winner of the contest. 

Consider a larger lesson here. We do not want governments that cannot count ballots and competently manage elections to be in charge of mitigating a virus. What happened in 2020 is a scandal for the ages. Both parties are implicated. Recall that it was Donald Trump who on March 12th made the first major national move in the direction of lockdown. By executive fiat, he closed flights from Europe, then the UK, then Australia, actions so draconian and extreme that such was never imagined by even the most nativist nationalist. 

This action set the tone for government control. Once the other party got involved at the state level, we found ourselves (and still find ourselves) subjected to a level of control that would be considered unconscionable at any time in our history. By the time Trump figured out that he was being trolled, and gathered into his inner circle some actual rational scientists who could explain the basics of immunology to him, the lockdowns had smashed everything we had previously taken for granted. Then he also found himself powerless to control governments at the state level, while still not dealing with his initial mistake of thinking that he could use his power and authority to fight and destroy the “invisible enemy.”

At some indiscernible point – and perhaps this was the point from the beginnings of this insanity in late February – the virus was no longer a bug to be managed but a political issue to ride all the way to the November elections. A virus became political. To be sure, there was and is a tremendous intellectual error associated with the belief that mandatory human separation and the smashing of the social order is the way to control a textbook virus. But how and why this error came to dominate the national narrative for fully 8 months cries out for explanation. Surely politics has something to do with it, if not everything to do with it. 

To some degree, the election became a referendum on lockdowns. Trump found that his anti-lockdown rhetoric gained the most applause lines at his rallies, so in the last weeks before the vote, he started emphasizing this more. His poll numbers began to shift. Also his message started informing races for the House and Senate. And sure enough, though the Democrats will likely gain the presidency, just barely, the composition of Congress will not change. 

It will be months before we can tell to what extent the lockdowns had an influence on the outcomes. One merciful result for which we can hope is that the virus will no longer be deployed for political purposes. And perhaps some modicum of good sense will return: disease is something to be dealt with by medical professionals, not politicians and their advisers using executive decrees. 

May this wonderful country be forever spared another nightmare such as 2020 has brought. The way to make sure that happens is finally to recognize and embrace the limits of state power. Let them figure out how to count ballots before they ever again take away our freedoms in the name of virus management. 

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker served as Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research from 2017 to 2021.

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