It’s a spectacle that precisely captures America’s current dysfunction: Nothing is really happening in Congress today [yesterday], yet something is being irreparably broken all the same.
In its first joint session, the 117th Congress is meeting to count the votes of the Electoral College, a ceremonial event that has proved largely uneventful since 1789. Rather than simply affirming the will of the people, however, dozens of Republican lawmakers have said they plan to lodge objections to the process, delaying the proceedings for hours and again calling into question the legitimacy of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
Some of the objectors have taken issue with arcane state electoral procedures. Others have expressed a more generalized dislike of Democrats. Senator Ted Cruz and his allies have demanded an electoral commission to investigate (fact-free) allegations of fraud, to be modeled on the one established after the “Hayes-Tilden presidential race” of 1876. (That commission, incidentally, resulted in a compromise so corrupt and overtly racist that it has been a byword for electoral dysfunction ever since.)
All these self-styled objectors are well aware that they’re staging an absurd charade. Despite months of investigations, no evidence of widespread fraud has materialized. And no amount of theatrics on the floor today will change the outcome of the election. Yet the harm they’re causing is all too real: One can foresee a future in which elections are increasingly decided not by votes cast but by ever more aggressive lawyering, influence peddling and raw power politics. In which electors are wooed by lobbyists or browbeaten by digital mobs. In which every aspect of the process is probed for weaknesses, exploited by partisans and litigated into oblivion.
You might hope that the Republicans who’ve persisted in pandering to President Donald Trump would, even at this late date, rethink their priorities. Yesterday’s Senate runoffs in Georgia — which will in all likelihood give Democrats unified control of the government for the first time in a decade — should’ve made the point clearly enough. That these lawmakers would still attempt to overthrow the results of a certified election, without even a facade of political legitimacy, is all the more shameful.
But a larger share of blame lies with the president himself. In the past three months, he has undermined nearly every element of the electoral process. He has refused to concede a contest he soundly lost. He has demanded recounts and investigations based solely on conspiracy theories. He and his allies have lodged dozens of legal challenges, and have been defeated on every point of substance. Resorting finally to outright corruption, on Saturday he demanded that Georgia’s secretary of state simply produce an extra 11,780 votes for him and declare that the tally had been “recalculated” — that is, do precisely what Trump has falsely accused his opponent of doing.
It’s reassuring that these efforts will all be for naught, and that Biden will rightfully become president on Jan. 20. But don’t suppose that no lasting damage has been done. The customs and norms that have long bound American civic life are coming undone. What chaos might take their place is anyone’s guess. The Editors, MDT/Bloomberg