In 2009, when Barack Obama was inaugurated, my husband and I were visiting a family friend in Guadalajara, Mexico. We gathered in his living room to watch the ceremonies on television.
Our host, originally from Peru, commented that Americans were fortunate to have a political process in which one party peacefully turned governance over to a rival party. He noted that in many countries, a change like that would be greeted with demonstrations, perhaps riots, and even retribution against the losing candidate. He admired the way the United States handles its elections and the aftermaths.
Not so fast.
Our scorecard this time hasn’t been very good. Pre-election, Donald Trump announced that if elected he’d send Hillary Clinton to jail; post-election, he seems to be rethinking his threat. Pre-election, he insisted the whole process was rigged; post-election, he obviously thinks the whole process went just fine.
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The demonstrations — some turning into riots (Portland) — carry a strong whiff of Third World-ism. In places without strong democratic experience, it’s almost expected that losers will take to the streets to overturn decisions they don’t like.
How bad is this? Well, Turkey is warning its citizens against travel to the U.S., given the dangerous conditions here. That’s from a country that recently foiled a coup.
What do our homegrown demonstrators expect? That Trump will acknowledge their anger and step aside? That Hillary Clinton will forget her gracious concession and lead a takeover? That we might, at long last, abandon the Electoral College for something that actually makes sense?
That last idea is a good one. Almost every other election at almost every level — from the fourth-grade classroom to membership in the U.S. Senate — is decided by a simple majority, and yet the presidential election follows an arcane process that at its worst might give one candidate the most votes and give the other the presidency. Oh, wait — that’s already happened.
During a little Facebook dust-up about the electoral process, one woman asserted that using the popular vote would mean Idaho would get no attention whatsoever in presidential campaigns. How will that be different? In Idaho we’re lucky if a candidate even drops by on his or her way to somewhere else.
The bad news for Trump is that more than half of all voters wanted someone else for president. Worse, there’s a deep fear among immigrants, minorities, women and others who heard and believed Trump’s mean-spirited statements.
Worst, we are bitterly divided and either can’t or won’t figure out how to breach that gap. As the Rev. Andrew Kukla, pastor at Boise’s First Presbyterian Church, put it: “Neither side is very good at assessing the other or even understanding its own motivations. Yet we are still called to be in community.”
Our ability to reconstruct our national community depends on a lot of things: how Trump builds his presidency, whether Congress can end its partisan haggling and get both sides of the aisle working together, and whether we can consign the ugly 2016 presidential campaign to the past and focus instead on what’s best for the future.
If not, we might as well start watching how Third World countries handle their problems, because we’re going to be walking down that road ourselves.
Lindy High, of Boise, is a retired Idaho state employee who worked for elected officials of both parties.