By IHE Fellow Daniel E. Burns
By the time you read this, we may know who the next President of the United States will be. At the time I write it, we do not.
Some 150 million Americans have voted, yet we now know that the scales will be tipped by the tiniest sliver of them — possibly fewer, in at least one state, than the total population of The Catholic University of America.
A choice between two very different men, and two very different governing philosophies, is so closely balanced that its outcome will depend on a small handful of Americans who did or did not happen to make it out to the polls last Tuesday. It feels strange that we entrust so much of our collective future to the vagaries of such an unpredictable system.
Of course, this election is so unpredictable precisely because of something we already do know: Americans are just about evenly split over the two parties’ nominees. List all the dire consequences you can imagine if your own least favorite candidate should win the Presidency. Half of your fellow Americans don’t see those consequences.
We should each continue hoping, after all the counting and recounting has been fairly and accurately completed, that our own candidate ends up on top. But this period of waiting has been forced on us because, whatever result you are hoping for, almost exactly half of the voting public is hoping for the opposite. We should all try not to forget this over the next four years.
The winner himself will have every incentive to forget it, and to encourage us to do so. Once he has secured 270 electoral votes, he acquires enormous powers of pushing through his own political agenda. Why would he refrain from doing so, except insofar as he is forcefully checked by our other governmental institutions (or by concern for future elections)? And as Tocqueville observed, the idea of majority opinion exercises such an immense power over our moral imagination that no American politician can resist the temptation to claim full majority support, whether accurately or not.
We will be hearing a lot about the winner’s popular “mandate” in coming months. Let us not forget that that “mandate” is a legal fiction. The presidency will be won or lost because of a handful of voters in just a few states. What we will be measuring over the next few days (or weeks) will not be a nationwide popular mandate.
Educated observers should really try to refrain from the predictable handwringing that we will soon be seeing on the losing side, or the gloating on the winning side, about The Will Of The People as the election results will supposedly have expressed it. The will of the people has already been expressed. It is divided. The final election results will not change that.
The winning candidate will have a precious opportunity to advance his agenda despite the wishes of half the electorate. Supporters of the losing candidate will have other, smaller opportunities to advance their own agenda, because they still comprise half the electorate. This much we know already. Let us not forget it once we know more.
Daniel E. Burns is a professor of politics at the University of Dallas.