Questions remain: Election provides few clear answers

PITTSBURGH – Here in the capital of indecision – where even before the polling stations closed Tuesday it seemed possible, even likely, that agitation would mix with litigation – the way forward for America is, as it is everywhere else, muddled. Only here it is more so.

Even after 160 million people voted – a figure that is about a fifth of the population of the entire world when the Constitution was written – many questions remain unanswered, many aspects of our public life are unsettled, many political matters are unresolved, many aspects of our social and cultural lives are uncertain. 

Much of the attention of the past several days has been on the scoreboard; that is natural in a contest where there can be only one winner, though many losers. It is the natural state of things given the fact that the resolution of that question has so many vital implications. 

But there are other matters that the election promoted and that cannot be avoided. Here, to add to your postelection perplexity, are some of them:

 Have Americans become too impatient in insisting on a near-instant, premidnight resolution to a presidential campaign that lasted for months?

This question gets to this American moment, when answers to complex questions can be discovered with a few keystrokes on an iPhone and when there is little tolerance for imprecision, whether it is in an election count or a coronavirus test.

“We are impatient in our digital culture,” Christine Whelan, a clinical professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said as the votes were still being counted in her home state. “We don’t want to wait. Our expectation for instant answers is a grave threat to getting things right. We just want the next dopamine hit so that we feel we are in the mix and in the action.”

Indeed, the country nearly choked on its breakfast cereal when the elections division of the secretary of state in Nevada on the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 4, sent out perhaps the only tweet in the history of that social-media site that defied the cultural urgency of the age:

“That’s it for election results updates until 9 a.m. on Nov. 5.” 

And when Meagan Wolfe, the elections administrator in Wisconsin, walked through the state’s laborious process of double-checking vote counts on television, the nation nearly had a collective coronary.

Compare that with the testimony of Charles Albert Murdock, a San Francisco poll judge who, in his memoir, “A Backward Glance at Eighty,” described the group that sorted the ballots in the 1860s: 

“One served as an election officer at the risk of sanity if not of life. In the ‘fighting Seventh’ ward I once counted ballots for thirty-six consecutive hours, and as I remember conditions I was the only officer who finished sober.” 

In those days, the counts took days. No one flipped out.

 Is the political system the Founders established in the 18th century peculiarly unsuited to the 21st century?

This is a question that goes beyond the debate over whether the Electoral College should be junked and replaced with a simple popular vote, though that issue remains to be engaged – some other day. It is, instead, a question that addresses the emergence of an ideological rigor among the two major parties. It is useless to say that the Founders didn’t expect such rigor; they didn’t plan for parties at all. But Thomas Jefferson, who was not at the Constitutional Convention, wrote more than a third of a century later that, “Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties.” 

America’s current two parties are wholly unlike their mid-20th-century predecessors, when there were liberals in the Republican Party and conservatives in the Democratic Party. 

The ideologically aligned parties that Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought in his June 1938 fireside chat – he spoke of “the definitely liberal declaration of principles set forth in the 1936 Democratic platform” and undertook an unsuccessful “purge” of conservatives from the party – have taken form more than 80 years later. The result: fewer clear winners in presidential elections, even though the same Electoral College produced unambiguous decisions except for 1960 and 1968 throughout the second half of the last century.

 What’s with the pollsters? 

The last public-opinion soundings showed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. with a strong lead and had him well ahead in all the battleground states. In the end, applying the margin of error to the poll findings may show that technically the pollsters weren’t exactly wrong. But the overwhelming impression of the polls was clear: Mr. Biden was gliding to an easy victory and President Donald J. Trump was doomed. That clearly was not the case.

“The big losers today are the pollsters,” the GOP political pollster Frank I. Luntz told me. “You can be forgiven if you get it wrong – once. But getting it wrong again for exactly the same reasons is unforgivable. And when you’re polling for The New York Times or Washington Post and you get it wrong, readers won’t trust you again.”

• Has the country truly changed during the Trump years? 

Partisans on both sides have their instant answer and it is the same – yes. 

The president’s opponents believe the country has lost its openness and innocence, with basic rights and generations-long customs traduced, the government debased and the country’s longtime alliances frayed. Mr. Trump’s supporters believe the changes he has instituted have returned the country to its founding principles, and they are grateful he has fortified gun rights and stocked the courts with conservative judges.

The verdict of history always is tentative. “It is too early to measure it,” former Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in an interview, characterizing the president as “the single most disruptive leader we have ever had, the person who abused the norms of government more than any president we have ever had.”

But then Mr. Kerry, the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee, acknowledged that President Trump had been a genuine figure of transformation. “He has changed the dialogue in his party and elsewhere,” he said. “You can’t deny that. He has tapped into the anger and frustration in the country, even though he never was the person he told those people he was. History will examine that closely.”

The campaign is over, the ballot counting is coming to an end. But the politicking has only begun.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.


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