US elections: Ballots are paper bullets to the American people - opinion

In approaching the process reverently, peacefully, we reassure one another that our crazy experiment in self-government continues.

WORKERS BOARD up a store ahead of election results in the Manhattan borough of New York City earlier this week.  (photo credit: REUTERS/BRENDAN MCDERMID)
WORKERS BOARD up a store ahead of election results in the Manhattan borough of New York City earlier this week.
As a historian, I never predict elections – predicting the past is hard enough. Usually, when asked, I “predict one winner, the American people.” Not this year. Or I say, “I predict that Election Day will be peaceful and orderly.” Not this year.
Let’s be clear: partisans who blame only their rivals for the possible violence are lying to themselves. True, President Donald Trump has inexcusably encouraged thuggishness – but that’s not why retailers from Beverly Hills to Brooklyn boarded up plate-glass windows.
In 1984, president Ronald Reagan ended his reelection campaign by punching hard, saying: “This election offers us the clearest choice in many years: whether we go forward together... making America strong again... or back to an America of malaise.”
Offsetting aggressive politics with constructive civics, appealing to the “guardians of this great democracy,” voters, he insisted: “Regardless of how you choose, you must take the time to make that choice.” Reagan recognized patriotic citizens’ double duty. While choosing leaders, even in the most partisan of ways, voters – like candidates – should legitimize the process in the most lyrical of ways.
Every democracy relies on lies – useful fictions – delightful delusions assigning citizens parts in a play. We pretend we entered some Lockean social contract, voluntarily relinquishing certain rights and accepting certain responsibilities to get certain societal protections. But most of us were born into these arrangements, and take them for granted.
We take an equally wild leap when our accumulated voices – votes – deputize one person to lead millions. In America, that sometimes means tolerating a leader who lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College. In Israel, that usually means accepting a leader who won barely a quarter of the votes yet is empowered by a coalition.
Election Day celebrates these fictions, reinforcing them with props. In approaching the process reverently, peacefully, we reassure one another that our crazy experiment in self-government continues.
IN THE 1800s, with the revolution against a king’s divine right to rule still fresh, Americans truly appreciated this big stretch. Every election was “a test of the nation.” Calling ballots “paper bullets,” they cleverly captured the menace lurking behind the parades and the platitudes, as many feared violence while praying for peace and victory.
That’s why Election Day was often part carnival and part holy day. Toasting “the genius of the American people” and “the people as king” sought to reassure. Hartford Election Cake and generous supplies of rum sought to seduce – or at least distract. The poet and politician John Pierpont hailed the ballot box, a weapon that “comes down as still/as snowflakes fall upon the sod/But executes a free man’s will/As lightning does the will of God.”
The first presidential election with a uniform Election Day occurred in 1848. Americans hoped this common action across the vast continent would unite Americans in “common cause.”
While debating the bill, congressman Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus Elmer warned that “if ever a serious difficulty should arise respecting the validity of the election of the president of the United States, no one could tell what the consequences might be.”
With a uniform Election Day, politicians perfected the electoral eve appeal. You make your final pitch. You ask everyone to vote. And you promise, as president Dwight Eisenhower did in 1956, that “whatever” the people’s “decision,” he, his first lady, Mamie, and the second couple – Dick and Pat Nixon – would “accept it... wholeheartedly” and “continue to do our best, no matter in what capacity we may be serving, to be true Americans.”
Losing politicians also mastered the concession speech – and quip: “It is traditionally American to fight hard before an election,” Adlai Stevenson sighed magnificently in 1952. “It is equally traditional to close ranks as soon as the people have spoken.... We vote as many. But we pray as one.” After losing to Barack Obama in 2008, Sen. John McCain admitted: “I’ve been sleeping like a baby. I sleep two hours, wake up and cry. Sleep two hours, wake up and cry.”
Nominees recognized Election Day’s volatility. After John F. Kennedy beat him by only a few thousand probably corrupted votes in 1960, Richard Nixon worried that challenging the result would “tear the country apart.” His daughters, seething, nevertheless donated their Christmas money to the Chicago Recount Committee.
In 1984, Walter Mondale respected the traditions to calm the waters after losing to Reagan. Mondale admitted: “I would have rather won.” Nevertheless, “we rejoice in our democracy, we rejoice in the freedom of a wonderful people, and we accept their verdict.”
“The ballot is stronger than the bullet,” Abraham Lincoln taught.
These “paper bullets” proved so potent thanks to America’s winner, losers and real winners, the citizens. Their cumulative graciousness neutralized the partisan bile and affirmed the consent of the governed. That’s why, ultimately, Americans’ ballots are stronger than bullies, too. And that’s why it so disgraceful when democratic leaders disdain the process or citizens turn violent.
HERE, THEN, is my post-election prayer.
Americans have long known that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Following these orchestrated yet searing collisions, may all Americans be extra vigilant – without becoming vigilantes – defending democracy by accepting the results, respecting the victors, and still speaking to friends who voted the wrong way.
And may this leap of faith into grace inspire democrats worldwide, including Israel, to appreciate how lucky we are to have input, freedom and the power not only to choose our leaders but to restrain ourselves when the wrong leader wins.
A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of nine books on American history and three books on Zionism, the writer’s book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.