How Bad Can It Get

“I fear for our nation. The charges are flying both ways. One candidate accuses the other of unspeakable evils and torments, and the other candidate responds in-kind. Marauding rioters are openly intimidating and threatening anyone who would support the opposition. The newspapers are fanning the flames by reporting complete nonsense for or against whichever candidate they support. There are even reports of open bribes of over a million dollars to inappropriately certify election results. Congress has established a commission of five senators, five Supreme Court justices and five members of the House of Representatives. Seven Republicans, seven Democrats and one Independent will decide the issue. Even though all appearances seem balanced and fair, I sincerely question whether either side will accept the final decision.”

The previous paragraph was taken from a letter sent from a Boston father to his son studying at Oxford. It describes the Election of 1876. It’s similarity to our current situation gave me goosebumps. At the time of the writing, Republican, Rutherford Hayes, and Democrat, Samuel Tilden, were engaged in the most vicious campaign in American history. I pray that it will remain in the top spot, but I'm not so sure.

In 1876, the Republicans were guilty of widespread voter fraud in states they controlled, and heavily armed mobs of white supremacist Democrats prevented countless African Americans from voting. Both sides cheated to the point where there is no way of knowing what the actual vote totals would have looked like, and the electoral crisis took months to unfold. Ultimately, the contest was decided in a smoke-filled room, known as the “Compromise of 1877.”

In return for Hayes being declared President, federal troops would be removed from the South, thus ending Reconstruction. The agreement enabled states throughout the South to institute the infamous “Jim Crow Laws”, which in effect, formally authorized white supremacy throughout the former Confederacy for the next 87 years.

When you study the election of 1876, in the fog of our current political climate, it can’t help but scare the bejesus out of you for what might happen this year. In 1877, Samuel Tilden eventually stepped away from the fight. On his departure, he said, “I can retire to public life with the consciousness that I shall receive from posterity the credit of having been elected to the highest position in the gift of the people without any of the cares and responsibilities of the office.” But the deal to settle the question had horrible repercussions that echo through American politics and culture to this day.

After worrying about this now for months, I can't get away from two gnawing concerns. First, given the open intimidation, outrageously flawed election process and outright dishonesty going on, as in 1876, I’m not sure we will see a fair and honest vote. There is too much passion and self-righteousness in the mix not to expect cheating, and there are more than enough opportunities. Second, even if we did get something approximating an honest vote, I doubt either side will be willing to accept it and move on. Undoubtedly, whatever side of the media loses, they will cry foul and raise the confrontational stakes to a potentially catastrophic level.

The bottom line is that trust has left the process. We no longer trust our leadership. We no longer trust our electoral process, and we no longer trust each other. You can’t run a democracy without trust, and that’s where we are. If we survive this election as a nation, we’re going to have to drop this bi-polar partisanship and fix things. I hope we get the chance.


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