Some Christmastime Advice for Pundits and Partisans
Now that the 538 electors have voted — and, with only the most minor of exceptions, for the expected candidates — we can marvel at how such a huge difference in public policies can be made by just a few votes, the 77,744 votes by which Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton for the 46 electoral votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Trump’s narrow victory means a significantly more conservative Supreme Court, a rollback of Obamacare and reams of regulations, abandonment of policies disfavoring fossil fuel usage — and hundreds of consequences that can only be guessed at.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. If Al Franken had not been ruled the winner of the 2008 U.S. Senate race in Minnesota by 302 votes, there would have been no 60th vote to push through Obamacare in 2010. And let’s not start re-litigating the count in Florida in the 2000 presidential race.
Our political system is one that produces big policy consequences from little, even microscopic, vote margins. This has been strengthened in recent decades by increasing partisan polarization. A half-century ago, political scientists said we should have one clearly liberal and one clearly conservative party — and boy, did they get their wish.
But binary choices, with sharply varying consequences, tend to be characteristic of two-party politics. And we have a two-party politics, which incentivizes each party to aim for more than 50 percent of the vote. That helps bind together a disparate country, but it also emphasizes what divides us.
And often neither party gets to 50, as with 15 of the 41 Democratic-Republican presidential contests since 1856 (and one 50 percent candidate, Samuel Tilden in 1876, lost by one electoral vote).
Democrats have been especially unhappy this year because, like Republicans in 1948, they had pretty good reason to think they’d win. But Thomas Dewey’s Hollywood celebrity supporters didn’t run ads begging electors to vote against Harry Truman. Only now has understandable disappointment led to utter derangement.
Christmastime and the holiday season may be a good time to provide some suggestions for how commentators and citizens can go forward at a time when, even more than usual, narrow margins seem to be producing widely different outcomes.
One suggestion is inspired by social media accounts of how distraught Clinton-supporting parents are explaining Trump’s victory to their disappointed (but probably less distraught) children.
And that is to back up and do the explanation the other way. Explain beforehand to your children — or to your friends or just yourself — how a good person could support the candidate you, for good reasons of your own, oppose. What values are other good people trying to advance? Why do they think their choice would be good for the country?
Going through this exercise won’t change your mind. But it could change your view. And it also might be a good idea for pundits like me to make a point of doing this more often. Good people do disagree. It’s one of our jobs to understand why.
A second suggestion is directed at the punditocracy especially — and maybe to people beyond. And that is that it’s a good time to stop playing team ball. Over much of the past 20 years, there’s been a close alignment between the views of liberal commentators and elected Democrats and those of conservative commentators and elected Republicans.
That’s less likely in the near future. There’s clearly a gulf between Trump’s views and those of many conservatives and elected Republicans. And with no incumbent Democratic president, liberals will have no single leader setting an agenda.
Back when I started reading about politics, National Review was ambivalent about Richard Nixon, and the New Republic was repeatedly critical of John F. Kennedy. Both magazines did less cheerleading and had more interesting things to say than many counterparts have had lately. Let’s have more of that now.
The third suggestion is: Don’t get strung out on process arguments — for example, the recent brouhaha about the Electoral College. Everyone knows that if Trump had a plurality in the popular vote and Clinton a majority of electoral votes, Democrats would have argued that Democratic electors should vote for her. It’s an illustration of one of my long-standing rules of politics: All process arguments are insincere.
Attentive readers may object that I haven’t always followed this advice myself. Let me know if I fail to do so going forward.
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