It has been called the most contentious and controversial US presidential election ever. The nation never seemed more divided. Throughout the campaign, the Democrats called the Republican candidate everything from a liar, to a madman, a cheat, a traitor, an enemy of America, and a would-be tyrant. Firing back, the Republicans accused the Democratic challenger of being past his sell-by date and in ill health, of being corrupted by financial ties to industrial parties, and as being a dull and lifeless prop for the dark forces conspiring behind him. Suspicion of voter fraud was rampant, and heavily armed and marauding White supremacists canvassed the country preventing minorities from voting. Election day results in Florida and other states were deemed too close to call. The electoral votes were neck and neck, and the Electoral College needed resolution of those states to declare a victor. The media were holding back conflicting information on election results given the confusion. There were threats of another civil war. It looked like one candidate would have the absolute majority of the popular vote. However, a question arose in the Electoral College about the legitimacy of certain states’ votes, and upon a recount, amidst accusations of ballot box stuffing and destruction of ballots, it was confirmed that in certain jurisdictions the number of votes exceeded the voting population. Finally, there were allegations that the election board in one state offered to certify the vote for a commitment of future funding. Similar accusations and reports of corruption were being launched from both Democratic and Republican trenches.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s because it is … but perhaps not for the reason the reader assumed. This is not a prophetic picture about the November 2020 election between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Rather it is a glance back 150 years in American history to what has been called “the ugliest, most contentious presidential election ever,”the epic 1876 battle between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. The outcome of the election remains controversial. Although Hayes lost the popular vote by 48% to 51.5%, he won the election in part based on a shady backroom deal, which resulted in the Compromise of 1877. While some compromises in politics are necessary evils, this one was diabolic, in that Hayes took the presidency in quid pro quo for agreeing to remove federal troops from the vengeful South, which left Black populations unprotected. It brought an end to the process of Reconstruction that President Grant had undertaken, and millions had previously bled over. The 1877 Compromise ushered in the Jim Crow era, allowing states to reimpose racial segregation, enabled the rise of the KKK as a political and terrorist force, and permitted for decades the inhumane depredations against Black Americans to continue unabated until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-60s.
Following the Civil War, the nation made real progress towards a greater justice in Reconstruction under President Grant. Unfortunately, with Lincoln’s assassination and Grant’s passing, most of these hard-won and blood-stained victories were slowly but surely unwound under the cover of ‘states’ rights’ as the dominant claim over federal sovereignty. Over the following decades, the states and the federal government rolled back many of the Reconstruction-era laws benefiting African Americans that were enforced at point of bayonet. This regression reached a nadir under President Woodrow Wilson, who, for all the good he sought to do at Versailles and with his Fourteen Points, made the shameful policy of segregation the working practice of Federal government, including at the US departments of Treasury, War, and Interior.
Nonetheless, African American men and women continued to serve, fight and die in various foreign wars as true patriots whose blood ran just as red as the child of England or Europe standing adjacent. Finally, during the Civil Rights movement, the country made genuine progress, but not without the cost of bloodshed and assassinations of great leaders. Just as the Civil War didn’t end the conflict, the Civil Rights Act didn’t solve the issues, and over the past decades minorities have suffered through unfair and discriminatory lending and housing practices, a broken criminal justice system, well-meaning but inherently poor government policies, gerrymandered redistricting, and voter suppression.
Americans are once again confronted as a nation struggling with its commitment to “liberty and justice for all.” It is simply a statement of fact, not one of opinion or political propaganda, to affirm that with no justice, there can be no peace.
There has rarely been a period in American history where elections have not been controversial. Partisan political machines, which operated on the spoils patronage system, dominated American politics throughout most of the 19th century. Questions of ballot stuffing, secret versus open ballots, blatant voter bribery at polling stations, party corruption and backroom dealing, all played significant parts in the American election process. What, if anything, makes the 2020 elections different?
A number of issues swirling around the 2020 election elevates the risk of chaos. These include foreign intervention via cyber-attacks or other belligerence, virulent disinformation campaigns, a resumption of COVID-19 lockdowns and potentially evidence of voter fraud.
It is difficult to envisage a plausible election-day scenario that does not question the legitimacy of the outcome and the democratic process itself. If President Trump is reelected, nearly half of our country will believe that such a result was not legitimately possible and could only have come about by fraud or corruption. Riots could ensue. If Joe Biden wins, the other side may similarly believe that the outcome relied on ‘deep-state’ conspiracy and fraud. Counter-riots could ensue.
Those tensions expose another possible outcome—a contested one. Questions and uncertainties demand verification, and the results of the election are not certified for an extended period of time. The country enters unresolved limbo. Legal challenges are lodged and rejoined. Demonstrations break out on both sides, potentially deteriorating into violence and discord, shaking the foundations of cities and communities, further breaking what little fraternity and civility remains between Americans. Perhaps a National Emergency is declared, and emergency powers are invoked.
By the time the US Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore on December 12, 2000 nearly six weeks had passed since the election. Shortly thereafter, Vice President Gore conceded defeat, avoiding a national calamity. But the issues and passions surrounding the 2020 election are more vexing and run hotter than hanging chads. Today’s environment is even more divisive and rancorous.
Much as we might prefer to see it otherwise, it is quite difficult to see how this ends well.