Now that that’s over, never again

J.D. Tuccille:

My son’s school, located near a polling place, [hosted] online-only classes on Election Day and the day before. It’s doing so “out of an abundance of caution,” despite making a successful transition from a hybrid schedule to optional full-time in-person teaching, because supporters of America’s two political death cults can’t be trusted to behave themselves when encountering one another on the way to vote.

This, bluntly, is insane. Elections to government office shouldn’t matter so much that they pose threats to the safety of school kids. And the only way to make who wins government office matter less is to lower the stakes by making government itself less important.

Schools aren’t the only places worried about election fallout.

“We have seen some isolated civil unrest and as we have done on several occasions over the last few years, we have moved our firearms and ammunition off the sales floor as a precaution for the safety of our associates and customers,” a Walmart spokesman noted last week. (On Wednesday, I witnessed staff hurriedly removing guns from the sales floor of a Phoenix-area store.)

Amidst much pushback, the company reversed the decision two days later. But the fact remains that a major U.S. retailer fears its customers might riot and try to kill one another if they’re disappointed with the outcome of the vote.

Government officials are similarly worried. “Bracing for possible civil unrest on Election Day, the Justice Department is planning to station officials in a command center at FBI headquarters to coordinate the federal response to any disturbances or other problems with voting that may arise across the country,” reports The Washington Post. NPR has a similar piece on “How Police, National Guard And Military Are Preparing For Election Day Tensions.”

How did we get to the point that Americans might turn to violence if they don’t like the outcomes of elections?

“The key to peaceful transition is that politicians and their supporters must be able to lose an election,” writes Hoover Institution Senior Fellow John H. Cochrane. “Losers and their supporters understand that they may lose on policy issues, but they will have the chance to regroup and try again. They will not lose their jobs or their businesses. They will not be put in jail, dogged with investigations, prosecuted under vague laws, regulated out of business. Their assets will not be confiscated.”

“The vanishing ability to lose an election and not be crushed is the core reason for increased partisan vitriol and astounding violation of basic norms on both sides of our political divide,” Cochrane adds. He points to the growing use of regulations, legal interpretations, and criminal investigations by election winners to punish their enemies as making politics a game that nobody can afford to lose.

Chants of “lock her up!” aimed at Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump—or by any candidate at a political opponent—may rally the mob, but they raise the very real possibility that disappointment at the polls will have consequences far more dangerous than thwarted career aspirations. There are plenty of countries where coming out in the wrong end of a vote can land you behind bars.

Likewise, the weaponization of regulatory agencies by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his ilk to strong-arm banks and other firms into denying services to political opponents is a threat to “the First Amendment rights of all organizations to engage in political advocacy without fear that the state will use its regulatory authority to penalize them for doing so,” as the American Civil Liberties Union warns.

Yet these thuggish tactics have become regular features of our political life. Politicians thrill their supporters with promises to misuse the vast and dangerous power of the state to crush despised opponents. And then we’re supposed to wonder why our political seasons turn into societal pressure cookers with election outcomes treated as existential threats. Well, our political class and their rabid partisans are doing their best to make sure that losing a vote really is an existential threat.

The pandemic has certainly exacerbated the situation. People suffering from economic distress and social isolation enforced by government lockdowns are fodder for civil disorder.

“Economic growth and the unemployment rate are the two most important determinants of social unrest,” warns the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

“The domestic situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic creates an environment that could accelerate some individuals’ mobilization to targeted violence or radicalization to terrorism,” cautions the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

But that’s fuel added to an already-smoldering fire. The political culture in the United States was sick long before anybody heard of COVID-19. All too many Americans already hated each other and plotted to destroy their political enemies. Responses to the virus just add a little more chaos to the mix.

So, how to lower the temperature so that school kids aren’t imperiled by their proximity to ballot-wielding Democrats and Republicans and retailers don’t feel compelled to strip their sporting goods departments prior to Election Day?

“If government ran less of your life, you wouldn’t have to spend so much time worrying about ‘election fraud’ this and ‘deadlines for counting ballots’ that, etc etc,” the Goldwater Institute’s Timothy Sandefur mused a few days before the latest Most Important Election Ever ™.

That’s true. Traditional philosophical arguments over the proper role of government and the balance of majority wishes with individual autonomy have been replaced by one important observation: the government we have now is so large, powerful, and dangerous that nobody can afford to lose control to their enemies. Politics is now an escalating struggle between death cults whose partisans realistically fear doom if vote totals don’t go their way.

I’ve suggested before that the most promising short-term path is for individuals and localities to follow in the footsteps of Sanctuary Cities and Second Amendment Sanctuaries in ignoring commandments from further up the governmental food chain. That’s relatively straightforward since it requires no agreements among factions. Better still would be formal decentralization that doesn’t rely on defiance.

But one way or another we have to make elections less consequential so that people can afford to lose them without fearing their treatment by the winners. Given that power is inevitably abused by those who wield it, that means reducing government’s authority over our lives so that ballot-box victors can’t so easily punish their enemies.

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