Few calls are so noble and enshrined in our American civic tradition as the right to vote. This November 3rd, many Trinity students (and alumni) find themselves particularly engrossed with the obligation as never before amidst a contentious election during our strained political time. For the youngest among our ranks, this may be the first election wherein the most steadfast power is placed in their hands.
That solemn duty of casting a ballot—be it by mail or in-person on this Election Day—is one as sacred as time, representing in its simplicity (or in its complicated and regulated processes) the wheels of democracy in motion.
Each of us, regardless of station, race, gender, religion, and creed, must exercise that right. Our vote is not for an individual, a loosely defined party, or a vague political identity. In fact, we would take the radical position that your vote is, at its core, an expression of your contribution to that great democratic experiment—but one brief moment that defines another chapter in the annals of American history.
If you can do nothing more tomorrow, then the Tripod—again—urges you to answer the solemn civic call and cast your vote. It is an expectation that each of you owes to your fellow citizen. We will not deign to advise you on who your ballot should be cast for: that decision rests solely in your judgment as a reasoned individual.
But to the question of outcome and potentialities, there has been much talk of late of a purported “will of the Founders” and of the notion that our present Nation—and its governance—have veered from the democratic path and have travelled perilously to the brink of collapse and civil ruin. Our electoral system “was not built to withstand a sustained assault on its legitimacy,” argued Barton Gellman in the Atlantic this month.
He could not be more wrong, for the issue and its consequences are inherently not structural.
In truth, the Founders were not united behind one central vision. The Constitution, as anyone learned in civics will note, is a document of compromise and concession. Its ratification was hard fought and its survival in the early days of the Republic was hardly a foregone conclusion. And, like any creation of mankind, it bears imperfections and its tenets have been interpreted by generations of lawyers and elected legislators.
The vision of many of the limits of Constitutional action and principles today—save those who adhere to the strictest of originalist precepts—radically diverge from the Founders’ original intent. Our perspective today is our own and our faith today is resolutely borne by each of us.
A survey of Hamilton’s writings set against Jefferson’s reveals radically different conceptions of our democratic institutions and their functions for the Founders. Instead, unity coalesced around one point: the importance of the individual in the democratic experiment and the necessity of a vote.
For some of us, the battle flag of this election is the contention that we must “restore the soul of America.” For others, the election is referendum on ensuring that our country is “kept great.” In reality, both positions reveal a fundamental misapprehension of what defines our Nation’s “soul” and sense of “greatness.” This pessimism, that somehow this election and our democratic institutions crumble against the will of one man, one President, one Senate or Congress, represents a deeply flawed conception of how we apportion responsibility for failure.
If the polls should descend into anarchy and the citizens forced to shelter in their homes for fear of reprisal from armed mobs, then we—the people—shall have no one to blame but ourselves. If the military is dispatched—its legions drawn from our fellow citizens—to enforce some dictatorial collection of ballots, then we—again—have only ourselves to blame.
The integrity of our electoral system is not founded in law or regulation, in the provisions of our elections, nor the officials who are its gatekeepers. These are but the apparatuses of our faith, manifested by our command and vote, designed to realize our civic duty in orderly fashion. If some mass coup shall ensure that an individual or party remains in power, the outcome shall be the result of thousands, if not tens of thousands of ordinary citizens, abandoning their duty and their morality, faithlessly abandoning the democratic system for the sake of their own self-interest.
“Perfection in wisdom, as well as in integrity, is neither required nor expected in these agents. It belongs to man.” This, Thomas Jefferson argued, was the crux of those entrusted to safeguard the civic interest. Integrity rests not with one individual or one agent of the state, but with our collective sense of faith.
If we accept the Gellman approach to political outcomes, deluding ourselves with the notion that when we awake November 4th, the democratic vision shall have become extinct, then we have thrown our faith into a pyre of fear and allowed the integrity of the system to falter.
Fundamentally, our electoral system only carries as much faith as we ourselves place within it. We must maintain that faith this Election Day and remember that the great democratic experiment—from the beginning—was beset with challenges and always shall be. It is neither perfect nor certain, but resolutely focused on the principle of forming a union which is as close to perfection as can be attained.
If you can take action today, be it the exercise of your civic duty and the maintenance of faith. Regardless of the election outcome, look not to illegitimacy and fear nor the collapse of our system.
Rather, remain firm in your resolve and faith that our electoral system—no matter the challenge—is built upon a belief of a free and fair society, standing firm as the beloved of democracy, and will weather this storm of fear and trepidation evermore.
-The Trinity Tripod