INs Donald Trump warns wrongly about voter fraud and polls show that the unpopular president remains within touching distance of Democrat Joe Biden, the prospect of an unresolved U.S. election hits terribly close, especially since the impact of the coronavirus is widely seen as likely a result delayed by days, if not weeks.
Across the political spectrum, pundits predict what could happen should Trump refuse to hand over power. The speculation is tempting, but the short answer is that no one has a clue.
History offers a kind of manual. There were previously inconclusive U.S. elections. They were resolved, but not by any constitutional mechanism, and the consequences of such brutal political competition were indeed severe.
In 2000, the Supreme Court upheld a disputed Florida decision and replaced a Democrat, George W Bush, in the White House, replacing Democrat Al Gore. While the righteous obviously could not, they had set America on the path to war in Iraq, economic crisis, the rise of evangelical law, and a deepening political separation.
That case fits well in life memory. But an election much further back yielded even more damaging results.
The 1876 campaign ended with the electoral college in balance, as three states were at war. Out of deadlock came, eventually, a political deal, which led Republican Rutherford Hayes to the presidency, at the expense of Samuel Tilden, who, like Gore, and indeed Hillary Clinton in 2016, won the popular vote.
Tilden’s compensation was that his party, the Democrats, should put an end to Reconstruction, the process by which the victors of the Civil War abolished slavery and sought to guarantee the rights of black Americans, through the 13th, 14th and 15th constitutional amendments.
The terrible result was Jim Crow, the system of white supremacy and segregation that lasted well into the 20th century and whose legacy remains strong in a country now plagued by protests against police brutality and for systemic reform.
Eric Foner, now retired from Columbia University, is America’s leading historian of Civil War, slavery, and reconstruction, and has been an award winner many times. He told the Guardian that the 2020 US is not ready for what may be around the corner.
“In 1877, there were three states, Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, where two different sets of proceeds were sent, one by the Democrats, one by the Republicans, each claiming to carry the state.
“There was no fixed mechanism and we actually overturned the constitution, like the constitution, or ignored the constitution. It was governed by an external body called the Electoral Commission, which was set up by Congress to decide who won. “
By rolling and trading in filthy backyards, such as the Capitol Hill areas, that process produced a result.
“If there’s such a conflict in November,” says Foner, “one of the things that is similar to 1876 is that you have a divided Congress today. Then, just like now, you had Republicans in control. of the House of Representatives and Democrats in control of the House. And that gave each party a lot of power. “
If Trump refuses to dismiss the Oval Office, Biden may make concessions.
‘Let’s imagine that the Republicans recognize Biden, withdraw their claim that, say, Biden is ahead by 7m popular votes, but the election university is opposed. In return, Biden must promise to do X, Y and Z. He must promise that the boundary wall will be built until completion. He must promise that Russia will become the 51st state. Whatever it is Trump wants.
‘Is that conceivable? I do not know, probably not. But someone has to decide and in 1876, at last, it was this constituency.
“In 2000, I remember very well, a bunch of historians took an ad on pages in the New York Times to ask a new election commission to investigate the whole thing, and I thought this was one of the worst ideas ever. heard. Going back to 1876, part of the deal was the surrender of African American rights. I’m not sure this is a precedent we want to encourage again, do you know? “
Many fear that Trump and the Republicans will not consider tactics too underhand, no punch too low, before or after the vote.
‘The 1876 election,’ says Foner, ‘would not have been contested in any case if there had not been mass violence in the South to prevent black people from voting and voter oppression as we have today. Now voter repression is mostly legal. Then it was great, you know, mob activity or Clan activity or other things to intimidate blacks or prevent them from voting.
“In other words, if you had a fair election in the South, a peaceful election, there is no question that the Republican Hayes would have won a completely legitimate and undisputed victory.
“Today, I can certainly see the Trump people challenging these mail-in votes: ‘They are all fraudulent, they should not be counted.’ “Challenging people’s voting. Attempts have been made to recruit pollsters to intimidate voters, claiming they are not really registering to vote.”
Many argue that the only real way to resolve fears of a controversial outcome is for voters to surrender Biden so that it sounds like a victory that Trump will have no choice but to go. Foner agrees, though “if the country is fairly evenly distributed, it is difficult to win a country election”.
Does he think, as so many do, that the US is now as divided as at any moment since the Civil War and its aftermath?
‘Sure, in a sense. We are in a very ideological moment [but] at the moment we do not have the violence. President Grant sent troops south in 1871 to suppress the Ku Klux Klan. We had a civil war, where we are not quite on the edge yet, I hope.
‘But in the aftermath of the Civil War, yes, the Democrats were explicitly and openly a party of white supremacy. That was their principle. The Republicans were Lincoln’s party, of emancipation and, increasingly, of fundamental rights for African Americans.
‘These were very different positions and they led to extreme partisanship. Not a single Democrat in Congress voted for any of the so-called reconstruction legislation that sought to protect the rights of blacks in the South. The hyper-polarization was there, 150 years ago. “
Swap the parties round, and the parallel to today is clear.
Foner also says that while a disputed outcome in 2020 could send America a very dark path, a major Biden victory could enlighten a bright future.
“It is possible that Biden will win by a large majority, [the Democrats] gain control of the First Chamber. You know, the atmosphere in the country, whether it’s racial policy, whether the pandemic or the economic crisis we are in, all calls out to people who are looking for serious, substantive leadership, which we obviously do not had the last time.
“On the other hand, if Biden creeps in, you know, with 52% of the vote and the House of Representatives remains in the hands of Mitch McConnell and the Republicans … Biden can reverse all of Trump’s executive orders, but he the size will not get progressive legislation through. “
In the words of William Dean Howells, the dean of American 19th-century letters that Foner quoted elsewhere, the American public always wants “a tragedy with a happy ending.” Thanks to the 1876 elections, Opbou did not deliver. If the 2020 election is tough, so can the Trump presidency. Or with not.