Harvard Kennedy School Professors Alex Keyssar and Archon Fung say the U.S. political system, stripped of a consensus belief in democratic principles, is racing down a dangerous road toward political and social upheaval and possible minority rule.
Featuring Archon Fung & Alex Keyssar
February 17, 2022
40 minutes and 12 seconds
Harvard Kennedy School professors Alex Keyssar and Archon Fung say American democracy is in deep, deep trouble to an extent not seen in many decades, possibly since the Civil War, or perhaps ever. In their view, if you believe in democracy as essentially one-person, one-vote, and as a system where every voter has a roughly equal say in how our country is governed, then frankly, you would never design a system of elections and governance like the one in the United States. But of course the U.S. system wasn’t built for that. It was built, compromise piled upon compromise, to somehow accommodate people with very different views—about what the country should be and who should have the power to decide—inside one system that, at a minimum, everyone could at least live with. But now, stripped of a consensus acceptance of underlying democratic principles by a Republican Party pursuing power at any cost, they say the same compromises that were designed to protect minority opinions are being exposed as mortal flaws that can allow for what would effectively be minority rule. And there seems to be little in the way of systemic failsafes to stop it. Alex Keyssar is a renowned historian and scholar on the American political system. Archon Fung is a leading political scientist and heads the democratic governance programs of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. They’re here to talk about what they call a dynamic, disturbing, and potentially very dangerous time for American democracy.
Alexander Keyssar is the Matthew W. Stirling Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy. An historian by training, he has specialized in the exploration of historical problems that have contemporary policy implications. The author of numerous books, his work “The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States” (2000), was named the best book on U.S. history by both the American Historical Association and the Historical Society; it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. In 2004-2005, Keyssar chaired the Social Science Research Council's National Research Commission on Voting and Elections, and he writes frequently for the popular press about American politics and history. His latest book, “Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?” (2020), is published by Harvard University Press.
Archon Fung is the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. His research explores policies, practices, and institutional designs that deepen the quality of democratic governance. He focuses on public participation, deliberation, and transparency. He co-directs the Transparency Policy Project and leads democratic governance programs of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Kennedy School. His books include “Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency” and “Empowered Participation: Reinventing Urban Democracy.” He has authored five books, four edited collections, and over fifty articles appearing in professional journals. He received two S.B.s — in philosophy and physics — and his Ph.D. in political science from MIT.
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Alex Keyssar (intro): Well, here we are a year later, and what we are looking at is one of our two major political parties seems to be committed to winning, but not committed to democracy, and that's a big deal. That has never really happened on this scale in US history. Our institutions seem not well constructed to deal with this crisis.
Archon Fung (intro): There's a long legal tradition that says, well, how do you justify the Supreme Court in a democracy? It's only a handful of people. They make decisions that overturn democratically made decisions. And one strong line of constitutional thought is, well, you justify the Supreme Court because it's the guardian of democracy, because it makes sure that minorities who get run over can still participate in the democracy. And I think that recent court decisions indicate that this court is not interested in doing that anymore.
Ralph Ranalli (intro): Welcome to the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast, I’m your host, Ralph Ranalli. If you believe in democracy as essentially one-person, one-vote, and as a system where every voter has a roughly equal say in how our country is governed, then frankly, you would never design a system of elections and governance like the one in the United States. Of course the U.S. system wasn’t built for that. It was built, compromise piled upon compromise, to somehow accommodate people with very different views—about what the country should be and who should have the power to decide—inside one system that, at a minimum, everyone could at least live with. But now Harvard Kennedy School professors Alex Keyssar and Archon Fung say that democracy is in deep, deep trouble to an extent not seen in many decades, perhaps since the Civil War, or possibly ever. Stripped of a consensus acceptance of underlying democratic principles by a Republican Party pursuing power at any cost, they say the same compromises that were designed to protect minority opinions are being exposed as mortal flaws that can allow for what would effectively be minority rule. And there seems to be little in the way of systemic failsafes to stop it. Professor Keyssar is a renowned historian and scholar on the American political system, and Professor Fung is a political scientist and leads the democratic governance programs of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. They’re here to talk about what they call a dynamic, disturbing, and potentially very dangerous time for American democracy.
Ralph Ranalli: Alex, Archon, welcome to PolicyCast.
Alex Keyssar: Thanks for inviting us.
Archon Fung: Yeah, it's great to be here, Ralph.
Ralph Ranalli: You've both been guests here in the last two years talking about different aspects of democracy. Archon, you were here almost exactly two years ago talking about what you called wide-aperture, low-deference democracy, which is your way to help us understand a political moment when norms are breaking down and people are less wedded to the things that have kept the system running, like the pursuit of common truth and relying on experts and elites. And Alex, you were here in September of 2020, just before the election, talking about your book, “Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?” and about structural racism and the erosion of voting rights.
But reading some of the things you've both written and said recently, I felt strongly that we needed to get you back here again because so much has happened in just the last year. Archon, you said recently that having a failed presidential election in 2024, something that wasn't imaginable for you a few years ago, is now not only imaginable, but very imaginable given what transpired in the 2020 election. And, Alex, you've written that the January 6th attack on the Capitol may well be regarded by future historians as one prong of a multifaceted coup. You've called this an immensely consequential and dangerous moment. Alex, maybe I'd like you to start. Why is this a dangerous moment, and how much has your thinking evolved about the state of our democracy since the last time we saw you?
Alex Keyssar: Well, I should start by saying that, as I recall, I was pretty worried about the state of our democracy the last time we got together. Things did not look very good in 2020. Although, there certainly was hope that afterwards—and I think this is worth noting this—there was a period after the November 2020 election when it appeared that as President Trump was going to become former President Trump, that he had surrendered some of his cache, thanks to his involvement with January 6th. At least in some sectors. Joe Biden seemed to have a remarkably warm mandate after his election, so I think there was a pause, in which many of us felt, if not exactly optimistic, at least reassured. Well, here we are a year later, and what we are looking at is one of our two major political parties seems to be committed to winning, but not committed to democracy, and that's a big deal. That has never really happened on this scale in US history. Our institutions seem not well constructed to deal with this crisis. For one thing, our political and electoral institutions permit minority rule. We have a Senate, which is grossly mal-apportioned and an electoral college, which is not as grossly, but still pretty grossly mal-apportioned. And in presidential elections, we have an electoral system which is so creaky and confusing that, as became clear, it could be exploited. Those are major flaws. We could go on and there are others. Our system of representation doesn't do a good job of translating the people's will into policy.
Ralph Ranalli: I’d like you to hold that thought, because I really wanted to talk about those systemic weaknesses further on in our conversation. Archon, for now, I direct the same question to you. What's evolved in your thinking in the time since we saw you last that has you ringing the alarm bells the way you are now?
Archon Fung: I think there's many things to talk about, but I'll just talk about a couple of elements that are related to January 6th. And one is—it's hard to measure—but I think there's probably a rise in political violence and intimidation in the United States right now. You can see this at the grassroots level down to people threatening the families of people working in county elections, up to secretaries of state, up to members of Congress. And so I think that there's an uptick in political violence which is very concerning because, if democracy delivers nothing else, one thing that it's supposed to deliver is the peaceful transfer of power. That's the principle of ballots, not bullets. And to the extent that we depart from that, that is a serious, serious loss, no matter what kind of democrat you are.
And then I think the second thing, and Alex referred to this, that's relatively new on the scene is the absence of losers’ consent. I think democracy can function with a balance of power that doesn't require losers' consent, but it works a lot better when the person who received fewer votes acknowledges that he or she received fewer votes and peacefully and willingly embraces the institutions above his own desire for power. I think we've almost always had that in the United States, loser's consent, and January 6th marks an almost singular instance, in which the loser did not consent. And it’s interesting, I recently watched Al Gore's concession speech in 2000, which is very much worth watching. It's a speech about losers’ consent. He says, "I think the Supreme Court is wrong. I think we should keep counting all the votes. I think if we keep counting all the votes, I might well be president, but that's not what the Supreme Court decided, and so my allegiance to those institutions requires me to consent to losing, even though I think it's probably the wrong answer." And so it’s a very poignant instance of loser's consent. And I think if you roll the tape forward in 2024 and imagine almost exactly the same set of circumstances in which a candidate thinks he or she got more votes and it runs its way through the court system and the court system decides: “No, no, we got to stop counting the ballots, and the Republican candidate wins.” It's very imaginable that the Democratic candidate would not have a similar act of grace and loser's consent. And there's already precedent for that in the most recent election and so I think the absence of loser's consent is a milestone in the wrong direction.
Ralph Ranalli: Alex, you actually wrote something similar about what came to be known as the big lie, this sort of constant effort to de-legitimize the 2020 election, and its role in discrediting future elections. And then you said, well, what are you left with after that, and that's force, or violence. And then there was this what I think some people see as this watershed moment earlier this month where you had the RNC characterizing January 6th as legitimate political discourse, right, which I think a lot of people viewed as essentially an institutional embrace of political violence by the Republican party. It did sparked some pushback from a few establishment Republicans like Mitch McConnell, who said “No it was a violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.” But how much do you think the Republican party has really embraced this expedience of political violence? And more broadly, in terms of democracy and political norms, have we not entered a world of asymmetry now, where the Republican Party is a major problem and you cannot say a pox on both the Democratic and Republican houses and still be engaged in an honest pursuit of truth?
Alex Keyssar: Certainly I think there is not a symmetry in terms of the relationship of the two major political parties in the United States to democracy. The Democratic party has many flaws, but its members do seem committed to democracy. I think that the attitude, the stance of Republicans towards January 6th has always had this kind of spiky inconsistency about it. We have to remember that in the first days afterwards, members of the Republican right like Matt Gaetz said that it was Antifa who had attacked the Capitol and taken it over. And now the people who took over the Capitol are referred to as patriots. So I don't know how many people are committed to a violent path, there certainly are some. There are militia organizations, and there are lots of other people who are gun-toting Republicans who I think would be willing to use force. But as far as I can tell, their preference will be to intimidate actors within the existing structure in such a way that they could illegitimately, in my view, illegitimately, and without majority support win elections by, in effect, taking over, altering the procedures of election.
Archon Fung: Can I add to that a little, the symmetry question, which is, I'd like to complicate it a little bit by saying I think they're in the American polity and among politicians there's kind of three positions right now with respect to democracy. There's the January 6th position in which there is an absence of loser's consent, and the important thing is to win at all costs, and for me, that's below the bar of what even counts as democracy. There’s McConnell … what's the principle that can make sense of someone whose position is opposing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act on one hand, and also criticizing the RNC for January 6th being a legitimate political discourse on the other? And I think that position is the position of most American politicians and parties for a bunch of the history of the United States. And Alex knows the political history much more than I can, so he'll correct me in a moment, but generally speaking that position is that you have parties, capital D Democrats, and capital R Republicans and we will fight over the rules of the game to gain our advantage and try to beat the other person. And sometimes that involves making it less likely that the other people's voters will vote. Sometimes it involves drawing lines on a map. For more than 200 years, it's involved defending the electoral college, so all sorts of rules, but the principle there is politics needs to be a system that's fair to the parties. And that's what Mitch McConnell is saying when he says the Freedom to Vote Act is a Democrat power grab, saying you gained some momentary advantage so you're not fair to us, the Republican party.
And plenty of Democrats say that when they say, well, we've got to counter-gerrymander and all of these other things and that money in politics, we are able to raise more money than the other side now. So we want to have a lot of money in politics. So there's a lot of playing around with the rules of the game. And this is as old as America itself and is, I don't want to use any of the cliches, but that's been political reality for a while. And we see that in a very intense and sharp way now. I hold neither of those positions. My position is a third, which is that the political system needs to be fair and respectful to voters no matter who they choose, and everybody should be able to vote and indeed should vote, which is a very idealistic position. But we shouldn't confuse that position with what our political reality has been after January 6th or before January 6th. And I think it would be a better America if more of us held that third position.
Alex Keyssar: I agree with everything that Archon said here and there no particular historical correctives, but I would like to add a small historical supplement here, which points to what's distinctive about the present moment, which is that for most of American history or American history since the Civil War, which I think it probably is as far back as most of our listeners will want to go. But since the Civil War and into the 1990s, or towards the present, both parties with respect to voting and democracy had pro-democratic and restrictive wings. The Republican party was the party of black rights and black enfranchisement into the 1960s. A lot of the support for the voting rights came from Republicans. The Democrats had liberal Northern Democrats who were pressing this, but they had a Southern wing that did not want to enfranchise. And the issues were not just race, it also had to do with immigrants in different places. And it's only in this modern period when we could talk about from 1980 on, 1990 on, that, in a sense, all of the restrictionists or resistors to an expansive franchise are in one party and where that is, in effect, the policy stance of that one party, the Republican party. That's new.
Archon Fung: Yeah. That's excellent. Absolutely right. There's a nice clip, audio clip from Paul Weyrich, I think, back in the early 1980s at a Republican party as a conservative political convention. And he says: “Well there's a lot of good government people in our party and they think it would be better if everyone voted. I have to tell you, that's a huge mistake. Don't be the goo-goo person because we do better when less people vote. And so that kind of marks the beginning of the asymmetry.
Ralph Ranalli: Right, of course Paul Weyrich was the founder of the American Heritage Foundation and ALEC. So Archon, I'm building on your point of the view of basically democracy as one person, one vote. And if we take us back it little further than the Civil War to the creation of our institutions, and you sort of look at them in the light of day and in the way they're being manipulated and taken advantage of, it almost seems like there are so many built-in flaws in the system that you almost find yourself wondering these days, how the system ever worked at all. You've got the electoral college, the system of elections that's controlled by the states, the Senate, the filibuster in the Senate, the Supreme Court, and they’re all undemocratic in their own way. And I guess the question is, is there a way out of this kind of structural conundrum, which goes back to the founding of our country and its institutions, to more democratic place?
Archon Fung: So I guess I have two pieces of your question that I'd like to respond to. One is what does it mean for it to work; that is, for the American political system to work? And I think if what it means for it to work is simply the peaceful transfer of power, if simply someone rules without a civil war and without too much violence, then you could do that pretty well as long as both sides feel like they have more to gain by playing another round in four years or eight years than trying to upset the whole apple cart now. That's a pretty low bar. If what it means to work is for we, the people, to govern, that's a very high bar and we have yet to achieve that. Black people in the South couldn't vote until 1965 and after. So I think there has been progress made, but far from that higher bar of we, the people, govern. And thankfully it is a gift to be above that lower bar of the peaceful transfer of power. I've tried never to take it for granted. I certainly don't take it for granted now.
Now, on the second kind of question of, can we get better, maybe one of the silver linings of this moment is that it reveals the ricketiness and the obsolescence of our ancient institutions. Alex has literally written the book on this. But I’ve found it very difficult to explain to people outside of the United States, even what the electoral college is or how it works. It's such a bizarre institution. It's really unique and outdated, as are many of our political institutions. I think it's probably the case that people didn't know about proportional representation, so it wasn't like a logical possibility in the mix when the US Constitution was ... so people know things now. The US is one of the only two or three democracies in the world with only two parties. And I think it's just not serving us well. So maybe one of the silver linings is a rethink of how we can update our political institutions to serve the country better.
Alex Keyssar: I would certainly agree with that. Our institutions are rickety. You have to remember the context in which they were formed. They were formed at the end of the 18th century when what we now think of as states were quasi-independent sort of entities. People identified as Virginian or Pennsylvanian, not as American. And there was pressure to put this thing together. Also, we also have to recognize that when the constitution was written, it was kind of a coup d'etat by a lot of quite powerful people. Nobody sent them to Philadelphia to write a new constitution. They were sent to Philadelphia to try to figure out ways to modify the Articles of Confederation. And the first two things they decided were, let's do a constitution instead, and let's keep this completely secret, guys, so no leaks. Not to discredit what they did, but they were people acting at a particular time, in a particular context. They were solving and addressing the problems that they had to face at the end of the 18th century. And I think that if you had asked anyone there, whether that Constitution that they came up with should be largely enforced 200 years later, 204, they would've gasped and laughed and said, of course not. The country will be very different. And I think that's the perspective that we need to have. Our institutions are rickety, nobody understands the electoral college and as Archon pointed out, I think it was when Russia, at some point, I think this was about a decade ago, was being criticized for its electoral system, Putin responded by saying: “Look at your electoral college. Look at 2000. Gore won the most votes, but he didn't become president. Who are you to criticize us about democracy?”
Ralph Ranalli: I’d like to talk about a way forward. Which I think again means grappling with how deeply interconnected the flawed and undemocratic aspects of our political systems are. You have the Senate, which is deeply unrepresentative. The senators from Wyoming, for example, are elected to represent 580,000 people, which is fewer people than the average member of the US House. Meanwhile, the two senators from California, are elected to represent 39.6 million constituents. In total, Democratic senators have represented more Americans than Republican ones for the last 25 years, even when Republicans have been in control. Then when the Democrats do overcome the odds and win, you have the filibuster, which hamstrings the majority party and has been used to block civil rights and voting rights legislation. And then you have the Supreme Court, the membership of which is decided by two bodies: one is the Senate, which we just talked about, and the other is the presidency. So now we have a court where the majority of justices were nominated by presidents who lost the popular vote thanks to the electoral college. So you have this whole interlocking system of democratically flawed institutions. Alex, where would you start if you wanted to make these institutions less rickety? Would you start with the Electoral College? Would you start with the Electoral Count Act, which seems to be at least having a little bit of political traction. Can you talk about what it is and if that's where you would start?
Alex Keyssar: Well, I guess there are two different ways in which I can address where I would start reforming these institutions. One is in some ideal world or some semi-ideal world in which reforms seem possible. And the other is considering the political practicalities of the moment. And to illustrate that, for example, if I were dealing in a world where political practicalities were not something I had to consider, maybe the very first thing I would do would be to put a right to vote in the US Constitution because there isn't one. It's not there. And if it were there, it would buttress a lot of other reforms. But strangely, or as strange as it may seem, there'd be no chance of getting a right to vote in the US Constitution through the current Congress, which is a commentary about the Congress. So there are different approaches here.
I do think that reforming the Electoral Count Act is essential. And if I may, I want to address this a little bit because it's not the John Lewis Act, which is much more important, or general voting rights reform. But the fact is that the last election did reveal that our procedures for presidential elections were deeply flawed and could be exploited. I want to go back a little bit, because the conventional explanation in the press about the Electoral Count Act is to say there was a crisis in the election of 1876 when nobody was sure who won, whether it was Hayes or Tilden. And there were disputed electoral votes and finally they appointed this weird commission. And it ended up after months making a partisan decision and Hayes became president, but everybody knew they had to find some mechanism to deal with dispute resolution. And that's where the Electoral Count Act came from, although it took them 11 years after that election to come up with the Electoral Count Act. Well, in fact, I think we understand why some version of this Act is needed. I think we understand it better if we recognize that the history goes further back, not by a lot, but just a little bit. There was no discussion really before the Civil War about the need for Congress to debate or particularly think about certifying the electoral votes from the states. The framers designed the system to try to make it more mundane for us. If you think about it, it was like a high school and every homeroom got to cast a certain number of votes for president of the student council and the homerooms were independent and they could decide who would cast those votes, okay? And that was the way it worked.
That was fine until the 15th Amendment of the Constitution was passed, which was the first piece of constitutional law that referred to voting. The 14th amendment, too, et cetera. What that meant was that there were legitimate vote counts and not legitimate vote counts, in a sense, for the first time. The 15th amendment was basically passed in the late 1860s, and already by the 1872 presidential election a lot of people in Congress are very worried about this because they suspected that southern states, who had just reentered the union, were not going to really let black people vote freely. And that is exactly what happened. And once you see that from the perspective of Congress, that they're not letting black people vote freely, even though the Constitution says they're supposed to, then you go, well, why should they just accept those electoral votes from these southern states? And I guess what I want to say is the problem is real. It preceded one disputed election. We have an electoral system in which the states actually have a remarkable amount of autonomy about how to choose presidential electors and state legislatures right now can do it by themselves if they want to. And then we have a very murky process through which the Congress can or cannot object to a state's electoral votes. And then of course, we have the highly publicized—but frankly not really very unclear—disputes about the role of the vice president, who, if you read the language of the Electoral Count Act carefully, is expected to be standing there in a ceremonial position reading out the results. So that's been a long-winded answer, but it's to say that when you have the electoral college, there is a need for something like the Electoral Count Act. It's got to be changed and clarified in a lot of different ways. It would not at all be necessary if you had a national popular vote. But we do need something like that to avoid a crisis. And then my own perspective, my own agenda, would be then let's move on to electoral college reform.
Archon Fung: Alex, can I ask you a question about the Electoral Count Act and how much good it would do? What can we expect from it if ECA reform goes well? And so in my head, I have the understanding that if ECA reform goes well, then what the reformed Electoral Count Act would prevent is kind of 11th hour disputes in Congress about which slate to pick among electors for particular states that come up. So that would be good, right? We want predictability and no 11th hour machinations within Congress. That would be very good. But then it also in my head, and this is the part I'd like you to help me understand, is whether it would do anything if a majority Republican state decides—the state legislature decides—that its own count is disputed and so it's going to send electors who a lot of people don't think won the popular vote in that state. Would it address that second kind of problem?
Alex Keyssar: That is an excellent question, Archon. I can see you are a very well informed man here. There are people on these congressional committees who are looking at this who want to address the second question, which is, what happens within the states before anything gets sent to Washington and how those decisions are made and how clear they can be. Their problem there, what they butt up against, is there is the language of the Constitution itself. Because the Constitution says that electors shall be chosen in such a manner as the legislature of each state shall decide. So no changes to the ECA can override that ability of state legislatures to make those decisions. One of the key procedural questions is, if a state legislature decides to have an election and holds an election, can the state legislature thereafter decide that it wants to say, no, no, no, we're not going to go by these election results. To the extent that this has been tested in the courts, which is not very much, it seems to suggest that they can't do that. And I think that there's some desire in the reforms of the ECA to write in provisions that would prevent them from doing that, to try to overturn this notion of state legislative supremacy, which can be invoked at any point in the process to simply take over the election. So I would have to see the language of what they will come up with, but I don't think that ECA reform can cure this problem. I think it can narrow it, but the problem is in the Constitution.
Ralph Ranalli: So given that there is so much left to the state legislatures, and I think a lot of these Republican state legislators have sort of tipped their hand about what their leanings are by the electoral maps they've put forward, by the voting restrictions they've proposed. What do you think going forward about the next couple of years and how things might evolve? What can we expect in terms of how the electoral process is going to go maybe up and through the 2024 elections?
Alex Keyssar: I'll defer to Archon on this, as political scientists predict, historians don't.
Archon Fung: I think our predictive record is quite poor as a discipline. I think the best we can hope for is a clear presidential and electoral college result in 2024 one way or another. As a kind of institutionalist, small-d Democrat, it would be better if the numbers shook out in a way such that we weren't in the zone of contestation. It's easy to believe that that won't happen. It didn't happen in 2020, really in 2016, and a couple of other recent elections. So it seems to me that it's very imaginable, and not improbable, that we'll be in that zone of contestation. And I guess I find it very difficult to predict how that will shake out. I’m guessing that, at a general level, I think it will be far more contested. I think January 6th and the 2020 election does set a precedent in the sense of opening the doors to contestation at many, many different levels from the legal level to the administrative level, to the street level. And that's likely to be quite intensified.
And then, I don't know, Alex has followed this more closely than I have. We both followed it, but Alex, more closely. I think recent Supreme Court decisions indicate that the court is not really interested in being a guardian of democratic process, that it wants to leave that up to the street fight of the political parties. There's a long legal tradition that says, well, how do you justify the Supreme Court in a democracy? It's only a handful of people. They make decisions that overturn democratically made decisions. And one strong line of constitutional thought is, well, you justify the Supreme Court because it's the guardian of democracy, because it makes sure that minorities who get run over can still participate in the democracy. And I think that recent court decisions indicate that this court is not interested in doing that anymore. So we won't find, I think, stability and a solution to contestation in a constitutional court of law.
Alex Keyssar: Yeah. I completely agree with you on that last point, which I think is extremely important because the Court has signaled in a number of different ways now that it does not see itself as the protector of voting rights or electoral procedures, and that will filter down to the lower courts and it will create a completely different environment. And in some ways it rolls us back to the late 1950s, again, in which everything becomes a brawl. You quoted me earlier, Ralph, saying: “If you discredit elections, then what do you have left? Force.” Well, if you don't have any principles undergirding, the participation and rules of our institutions, then you're left with political street fighting, as Archon pointed out.
In terms of looking forward and what to expect. I'm not very optimistic. But I would interject one non-institutional note into this, in terms of contingencies that could affect things either way. The two candidates in the 2020 election, and who are presumed to be the candidates in 2024, are both quite elderly. I presume that neither of them is immortal. We're not sure, but we presume that. I think that health or lifespan issues could jar the political calculus in any one of a number of different ways. What's worrisome is that some of the ways in which that calculus could be jarred by a demographic event, if we want to use that euphemism, is that our institutions and procedures are not well set up to deal with that either. And so it just strikes me as a little hard to predict given these facts.
Ralph Ranalli: I think that's sort of a commentary on where we are for holding out human mortality as a source of hope for potential change.
Alex Keyssar: No, it could go the other way too. I mean there are statements that you hear, apprehension on the part of some sectors of the American right, that Biden will die and a Black woman will be president, so I think they're just a bunch of different and competing and cross-cutting ways in which that contingency or those kinds of contingencies could matter. It could happen in state levels too. Look, we have legislation in Congress that's being held up because one Senator had a stroke.
Archon Fung: Alex, I asked you a while ago, how does this historical moment compare to Watergate? And it makes me also pessimistic about their future because looking back on Watergate—these biological analogies are always a little bit weak—but it seemed like the democratic antibodies kind of worked. Somebody broke the rules, they tried to manipulate the election, and then you get a bunch of political reform. It's widely recognized that that act was violative of American norms and law. A bunch of stuff kind of happens that tries to repair, make the American political system a little bit better. And Alex, I just remember this conversation where you said: “Look, what just happened in 2020 and 2021 makes Watergate look like robbing a 7-11 or something.”
Ralph Ranalli: That was just a burglary. It wasn't an insurrectionist attack on the Capitol.
Archon Fung: Right, but the antibodies aren't quite-
Alex Keyssar: Right. And when you think about Watergate and the reaction to it, it's precisely what has not happened this time. Republicans were outraged. One of the people who went to the White House to tell Nixon he had to step down was Barry Goldwater.
Archon Fung: That's remarkable.
Alex Keyssar: In modern times, it may seem very, very arcane and remote, but there was this sense among conservative political leaders, Republican and Democrat—Sam Irvin was a Democrat, but he was a very conservative Democrat—but there was this sense that even presidents of the United States cannot break the law. What a weird thought.
Ralph Ranalli: Well, it seems like the guardrails have broken down to this extent then we’d all better buckle up, because we're definitely in for a wild ride.
Alex Keyssar: Yeah. Yeah. I think so. I think that we both think that. And I think that, Ralph, you may want to have us back here every six to 12 months to comment on the ride because it's going to be wild.
Ralph Ranalli: That would be my pleasure. Thank you both for being here. I really appreciate it.
Alex Keyssar: Well, thank you for giving us the opportunity to have this conversation.
Archon Fung: Yeah. Thank you very much, Ralph. It's great to talk as always.