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A nation divided

Public confidence in our elections is essential to keeping our national cold war from turning hot

A protester makes his thoughts known following the 2020 presidential election. Associated Press/Photo by David Goldman (file)

A nation divided
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Our nation is in deep crisis, a crisis deeper than it has seen since the Civil War. Any people, if it is to be a people, must be unified around a common view of justice—legal and moral, formal and substantive. But we cannot now even agree on what a human being is, never mind how we should live and whether one day we will be judged. Given the depth of these differences, a liberal political arrangement under impartially enforced laws is ever more vital to living with one another peacefully and decently. Shared confidence in this system begins with confidence in the integrity of our elections, without which, things get very ugly very fast. Sadly, that confidence is rapidly dwindling.

In 2001, George W. Bush came to the U.S. presidency wanting to be “a uniter, not a divider.” His noble aspirations died, however, starting with the circumstances of his election, involving razor-thin margins in a couple of Florida counties and an eventual U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In 2004, Sen. Barack Obama called us beyond our red state–blue state divide to see ourselves as the United States, but then as president in 2009 did nothing of substance to bring us together and much to drive us apart.

Donald Trump rudely threw aside the fiction of unity and focused on winning. When he came down the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy in 2015, he opened with shocking defiance. The people pouring across the border included rapists and murders, he said, and he would wall them out. He spoke overtly against “political correctness,” what has since become known as wokeness and cancel culture—the cultural policing of speech and thought with merciless vengeance for any deviation from the latest liberal orthodoxy.

In 2020, Joe Biden was offered as the “nice” alternative to Trump. We would return to “civil discourse” and the national reconciliation it implies. But what we got was full-bore cultural revolution and vilification of any resistance or hesitation. One White House bureau chief reports Biden telling his aides that the Republican Party has become “an existential threat to the nation’s democracy.” If this is accurate, then the president views his political opponents as traitors committed to overthrowing our constitutional republic who must be thwarted by any means necessary.

America needs a non-partisan, indisputably respected National Commission on Election Integrity to compile a weighty, sober, trustworthy report on contested voting issues.

Our Constitution was constructed precisely to deal with the disunity you’re bound to get in a vast republic like ours—with regional, religious, and factional differences. It forces us to come together in coalitions and compromise. But beneath these differences, there has long been broad agreement on God (the Apostles’ Creed), Christian morality (the Ten Commandments), and the Founders’ polity (the Declaration of Independence and Constitution). When the latter broke down, we fought a bloody civil war that put us back in agreement. But we are no longer so.

We all say “freedom,” but we mean very different things by it. For some, it is guns and go away. For others, it means government support from cradle to grave, especially for previously disadvantaged groups. We have irreconcilable differences over concepts as basic as man, woman, and baby.

Alongside the heat of these contentions, our entire system of laws is under withering assault. The Biden Justice Department has declined to prosecute all manner of lawbreaking by FBI agents. There is no rule of law where the agents of law enforcement are unaccountable to the law. When Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion in the Dobbs abortion case was leaked from the Supreme Court, the White House response was not to protect the integrity of that branch of government and the law for which it stands but to sympathize with the massed intimidation outside conservative justices’ homes. This brought into unforgiving light the reality that the current administration does not believe in a fair legal process through which we contend over disputes.

Short of a “great awakening” whereby the Lord of mercy returns the great mass of people’s hearts to God and thus to one another (in at least some broad moral and religious truth), our radical divisions are unlikely to heal anytime soon. Together, we need to treasure the formal structures of justice that keep our national cold war from turning hot—the liberality, stability, and decency of our constitutional system.

One of those central and essential structures is the legitimacy of our elections. We have now experienced at least four national election cycles marked by charges of election illegitimacy. One idea? America needs a non-partisan, indisputably respected National Commission on Election Integrity to compile a weighty, sober, trustworthy report on contested voting issues like paper ballots, computerized voting machines, early voting, mail-in ballots, ballot harvesting, polling-place scrutineering, ballot-counting transparency, as well as charges of voter intimidation and vote suppression. Our system depends upon public confidence in elections.

We must regain that confidence. How otherwise can our divided house stand?

David C. Innes

David C. Innes is professor of politics in the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics Program at The King’s College in New York City. He is author of Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life, The Christian Citizen: Faith Engaging Political Life, and Francis Bacon. He is also an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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