In the already high-stakes world of the 2020 elections, the stakes just got higher. Gerald Seib describes the effect of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in The Wall Street Journal:
Every four years, the political world speculates about an October surprise that might shake up the presidential campaign in its final stages.
This year’s October surprise just arrived, two weeks early, with the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. …
Most immediately, it opens the door for an explosive new issue in a campaign already reeling from the triple whammies of a coronavirus pandemic, the economic slide the virus created, and broad racial ferment.
The question is whether raising the stakes has destabilized the structure of the game. Democracy remains stable partly because its rules keep the bets small. In most Western countries at least, politics is a game where you can lose your office but not your life. No firing squad or long jail sentences await the loser. Defeat, however disappointing, is always temporary.
But as Shadi Hamid argues in The Atlantic, Trump has taken such a pile of chips from the American left that they cannot afford to lose again.
The Democrats may not be able to concede … A loss by Joe Biden … will destroy America (he can’t), but because it is the outcome most likely to undermine faith in democracy …
I struggle to imagine how, beyond utter shock, millions of Democrats will process a Trump victory. A loss for Biden, after having been the clear favorite all summer, would provoke mass disillusion with electoral politics as a means of change—at a time when disillusion is already dangerously high. If Democrats can’t beat a candidate as unpopular as Trump during a devastating pandemic and a massive economic contraction, then are they even capable of winning presidential elections anymore? Democracy, after all, is supposed to self-correct after mistakes, particularly mistakes as egregious as electing Donald Trump—whose unfitness for the nation’s highest office makes itself apparent with almost every passing day.
By contrast, conservatives would accept a Trump defeat because, unlike the Democrats, they can afford to lose. They can go back to their jobs and businesses without feeling a void in the center of their lives. Hamid continues:
Of course, Republicans will be angry if they lose, and Trump himself will almost certainly attack the result. But if Biden wins, he’s likely to do so with both the popular vote and the Electoral College—and by potentially significant margins. A clear win for the former vice president means that Republican officials, with the same self-interest that drove them toward Trump in the first place, will have strong incentives to distance themselves from a futile delegitimization campaign waged by a sore loser.
Although some readers may bridle at Hamid’s argument he is fundamentally correct to say that raising the stakes affects the players asymmetrically. Increase the pot enough and what started as a friendly game can become deadly serious.
For example, most readers are familiar with the famous fictional card game between James Bond and Le Chiffre in Fleming’s novel Casino Royale. If James Bond loses, he gets another 35 million francs from Felix Leiter or at worst returns disappointed to London. But if Le Chiffre loses he has to explain how the funds went missing to SMERSH. Raising the stakes creates a game Le Chiffre can’t afford to lose. So Bond pushes him over the edge.
The spatula flicked the two pink cards over on their backs. The gay red qeens smiled up at the lights.
‘Et le neuf’.
A great gasp went up round the table, and then a hubbub of talk.
Bond’s eyes were on Le Chiffre. The big man fell back in his chair as if slugged above the heart. … This is the kill, thought Bond. This man has reached the point of no return. This is the last of his capital … if this man loses, there is no one to come to his aid, no miracle to help him.
Just who will get damaged most by the Ginsburg escalation remains to be seen. Seib points out that the issue will enmesh voters who until now have not had a dog in this fight. “Traditionally the future of the Court has generated more intensity among conservatives.” But on the other hand, Democrats are reacting as men possessed. Al Franken tweeted:
Every GOP Senator who refused to give Garland a vote & now agrees to vote for a Trump SCOTUS nominee will forever be remembered as a monumental hypocrite. And McConnell will live in infamy as the man who destroyed the Senate & the Court through his own lust for power.
Games should never get so serious that McConnell occupies the place of opprobrium once reserved for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. As Atty General William Barr reminded his audience in a recent speech, it’s just politics.
This criminalization of politics is not healthy. The criminal law is supposed to be reserved for the most egregious misconduct — conduct so bad that our society has decided it requires serious punishment, up to and including being locked away in a cage. These tools are not built to resolve political disputes and it would be a decidedly bad development for us to go the way of third world nations where new administrations routinely prosecute their predecessors for various ill-defined crimes against the state. The political winners ritually prosecuting the political losers is not the stuff of a mature democracy. …
Even the most well-meaning people can do great damage if they lose perspective. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say. …I am reminded of a passage by C.S. Lewis:
“It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”
May Justice Ginsburg rest in peace. And the living could use some tranquility themselves.
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Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen. This prescient book, that reads like a thriller, predicted the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Science writing at its best.
The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple. When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and Vice-President Andrew Johnson became “the Accidental President,” it was a dangerous time in America. Congress was divided over how the Union should be reunited after the Civil War and Johnson ignored Congress and acted like a king. The book dramatically evokes this pivotal period in American history, when the country was rocked by the first-ever impeachment of a sitting American president, and brings to vivid life the extraordinary characters who brought that impeachment forward.
What Jesus Meant, by Garry Wills. People on both sides of the political spectrum often cite Jesus as endorsing their views. But in this New York Times bestseller, Wills argues that Jesus subscribed to no political program. He was far more radical than that. This book is an illuminating analysis for believers and non-believers alike and is a brilliant addition to the conversation on religion.
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Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
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Storming the Castle, why government should get small
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Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.