The Enduring Stupidity of the Electoral College

To any sensible person, the Electoral College is a severely flawed method of electing our president. Most importantly, it is a system in which the less popular candidate — the person with fewer votes — can win the White House. That absurdity would be enough to throw the Electoral College out and simply use a popular vote to determine the winner. Yet there is more.

It is a system where your vote becomes meaningless, giving no aid to your chosen candidate, if you’re in your state’s political minority; where small states have disproportionate power to determine the winner; where white voters have disproportionate decision-making power compared to voters of color; and where electors, who are supposed to represent the majority of voters in each state, can change their minds and vote for whomever they please. Not even its origins are pure, as slavery and the desire to keep voting power away from ordinary people were factors in its design.

Let’s consider these problems in detail. We’ll also look at the threadbare attempts to justify them.

The votes of the political minority become worthless, leading to a victor with fewer votes than the loser

When we vote in presidential elections, we’re not actually voting for the candidates. We’re voting on whether to award decision-making power to Democratic or Republican electors. 538 people will cast their votes and the candidate who receives a majority of 270 votes will win. The electors are chosen by the political parties at state conventions, through committees, or by the presidential candidates. It depends on the state. The electors could be anyone, but are usually involved with the parties or are close allies. In 2016, for instance, electors included Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, Jr. Since they are chosen for their loyalty, they typically (though not always, as we will see) vote for the party that chose them.

The central problem with this system is that most all states are all-or-nothing when electors are awarded. (Only a couple states, Maine and Nebraska, have acted on this unfairness and divided up electors based on their popular votes.) As a candidate, winning by a single citizen vote grants you all the electors from the state. 

Imagine you live in Missouri. Let’s say in 2020 you vote Republican, but the Democratic candidate wins the state; the majority of Missourians voted Blue. All of Missouri’s 10 electors are then awarded to the Democratic candidate. When that happens, your vote does absolutely nothing to help your chosen candidate win the White House. It has no value. Only the votes of the political majority in the state influence who wins, by securing electors. It’s as if you never voted at all — it might as well have been 100% of Missourians voting Blue. As a Republican, wouldn’t you rather have your vote matter as much as all the Democratic votes in Missouri? For instance, 1 million Republican votes pushing the Republican candidate toward victory alongside the, say, 1.5 million Democratic votes pushing the Democratic candidate forward? Versus zero electors for the Republican candidate and 10 electors for the Democrat?

In terms of real contribution to a candidate’s victory, the outcomes can be broken down, and compared to a popular vote, in this way:

State Electoral College victor: contribution (electors)
State Electoral College loser: no contribution (no electors)

State popular vote victor: contribution (votes)
State popular vote loser: contribution (votes)

Under a popular vote, however, your vote won’t become meaningless if you’re in the political minority in your state. It will offer an actual contribution to your favored candidate. It will be worth the same as the vote of someone in the political majority. The Electoral College simply does not award equal value to each vote (see more examples below), whereas the popular vote does, by allowing the votes of the political minority to influence the final outcome. That’s better for voters, as it gives votes equal power. It’s also better for candidates, as the loser in each state would actually get something for his or her efforts. He or she would keep the earned votes, moving forward in his or her popular vote count. Instead of getting zero electors — no progress at all.

But why, one may ask, does this really matter? When it comes to determining who wins a state and gets its electors, all votes are of equal value. The majority wins, earning the right to give all the electors to its chosen candidate. How exactly is this unfair?

It’s unfair because, when all the states operate under such a system, it can lead to the candidate with fewer votes winning the White House. It’s a winner-take-all distribution of electors, each state’s political minority votes are ignored — but those votes can add up. 66 million Americans may choose the politician you support, but the other candidate may win with just 63 million votes. That’s what happened in 2016. It also happened in the race of 2000, as well as in 1876 and 1888. It simply isn’t fair or just for a candidate with fewer votes to win. It is mathematically possible, in fact, to win just 21.8% of the popular vote and win the presidency. While very unlikely, it is possible. That would mean, for example, a winner with 28 million votes and a loser with 101 million! This is absurd and unfair on its face. The candidate with the most votes should be the victor, as is the case with every other political race in the United States, and as is standard practice among the majority of the world’s democracies.

The lack of fairness and unequal value of citizen votes go deeper, however.

Small states and white power

Under the Electoral College, your vote is worth less in big states. For instance, Texas, with 28.7 million people and 38 electors, has one elector for every 755,000 people. But Wyoming, with 578,000 people and 3 electors, has one elector for every 193,000 people. In other words, each Wyoming voter has a bigger influence over who wins the presidency than each Texas voter. 4% of the U.S. population, for instance, in small states, has 8% of the electors. Why not 4%, to keep votes equal? (For those who think all this was the intent of the Founders, to give more power to smaller states, we’ll address that later on.)

To make things even, Texas would need many more electors. As would other big states. You have to look at changing population data and frequently adjust electors, as the government is supposed to do based on the census and House representation — it just doesn’t do it very well. It would be better to do away with the Electoral College entirely, because under a popular vote the vote of someone from Wyoming would be precisely equal to the vote of a Texan. Each would be one vote out of the 130 million or so cast. No adjustments needed.

It also just so happens that less populous states tend to be very white, and more populous states more diverse, meaning disproportionate white decision-making power overall.

Relatedly, it’s important to note that the political minority in each state, which will become inconsequential to the presidential race, is sometimes dominated by racial minorities, or at least most voters of color will belong to it. As Bob Wing writes, because “in almost every election white Republicans out-vote [blacks, most all Democrats] in every Southern state and every border state except Maryland,” the “Electoral College result was the same as if African Americans in the South had not voted at all.”

Faithless electors

After state residents vote for electors, the electors can essentially vote for whomever they want, in many states at least. “There are 32 states (plus the District of Columbia) that require electors to vote for a pledged candidate. Most of those states (19 plus DC) nonetheless do not provide for any penalty or any mechanism to prevent the deviant vote from counting as cast. Four states provide a penalty of some sort for a deviant vote, and 11 states provide for the vote to be canceled and the elector replaced…”

Now, electors are chosen specifically because of their loyalty, and “faithless electors” are extremely rare, but that doesn’t mean they will always vote for the candidate you elected them to vote for. There have been 85 electors in U.S. history that abstained or changed their vote on a whim. Sometimes for racist reasons, on accident, etc. Even more changed their votes after a candidate died — perhaps the voters would have liked to select another option themselves. Even if rare, all this should not be possible or legal. It is yet another way the Electoral College has built-in unfairness — imagine the will of a state’s political majority being ignored.

* * *

Won’t a popular vote give too much power to big states and cities?

Let’s turn now to the arguments against a popular vote, usually heard from conservatives. A common one is that big states, or big cities, will “have too much power.” Rural areas and less populous states and towns will supposedly have less.

This misunderstands power. States don’t vote. Cities don’t vote. People do. If we’re speaking solely about power, about influence, where you live does not matter. The vote of someone in Eudora, Kansas, is worth the same as someone in New York, New York.

This argument is typically posited by those who think that because some big, populous states like California and New York are liberal, this will mean liberal rule. (Conservative Texas, the second-most populous state, and sometimes-conservative swing states like Florida [third-most populous] and Pennsylvania [fifth-most populous] are ignored.) Likewise, because a majority of Americans today live in cities, and cities tend to be more liberal than small towns, this will result in the same. The concern for rural America and small states is really a concern for Republican power.

But obviously, in a direct election each person’s vote is of equal weight and importanceregardless and independent of where you live. 63% of Americans live in cities, so it is true that most voters will be living and voting in cities, but it cannot be said the small town voter has a weaker voice than the city dweller. Their votes have identical sway over who will be president. In the same way, a voter in a populous coastal state has no more influence than one in Arkansas.

No conservative looks with dismay at the direct election of his Democratic governor or congresswoman and says, “She only won because the small towns don’t have a voice. We have to find a way to diminish the power of the big cities!” No one complains that X area has too many people and too many liberals and argues some system should fix this. No one cries, “Tyranny of the majority! Mob rule!” They say, “She got the most votes, seems fair.” Why? Because one understands that the vote of the rural citizen is worth the same as the vote of an urban citizen, but if there happens to be more people living in cities in your state, or if there are more liberals in your state, so be it. That’s the freedom to live where you wish, believe what you wish, and have a vote worth the same as everyone else’s.

Think about the popular vote in past elections. About half of Americans vote Republican, about half vote Democrat. One candidate gets a few hundred thousand or few million more. It will be exactly the same if the popular vote determined the winner rather than the Electoral College — where you live is irrelevant. What matters is the final vote tally.

It’s not enough to simply complain that the United States is too liberal. And therefore we must preserve the Electoral College. That’s really what this argument boils down to. It’s not an argument at all. Unfair structures can’t be justified because they serve one political party. Whoever can win the most American votes should be president, no matter what party they come from.

But won’t candidates only pander to big states and cities?

This is a different question, and it has merit. It is true that where candidates campaign will change with the implementation of a popular vote. Conservatives warn that candidates will spend most of their time in the big cities and big states, and ignore rural places. This is likely true, as candidates (of both parties) will want to reach as many voters as possible in the time they have to garner support.

Yet this carries no weight as an argument against a popular vote, because the Electoral College has a very similar problem. Candidates focus their attention on swing states.

There’s a reason Democrats don’t typically campaign very hard in conservative Texas and Republicans don’t campaign hard in liberal California. Instead, they campaign in states that are more evenly divided ideologically, states that sometimes go Blue and sometimes go Red. They focus also on swing states with a decent number of electors. The majority of campaign events are in just six states. Unless you live in one of these places, like Ohio, Florida, or Pennsylvania, your vote isn’t as vital to victory and your state won’t get as much pandering. The voters in swing states are vastly more important, their votes much more valuable than elsewhere.

How candidates focusing on a handful of swing states might be so much better than candidates focusing on more populous areas is never explained by Electoral College supporters. It seems like a fair trade, but with a popular vote we also get the candidate with the most support always winning, votes of equal worth, and no higher-ups to ignore the will of the people.

However, with a significant number of Americans still living outside big cities, attention will likely still be paid to rural voters — especially, one might assume, by the Republican candidate. Nearly 40% of the nation living in small towns and small states isn’t something wisely ignored. Wherever the parties shift most of their attention, there is every reason to think Blue candidates will want to solidify their win by courting Blue voters in small towns and states, and Red candidates will want to ensure theirs by courting Red voters in big cities and states. Even if the rural voting bloc didn’t matter and couldn’t sway the election (it would and could), one might ask how a handful of big states and cities alone determining the outcome of the election is so much worse than a few swing states doing the same in the Electoral College system.

Likewise, the fear that a president, plotting reelection, will better serve the interests of big states and cities seems about as reasonable as fear that he or she would better serve the interests of the swing states today. One is hardly riskier than the other.

But didn’t the Founders see good reason for the Electoral College?

First, it’s important to note that invoking the Founding Fathers doesn’t automatically justified flawed governmental systems. The Founders were not perfect, and many of the policies and institutions they decreed in the Constitution are now gone.

Even before the Constitution, the Founders’ Articles of Confederation were scrapped after just seven years. Later, the Twelfth Amendment got rid of a system where the losing presidential candidate automatically became vice president — a reform of the Electoral College. Our senators were elected by the state legislatures, not we the people, until 1913 (Amendment 17 overturned clauses from Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution). Only in 1856 did the last state, North Carolina, do away with property requirements to vote for members of the House of Representatives, allowing the poor to participate. The Three-Fifths Compromise (the Enumeration Clause of the Constitution), which valued slaves less than full people for political representation purposes, is gone, and today people of color, women, and people without property can vote thanks to various amendments. There were no term limits for the president until 1951 (Amendment 22) — apparently an executive without term limits didn’t give the Founders nightmares of tyranny.

The Founders were very concerned about keeping political power away from ordinary people, who might take away their riches and privileges. They wanted the wealthy few, like themselves, to make the decisions. See How the Founding Fathers Protected Their Own Wealth and Power.

The Electoral College, at its heart, was a compromise between Congress selecting the president and the citizenry doing so. The people would choose the people to choose the president. Alexander Hamilton wrote that the “sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided.” He thought “a small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”

Yet the Founders did not anticipate that states would pass winner-take-all elector policies, and some wanted it abolished. The Constitution and its writers did not establish such a mechanism. States did, and only after the Constitution, which established the Electoral College, was written. In 1789, only three states had such laws, according to the Institute for Research on Presidential Elections. It wasn’t until 1836 that every state (save one, which held out until after the Civil War) adopted a winner-take-all law; they sought more attention from candidates by offering all electors to the victor, they wanted their chosen sons to win more electors, and so forth. Before (and alongside) the winner-take-all laws, states were divided into districts and the people in each district would elect an elector (meaning a state’s electors could be divided up among candidates). Alternatively, state legislatures would choose the electors, meaning citizens did not vote for the president in any way, even indirectly! James Madison wrote that “the district mode was mostly, if not exclusively in view when the Constitution was framed and adopted; & was exchanged for the general ticket [winner-take-all] & the legislative election” later on. He suggested a Constitutional amendment (“The election of Presidential Electors by districts, is an amendment very proper to be brought forward…”) and Hamilton drafted it.

Still, among Founders and states, it was an anti-democratic era. Some Americans prefer more democratic systems, and don’t cling to tradition — especially tradition as awful and unfair as the Electoral College — for its own sake. Some want positive changes to the way government functions and broadened democratic participation, to improve upon and make better what the Founders started, as we have so many times before.

Now, it’s often posited that the Founding Fathers established the Electoral College to make sure small states had more power to determine who won the White House. As we saw above, votes in smaller states are worth more than in big ones.

Even if the argument that “we need the Electoral College so small states can actually help choose the president” made sense in a bygone era where people viewed themselves as Virginians or New Yorkers, not Americans (but rather as part of an alliance called the United States), it makes no sense today. People now see themselves as simply Americans — as American citizens together choosing an American president. Why should where you live determine the power of your vote? Why not simply have everyone’s vote be equal?

More significantly, it cannot be said that strengthening smaller states was a serious concern to the Founders at the Constitutional Convention. They seemed to accept that smaller states would simply have fewer voters and thus less influence. Legal historian Paul Finkleman writes that

in all the debates over the executive at the Constitutional Convention, this issue [of giving more power to small states] never came up. Indeed, the opposite argument received more attention. At one point the Convention considered allowing the state governors to choose the president but backed away from this in part because it would allow the small states to choose one of their own.

In other words, they weren’t looking out for the little guy. Political scientist George C. Edwards III calls this whole idea a “myth,” stressing: “Remember what the country looked like in 1787: The important division was between states that relied on slavery and those that didn’t, not between large and small states.”

Slavery’s influence

The Electoral College is also an echo of white supremacy and slavery.

As the Constitution was formed in the late 1780s, Southern politicians and slave-owners at the Convention had a problem: Northerners were going to get more seats in the House of Representatives (which were to be determined by population) if blacks weren’t counted as people. Southern states had sizable populations, but large portions were disenfranchised slaves and freemen (South Carolina, for instance, was nearly 50% black).

This prompted slave-owners, most of whom considered blacks by nature somewhere between animals and whites, to push for slaves to be counted as fully human for political purposes. They needed blacks for greater representative power for Southern states. Northern states, also seeking an advantaged position, opposed counting slaves as people. This odd reversal brought about the Three-Fifths Compromise most of us know, which determined an African American would be worth three-fifths of a person.

The Electoral College was largely a solution to the same problem. True, as we saw, it served to keep power out of the hands of ordinary people and in the hands of the elites, but race and slavery unquestionably influenced its inception. As the Electoral College Primer put it, Southerners feared “the loss in relative influence of the South because of its large nonvoting slave population.” They were afraid the direct election of the president would put them at a numerical disadvantage. To put it bluntly, Southerners were upset their states didn’t have more white people. A popular vote had to be avoided.

For example, Hugh Williamson of North Carolina remarked at the Convention, during debate on a popular election of the president: “The people will be sure to vote for some man in their own State, and the largest State will be sure to succede [sic]. This will not be Virga. however. Her slaves will have no suffrage.” Williamson saw that states with high populations had an advantage in choosing the president. But a great number of people in Virginia were slaves. Would this mean that Virginia and other slave states didn’t have the numbers of whites to affect the presidential election as much as the large Northern states?

The writer of the Constitution, slave-owner and future American president James Madison, thought so. He said that

There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty…

The question for Southerners was: How could one make the total population count for something, even though much of the population couldn’t vote? How could black bodies be used to increase Southern political power? Counting slaves helped put more Southerners in the House of Representatives, and now counting them in the apportionment of electors would help put more Southerners in the White House.

Thus, Southerners pushed for the Electoral College. The number of electors would be based on how many members of Congress each state possessed — which recall was affected by counting a black American as three-fifths of a person. Each state would have one elector per representative in the House, plus two for the state’s two senators (today we have 435 + 100 + 3 for D.C. = 538). In this way, the number of electors was still based on population (not the whole population, though, as blacks were not counted as full persons), even though a massive part of the America population in 1787 could not vote. The greater a state’s population, the more House reps it had, and thus the more electors it had. Southern electoral power was secure.

This worked out pretty well for the racists. “For 32 of the Constitution’s first 36 years, a white slaveholding Virginian occupied the presidency,” notes Akhil Reed Amar. The advantage didn’t go unnoticed. Massachusetts congressman Samuel Thatcher complained in 1803, “The representation of slaves adds thirteen members to this House in the present Congress, and eighteen Electors of President and Vice President at the next election.”

Tyrants and imbeciles

At times, it’s suggested that the electors serve an important function: if the people select a dangerous or unqualified candidate — like an authoritarian or a fool — to be the party nominee, the electors can pick someone else and save the nation. Hamilton said, “The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

Obviously, looking at Donald Trump, the Electoral College is just as likely to put an immoral doofus in the White House than keep one out. Trump may not fit that description to you, but some day a candidate may come along who does. And since the electors are chosen for their loyalty, they are unlikely to stop such a candidate, even if they have the power to be faithless. We might as well simply let the people decide.

It is a strange thing indeed that some people insist a popular vote will lead to dictatorship, ignoring the majority of the world’s democracies that directly elect their executive officer. They have not plunged into totalitarianism. Popular vote simply doesn’t get rid of checks and balances, co-equal branches, a constitution, the rule of law, and other aspects of free societies. These things are not incompatible.

France has had direct elections since 1965 (de Gaulle). Finland since 1994 (Ahtisaari). Portugal since 1918 (Pais). Poland since 1990 (Wałęsa). Why aren’t these nations run by despots by now? Why do even conservative institutes rank nations like Ireland, Finland, and Austria higher up on a “Human Freedom Index” than the United States? How is this possible, if direct elections of the executive lead to tyranny?

There are many factors that cause dictatorship and ruin, but simply giving the White House to whomever gets the most votes is not necessarily one of them.

Modern motives

We close by stating the obvious. There remains strong support for the Electoral College among conservatives because it has recently aided Republican candidates like Bush (2000) and Trump (2016). If the GOP lost presidential elections due to the Electoral College after winning the popular vote, like the other party does, they’d perhaps see its unfair nature.

The popular vote, in an increasingly diverse, liberal country, doesn’t serve conservative interests. Republicans have won the popular vote just once since and including the 1992 election. Conservatives are worried that if the Electoral College vanishes and each citizen has a vote of equal power, their days are numbered. Better to preserve an outdated, anti-democratic system than benefits you than reform your platform and policies to change people’s minds about you and strengthen your support. True, the popular vote may serve Democratic interests. Fairness serves Democratic interests. But, unlike unfairness, which Republicans seek to preserve, fairness is what’s right. Giving the candidate with the most votes the presidency is what’s right.

An Absurd, Fragile President Has Revealed an Absurd, Fragile American System

The FBI investigation into Donald Trump, one of the most ludicrous and deplorable men to ever sit in the Oval Office, was a valuable lesson in just how precariously justice balances on the edge of a knife in the United States. The ease with which any president could obstruct or eliminate accountability for his or her misdeeds should frighten all persons regardless of political ideology.

Let’s consider the methods of the madness, keeping in mind that whether or not a specific president like Trump is innocent of crimes or misconduct, it’s smart to have effective mechanisms in place to bring to justice later executives that are guilty. The stupidity of the system could be used by a president of any political party. This must be rectified.

A president can fire those investigating him — and replace them with allies who could shut everything down

The fact the above statement can be written truthfully about an advanced democracy, as opposed to some totalitarian regime, is insane. Trump of course did fire those looking into his actions, and replaced them with supporters.

The FBI (not the Democrats) launched an investigation into Trump and his associates concerning possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 election and obstruction of justice, obviously justified given his and their suspicious behavior, some of which was connected to actual criminal activity, at least among Trump’s associates who are now felons. Trump fired James Comey, the FBI director, who was overseeing the investigation. Both Trump and his attorney Rudy Giuliani publicly indicated the firing was motivated by the Russia investigation; Comey testified Trump asked him to end the FBI’s look into Trump ally Michael Flynn, though not the overall Russia inquiry.

The power to remove the FBI director could be used to slow down an investigation (or shut it down, if the acting FBI director is loyal to the president, which Andrew McCabe was not), but more importantly a president can then nominate a new FBI director, perhaps someone more loyal, meaning corrupt. (Christopher Wray, Trump’s pick, worked for a law firm that did business with Trump’s business trust, but does not seem a selected devotee like the individuals you will see below, perhaps because by the time his installment came around the investigation was in the hands of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.) The Senate must confirm the nomination, but that isn’t entirely reassuring. The majority party could push through a loyalist, to the dismay of the minority party, and that’s it. Despite this being a rarity, as FBI directors are typically overwhelmingly confirmed, it’s possible. A new director could then end the inquiry.

Further, the president can fire the attorney general, the FBI director’s boss. The head of the Justice Department, this person has ultimate power over investigations into the president — at least until he or she is removed by said president. Trump made clear he was upset with Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the Russia inquiry because Sessions could have discontinued it. It was reported Trump even asked Sessions to reverse this decision! Sessions recused himself less than a month after taking office, a couple months before Comey was fired. For less than a month, Sessions could have ended it all.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, luckily no Trump lackey, was in charge after Sessions stepped away from the matter. It was Rosenstein who appointed Robert Mueller special counsel and had him take over the FBI investigation, after the nation was so alarmed by Comey’s dismissal. Rosenstein had authority over Mueller and the case (dodging a bullet when Trump tried to order Mueller’s firing but was rebuked by his White House lawyer; Trump could have rescinded statutes that said only the A.G. could fire the special counsel, with an explosive court battle over constitutionality surely following) until Trump fired Sessions and installed loyalist Matt Whitaker as Acting Attorney General. Whitaker is a man who

defended Donald Trump Jr.’s decision to meet with a Russian operative promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. He opposed the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russian election interference (“Hollow calls for independent prosecutors are just craven attempts to score cheap political points and serve the public in no measurable way.”) Whitaker has called on Rod Rosenstein to curb Mueller’s investigation, and specifically declared Trump’s finances (which include dealings with Russia) off-limits. He has urged Trump’s lawyers not to cooperate with Mueller’s “lynch mob.”

And he has publicly mused that a way to curb Mueller’s power might be to deprive him of resources. “I could see a scenario,” he said on CNN last year, “where Jeff Sessions is replaced, it would [be a] recess appointment and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”

Whitaker required no confirmation from the Senate. Like an official attorney general, he could have ended the inquiry and fired Robert Mueller if he saw “good cause” to do so, or effectively crippled the investigation by limiting its resources or scope. That did not occur, but it’s not hard to imagine Whitaker parroting Trump’s wild accusations of Mueller’s conflicts of interest, or whipping up some bullshit of his own to justify axing the special counsel. The same can be said of Bill Barr, who replaced Whitaker. Barr, who did need Senate confirmation, was also a Trump ally, severely endangering the rule of law:

In the Spring of 2017, Barr penned an op-ed supporting the President’s firing Comey. “Comey’s removal simply has no relevance to the integrity of the Russian investigation as it moves ahead,” he wrote. In June 2017, Barr told The Hill that the obstruction investigation was “asinine” and warned that Mueller risked “taking on the look of an entirely political operation to overthrow the president.” That same month, Barr met with Trump about becoming the president’s personal defense lawyer for the Mueller investigation, before turning down the overture for that job.

In late 2017, Barr wrote to the New York Times supporting the President’s call for further investigations of his past political opponent, Hillary Clinton. “I have long believed that the predicate for investigating the uranium deal, as well as the foundation, is far stronger than any basis for investigating so-called ‘collusion,’” he wrote to the New York Times’ Peter Baker, suggesting that the Uranium One conspiracy theory (which had by that time been repeatedly debunked) had more grounding than the Mueller investigation (which had not). Before Trump nominated him to be attorney general, Barr also notoriously wrote an unsolicited 19-page advisory memo to Rod Rosenstein criticizing the obstruction component of Mueller’s investigation as “fatally misconceived.” The memo’s criticisms proceeded from Barr’s long-held and extreme, absolutist view of executive power, and the memo’s reasoning has been skewered by an ideologically diverse group of legal observers.

What happy circumstances, Trump being able to shuffle the investigation into his own actions to his first hand-picked attorney general (confirmation to recusal: February 8 to March 2, 2017), an acting FBI director (even if not an ally, the act itself is disruptive), a hand-picked acting attorney general, and a second hand-picked attorney general. Imagine police detectives are investigating a suspect but he’s their boss’ boss. That’s a rare advantage.

The nation held its breath with each change, and upon reflection it seems almost miraculous Mueller’s investigation concluded at all. Some may see this as a testament to the strength of the system, but it all could have easily gone the other way. There were no guarantees. What if Sessions hadn’t recused himself? What if he’d shut down the investigation? What if Comey, McCabe, or Rosenstein had been friendlier to Trump? What if Whitaker or Barr had blown the whole thing up? Yes, political battles, court battles, to continue the inquiry would have raged — but there are no guarantees they would have succeeded.

Tradition, political and public pressure…these mechanisms aren’t worthless, but they hardly seem as valuable as structural, legal changes to save us from having to simply hope the pursuit of justice doesn’t collapse at the command of the accused or his or her political allies. We can strip the president of any and all power over the Justice Department workers investigating him or her, temporarily placing A.G.s under congressional authority, and eradicate similar conflicts of interest.

The Department of Justice can keep its findings secret

Current affairs highlighted this problem as well. When Mueller submitted his finished report to Bill Barr, the attorney general was only legally required to submit a summary of Mueller’s findings to Congress. He did not need to provide the full report or full details to the House and Senate, much less to the public. He didn’t even need to release the summary to the public!

This is absurd, obviously setting up the possibility that a puppet attorney general might not tell the whole story in the summary to protect the president. Members of Mueller’s team are currently saying to the press that Barr’s four-page summary is too rosy, leaving out damaging information about Trump. The summary says Mueller found no collusion (at least, no illegal conspiring or coordinating), and that Barr, Rosenstein, and other department officials agreed there wasn’t enough evidence of obstruction of justice. But one shouldn’t be forced to give a Trump ally like Barr the benefit of the doubt; one should be able to see the evidence to determine if he faithfully expressed Mueller’s findings and hear detailed arguments as to how he and others reached a verdict on obstruction. Barr is promising a redacted version of the report will be available this month. He did not have to do this — we again simply had to hope Barr would give us more. Just as we must hope he can be pressured into giving Congress the full, unedited report. This must instead be required by law, and the public is at least owed a redacted version. Hope is unacceptable. It would also be wise to find a more independent, bipartisan or nonpartisan way to rule on obstruction if the special counsel declines to do so — perhaps done in a court of law, rather than a Trump lackey’s office.

The way of doing things now is simply a mess. What if an A.G. is untruthful in his summary? Or wants only Congress to see it, not the public? What if she declines to release a redacted version? What if the full report is never seen beyond the investigators and their Justice Department superiors, appointed supporters of the president being investigated? What if a ruling on obstruction is politically motivated?

We don’t know if the president can be subpoenaed to testify

While the Supreme Court has established that the president can be subpoenaed, or forced, to turn over materials (such as Nixon and his secret White House recordings), it hasn’t specifically ruled on whether the president must testify before Congress, a special counsel, or a grand jury if called to do so. While the president, like any other citizen, has Fifth Amendment rights (he can’t be “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself,” risking self-incrimination), we do need to know if the executive can be called as a witness, and under what circumstances. Mueller chose not to subpoena Trump’s testimony because it would lead to a long legal battle. That’s what unanswered questions and constitutional crises produce.

We have yet to figure out if a sitting president can be indicted

If the executive commits a crime, can he or she be charged for it while in office? Can the president go to trial, be prosecuted, sentenced, imprisoned? We simply do not know. The Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department says no, but there is fierce debate over whether it’s constitutional or not, and the Supreme Court has never ruled on the matter.

There’s been much worry lately, due to Trump’s many legal perilsover this possible “constitutional crisis” arising, a crisis of our own design, having delayed creating laws for this sort of thing for centuries. For now, the trend is to follow Justice Department policy, rather helpful for a president who’s actually committed a felony. The president can avoid prosecution and punishment until leaving office or even avoid it entirely if the statute of limitations runs out before the president’s term is over!

“Don’t fret, Congress can impeach a president who seems to have committed a crime. Out of office, a trial can commence.” That is of little comfort, given the high bar for impeachment. Bitter partisanship could easily prevent the impeachment of a president, no matter how obvious or vile the misdeeds. It’s not a sure thing.

The country needs to rule on this issue, at the least eliminating statutes of limitations for presidents, at most allowing criminal proceedings to occur while the president is in office.

We don’t know if a president can self-pardon

Trump, like the blustering authoritarian he is, declared he had the “absolute right” to pardon himself. But the U.S. has not figured this out either. It’s also a matter of intense debate, without constitutional clarity or judicial precedent. A sensible society might make it clear that the executive is not above the law — he or she cannot simply commit crimes with impunity, cannot self-pardon. Instead, we must wait for a crisis to force us to decide on this issue. And, it should be emphasized, the impeachment of a president who pardoned him- or herself would not be satisfactory. Crimes warrant consequences beyond “You don’t get to be president anymore.”

Headlines From the United States of Atheism

Alternatively titled: If You Get Why Government Favoring and Promoting Atheism or Another Faith is Unacceptable, You Get Why the Same is True For Christianity. Lest the following satire be misunderstood, let’s state this plainly. All people have the right to believe what they like, and promote it — unless you’re on the clock as a public employee or trying to use public institutions. Government needs to be neutral on matters of faith, not favoring or promoting one or any religion, nor atheism. To be neutral isn’t to back or advocate for disbelief, unlike events described in these fictional, hopefully thought-provoking, headlines. It’s simply to acknowledge that this is a country and government for all people, not just those of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Not all students, customers, or constituents are Christians or even people of faith. Freedom from religion is just as important as freedom of religion, which is why church and State are kept separate. If you wouldn’t want government used to push atheism, Islam, and so forth in any way, whether through its employees, institutions, laws, or creations, then you get it.

 

Florida Bill Requires Public Schools to Offer Elective on Atheist Classics. Why No Required Electives For Holy Books?

 

“God is Dead” to Appear on U.S. Currency Next Year

 

Christian Student Refuses to Stand For Pledge, Objecting to “One Nation, Godless” Line

 

Supreme Court Yet to Rule on Whether Refusing Service to Christians Based on Religious Belief is Discrimination

 

Why Does the Law Still Say You Can’t Be Fired For Being Gay, But Can For Being a Person of Faith?

 

Coach Lectures Players About How God is Fictional and Can’t Help Them Before Every Game

 

Little-known Last Verse of National Anthem Reads: “And Faith is a Bust” 

 

Believers Bewildered as to Why Students Are Studying Science and Evolution in Religion Class  

 

Sam Harris One of Six Selected to Lead Traditional Refutations of God’s Existence at Presidential Inauguration 

 

Lawmakers Want “The God Delusion” as This State’s Official Book 

 

Christians Fight to be Allowed to Give Invocations at the Legislature Too; Many Americans Wonder Why Invocations Are Necessary

 

Bonus: Headlines From the United States of Allah

Oklahoma Legislature Votes to Install Qu’ran Monument on Capitol Grounds 

 

States Are Requiring or Allowing “Allahu Akbar” to be Displayed in Public Schools

 

Muslims Object to Removal of Big Crescent and Star From Public Park

 

With U.S. Supreme Court Oblivious, Alabama Ditches Rule That Death Row Inmates Can Only Have Imam With Them at the End

The Odd Language of the Left

Language fascinates me. This applies to the study of foreign languages and the pursuit of a proper, ideal form of one’s native language (such as the preservation of the Oxford comma to stave off chaos and confusion), but most importantly to how language is used for political and social issues — what words are chosen, what words are ethical (and in what contexts), how the definitions of words and concepts change over time, and so on.

These questions are important, because words matter. They can harm others, meaning they can be, at times, immoral to use. Individuals and groups using different definitions can impede meaningful conversation and knowledge or perspective sharing, to such a degree that, in cases where no definition is really any more moral than another, long arguments over them probably aren’t worth it.

Despite incessant right-wing whining about political correctness, the Left is doing an important service in changing our cultural language. It’s driven by thinking about and caring for other people, seeking equality and inclusion in all things, which could theoretically be embraced by anyone, even those on the other side of the political spectrum who don’t agree with this or that liberal policy, or even understand or know people who are different. “Immigrants” is more humanizing than “aliens” or “illegals,” “Latinx” does away with the patriarchal, unnecessary male demarcation of groups containing both men and women (and invites in non-binary persons), and “the trans men” or simply “the men” is far more respectful than “the trangenders,” in the same way that there are much better ways of saying “the blacks.” There are of course more awful ways of talking about others, virulent hate speech and slurs; more people agree these things are unacceptable. As far as these less insidious word choices go, replacement is, in my view, right and understandable. Why not? Kind people seek ways to show more kindness, despite tradition.

What I find curious is when the Left begins questioning the “existence” of certain concepts. Finding better phrasing or definitions is often important and noble, but for years I’ve found the claims that such-and-such “does not exist” to be somewhat strange.

Take, for instance, “The friendzone does not exist.” This is the title of articles on BuzzfeedThought Catalog, and so forth, which the reader should check out to fully appreciate the perspective (of those rather unlike this writer, an admittedly privileged and largely unaffected person). It’s easy to see why one would want to wipe friendzone off the face of the Earth, as it’s often uttered by petulant straight men whining and enraged over being turned down. The rage, as noted in the articles, is the mark of entitled men feeling they are owed something (attention, a date, sex), wanting to make women feel guilty, believing they are victims, and other aspects of toxic masculinity. Such attitudes and anger lead to everything from the most sickening diatribes to the rape and murder of women. It’s a big part of why the feminist movement is important today.

Yet friendzone is a term used by others as well — it’s surely mostly used by men, but it’s impossible to know for certain if it’s disproportionately used by men of the toxic sort. If you’ll pardon anecdotal evidence, we’ve probably all heard it used by harmless people with some frequency. We’d need some serious research to find out. In any case, many human beings will at some point have someone say to them: “I don’t feel that way about you, let’s just be friends.” A silly term at some point arose (perhaps in Friends, “The One With the Blackout,” 1994) to describe the experience of rejection. What does it mean, then, to say “The friendzone does not exist”? It’s basically to say an experience doesn’t exist. That experience can be handled very differently, from “OK, I understand” to homicide, but it’s a happenstance that most people go through, so some kind of word for it was probably inevitable. If it wasn’t friendzone it likely would have been something else, and one suspects that if we eradicate this particular term a new one might eventually pop up in its place (justfriended?). It’s all a bit like saying “Cloud Nine does not exist” or “Cuffing season does not exist.” Well, those are expressions that describe real-world experiences. As long as a human experience persists, so will the concept and some kind of label or idiom, often more than one.

The relevant question is if the use of the term friendzone encourages and perpetuates toxic masculinity. Is it contributing to male rage? Does one more term for rejection, alongside many others (shot down, for instance), have that power? Or is it a harmless expression, at times wielded by awful men like anyone else? That’s a difficult question to answer. (The only earnest way would be through scientific study, the basis of many left-wing views.) While I could be wrong, I lean towards the latter. I don’t suppose it’s any more harmful or unkind than shot down and so forth, and see such terms as inevitable, meaning what’s really important is changing the reactions to certain life events. My guess is the word is experiencing a bit of guilt by association — terrible men use it while expressing their childish sentiments about how they deserve this or that, about how women somehow hate nice guys, and so on, and thus the term takes on an ugly connotation to some people. Other terms are used by them less and don’t have that connotation. Readers will disagree on how strong the connotation is, and how harmful the term is, but the main point was simply to ponder how a word for a common experience should be said to “not exist” — it’s hard to discern whether such phrasing intrudes more on one’s knowledge of reality or English. Perhaps both equally. It’s rather different than saying, “This word is problematic, here’s a better one.” I could be misinterpreting all this, and every instance of denying existence is supposed to mean the word simply shouldn’t be used, leaving space for other, better ways to describe the concept, but that just goes back to interest in how language is used in social issues — why say one but not the other, more clear, option? Anyway, read the articles and you’ll likely agree the very existence of concepts are being questioned. Finally, it’s interesting to consider why the Left ended up saying X doesn’t exist rather than, say, X is real and your toxic ass had better get used to it. What if, like words of the past, it had been adopted by those it was used against to strip it of its power and turn the tables? What causes that to happen to some words but not others? Is it because this one describes an event, not a person? Another intriguing question about language.

Similarly, does virginity exist? Not according to some (The OdysseyHer Campus). Again, the sentiment is understandable. Women’s worth has long been closely tied to virginity (read your bible), and with that came widespread oppressive efforts to keep women’s bodies under tight control, still manifested today in incessant shaming for engaging in sex as freely as men do, murder, and more. Men have experienced something related, though far less oppressive and in an opposite sense: women are more valuable as virgins (or with fewer overall partners) and are judged for being sexually active, while men are shamed or ridiculed for being virgins or not engaging in sex. Further, the definition of virginity is open to debate (the definition of friendzone is as well, though the most common one was used above). Is a straight person a virgin if he or she has only had anal sex? Is a gay person, who has regular sex with a partner, technically a virgin until death? Because the word’s meaning is subjective, and because it was a basis of patriarchal oppression, so the argument goes, “virginity doesn’t exist.”

Virginity is a way of saying one hasn’t had some form of sexual experience. For some it’s vaginal penetration, for others it’s different — the particular act doesn’t really matter. It’s simply “I haven’t had sex yet,” whatever form sex may take in the individual mind. Everyone has their own view of it, but that doesn’t make it unreal — in the same way everyone has their own idea of what love is, and yet love exists. Having sex for the first time is quite an event in any human being’s life, and most or many will experience it. Even if our history had been free of misogyny and patriarchy, there likely would have eventually arisen some term for having never experienced sex (or having been turned down). Does the statement “Virginity doesn’t exist” make sense? As with friendzone, it’s a labeled common experience, or lack thereof. While it was and is wielded by misogynistic oppressors, it’s an occurrence, and a concept, that certainly “exists.”

Does having a term for all this harm society and hurt others, helping preserve the hysteria over who’s had intercourse, and the associated maltreatment? Again, it’s possible. But my point is that a term is unavoidable. The state of being is real, thus the concept is real, thus a word or phrase will inevitably be employed. Being “single” happens — does “singleness” not exist? Won’t there always be some way to describe that state? We could get rid of the words virgin and virginity, but there’s no getting rid of “I’ve had sex” versus “I haven’t.” Another phrase or term will suffice just as well to describe the concept. We can abolish friendzone, but “The person I like turned me down” isn’t going away. There may be better words and definitions for concepts, but there’s often no case against a concept’s reality, which is how all this is framed. What’s important is to try to change the perceptions and attitudes toward these concepts, not deny they exist. “Yes, you were put in the friendzone, but you’ve done that to a lot of women you weren’t interested in. That’s life, you’ll live, grow up.” “So what if she’s not a virgin? Should your dateability or worth go down if you weren’t one? Why hers and not yours?” And so on. Indeed, it seems more difficult to change attitudes towards life events when you start off by saying, in essence, and confusingly, that an expression isn’t real.

There are other examples of assertions I find awkward, but as this article is lengthy already I will just briefly mention a couple of them and hope the reader assumes I’ve given them more thought than a few sentences would suggest. “There’s no such thing as race, it’s a social construct,” while doing a service by reminding us we are all part of the same human family, has always seemed mostly pointless in a reality where individuals biologically have different shades of skin and hair texture, and many are brutally victimized because of it. “No human being is illegal” puts forward an ideal, which I support: amnesty, a faster legal entrance policy, and so on (I also support the dissolution of all borders worldwide and the establishment of one human nation, but that may not be implied here). It’s also a call to describe people in a more respectful way, i.e. “undocumented” rather than “illegal.” Still, it always seemed a little off. Some human beings are here illegally, and our task is to change the law to make that history. That the State designates some human beings as illegal is the whole problem, the entire point. True, it’s an ideal, an inspirational call. But I always thought replacing “is” with “should be” or something would be more to the point. But enough splitting hairs.

Someone Worse Than Trump is Coming. Much of the Right Will Vote For Him Too.

Donald Trump is a nightmare — an immoral, vile, ignorant human being.

It is impossible to fully document his awfulness with brevity. Even when summarizing the worst things Trump has said and done it is difficult to know where to stop.

He calls women “dogs” — they are “animals,” “big, fat pigs,” “ugly,” and “disgusting” if they cross him or don’t please his gaze. You have to “treat ’em like shit,” they’re “horsefaces.” He makes inappropriate sexual jokes and remarks about his own daughter, about “grabbing” women “by the pussy” and kissing them without “waiting,” and admits to barging into pageant dressing rooms full of teenage girls with “no clothes” on. He mocks people with disabilities, Asians with imperfect English (including, probably, “the Japs“), and prisoners of warTrump was sued for not renting to blacks, took it upon himself to buy full-page ads in New York papers calling for the restoration of the death penalty so we could kill black teens who allegedly raped a white woman (they were later declared innocent), and was a leader of the ludicrous “birther” movement that sought to prove Obama was an African national. He is reluctant to criticize Klansmen and neo-Nazis, and retweets racist misinformation without apology. He’s fine with protesters being “roughed up,” nostalgic about the good old days when they’d be “carried out on a stretcher,” even saying about one: “I’d like to punch him in the face.” He likewise makes light of physical attacks on journalists. He praises dictators. He threatens to violate the Constitution as a political strategy. He cheats on his wife with porn stars and pays them to keep quiet. The constant bragging of a high I.Q. (his “very, very large brain“) and his big fortune, among other things, are emblematic of his ugly narcissism. His daily rate of lies and inaccuracies is surely historic, with journeys into fantasyland over crowd sizes and wiretaps by former presidents.

And those are merely the uncontroversial facts. Trump faces nearly two dozen accusations of sexual assault. He is alleged to at times say extremely racist things, remarks about “lazy,” thieving “niggers.” His ex-wife claimed in 1990 that he sometimes read Hitler’s speeches, and Vanity Fair reported Trump confirmed this. The payment to Stormy Daniels was likely a violation of campaign finance laws — Trump’s former attorney implicated him in court. Trump is being sued for using the presidency to earn income, his nonprofit foundation being sued for illegal use of funds. Trump has almost certainly engaged in tax fraud, joined in his staff and own son’s collusion with Russia during the 2016 election, and obstructed justice.

All this of course speaks more to his abysmal personality and character than his political beliefs or actions as executive. That’s it’s own conversation, and it’s an important one because some conservatives accept Trump is not a good person but think his policies are just wonderful.

On the one hand, many of Trump’s policies are as awful as he is, and will not be judged kindly by history. Launching idiotic trade wars where he slaps a nation with tariffs and is immediately slapped with tariffs in return, hurting U.S. workersStoking nativist fear and stereotypes about Hispanic immigrants and Muslims, driving the enactment of (1) a ban on immigrants from several predominantly Muslim nations (doing away with vetting entirely, keeping good people, many fleeing oppression, war, and starvation, out with the bad) and limits to refugees and immigrants in general, and (2) the attempted destruction of DACA (breaking a promise the nation made to youths brought here illegally) and a “zero tolerance” policy on illegal entry that sharply increased family separations. Saying foreigners at the border who throw rocks at the military should be shot. Pushing to ensure employers are allowed to fire people for being gay or trans (and refuse them service as customers), eliminating anti-discrimination protections for trans students in public schools, and attempting to bar trans persons from military service. Voting against a U.N. resolution condemning the execution of gays.

On the other hand, we can be grateful that, to quote American intellectual Noam Chomsky, “Trump’s only ideology is ‘me.'” Trump is thoroughly defined by self-absorption. He flip-flops frequently — reportedly most influenced by the last person he speaks to — and even used to call himself more of a Democrat, advocating for a few liberal social policies while remaining conservative on business matters. He either changed his mind over time or, as I wrote elsewhere, believed running as a Republican offered the best chance at victory and thus adopted an extreme right-wing persona — an idea that doesn’t at all mean he isn’t also an awful person (rather, it’s evidence of the fact). Outside of policies that serve him personally it is difficult to know what Trump believes in — or if he even cares. He may genuinely lack empathy and have no interest in policies that don’t affect him. True, perhaps he isn’t merely playing to his base and actually has a vision for the country, but the “ideology of me” does appear preeminent. While it’s “deeply authoritarian and very dangerous,” as Chomsky says, it “isn’t Hitler or Mussolini.” And for this we can count ourselves somewhat fortunate. (Likewise, that Trump isn’t the brightest bulb in the box, speaking at a fourth-grade level, reportedly not reading that well and possessing a short attention span, lacking political knowledge, and being labeled a childish idiot by his allies.)

Next time we may not be so lucky. As hard or painful as it is to imagine, someone worse will likely come along soon enough.

One day Trump will leave the White House, and with a profound sense of relief we will hear someone declare: “Our long national nightmare is over.” That’s what Gerald Ford said to the country the day he took over from Nixon — a man corrupt, deceitful, paranoid, wrathful, and in many ways wicked (he is on audiotape saying “Great. Oh, that’s so wonderful. That’s good” when told his aides hired goons to break protesters’ legs). One wonders how many people in 1974 thought that someone like Trump would be along in just eight presidencies? If there was a lack of imagination we shouldn’t repeat it.

In significant ways, there are already foreshadows of the next nightmare. Trump opened a door. His success was inspiration for America’s worst monsters. They have seen what’s possible — and will only be more encouraged if Trump is reelected or goes unpunished for wrongdoing and nastiness. I wrote before the election:

When neo-Nazi leaders start calling your chosen candidate “glorious leader,” an “ultimate savior” who will “Make American White Again” and represents “a real opportunity for people like white nationalists,” it may be time to rethink the Trump phenomenon. When former KKK leader David Duke says he supports Trump “100 percent” and that people who voted for Trump will “of course” also vote for Duke to help in “preserving this country and the heritage of this country,” it is probably time to be honest about the characteristics and fears of many of the people willing to vote for Trump. As Mother Jones documents, white nationalist author Kevin McDonald called Trump’s movement a “revolution to restore White America,” the anti-Semitic Occidental Observer said Trump is “saying what White Americans have been actually thinking for a very long time,” and white nationalist writer Jared Taylor said Trump is “talking about policies that would slow the dispossession of whites. That is something that is very important to me and to all racially conscious white people.” Rachel Pendergraft, a KKK organizer, said, “The success of the Trump campaign just proves that our views resonate with millions. They may not be ready for the Ku Klux Klan yet, but as anti-white hatred escalates, they will.” She said Trump’s campaign has increased party membership. Other endorsements from the most influential white supremacists are not difficult to find.

It wasn’t all talk. Extreme racists got to work.

  • In 2016, David Duke of KKK fame, who was once elected to the Louisiana state house, came in seventh out of 24 candidates in a run-off election for U.S. Senate. He earned 3% of the vote; about 59,000 ballots were cast for him.
  • In August 2018, Paul Nehlen, an openly “pro-White” candidate too racist for most social media platforms, garnered 11% of the vote in the GOP primary for Wisconsin’s 1st District (U.S. House of Representatives). He lost, but beat three other candidates.
  • John Fitzgerald, a vicious anti-Semite who ran for U.S. House of Representatives, beat a Democratic and independent candidate in California District 11’s open primary, coming in second with 23% of the vote. 36,000 people chose him. On November 6 he lost with 28% of the vote (43,000 votes).
  • A Nazi named Arthur Jones was the Republican nominee for U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois’ 3rd District (though he was the only person who ran as a Republican candidate, becoming the nominee by default). He just got 26% of the vote — 56,000 supporters.
  • Seth Grossman, who believes black people to be inferior, was the GOP nominee for U.S. House of Representatives from New Jersey’s 2nd District. He beat three other rivals, with 39% of the vote. He just garnered 46% of the vote in the general election. That’s 110,000 voters, just 15,000 short of the victor.
  • Russell Walker, who espouses the superiority of the white race, ran for District 48 in the North Carolina state house. He won the GOP primary in May, beating his rival with 65% of the vote. On November 6 he earned 37% of the vote in his race.
  • Steve West spreads conspiracy theories about the Jews, even saying “Hitler was right” about their influence in Germany. He won nearly 50% of the vote in the GOP primary for Missouri state house District 15, beating three others. On November 6 he also received 37% of the vote against his Democratic opponent.
  • Steve King has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2003. Hailing from Iowa’s 4th District, he said whites contributed more to civilization than people of color and constantly bemoans the threat that changing demographics represents to our culture. He also endorses white nationalists because they are “Pro Western Civilization” and spends time with groups founded and led by Nazis. He won 75% of the vote in the GOP primary — 28,000 votes. Then he got 50% in the general election (157,000 votes), keeping his seat.

There were others, of course, more subtle in their bigotry — more like Trump. Overall, there was a “record breaking” number of white supremacist candidates running for office this year. In most of the cases above, America couldn’t even keep such candidates in the single digits. Many beat more normal, tolerant candidates.

Those numbers may not seem all that impressive, not high enough to warrant any fears over a more horrific candidate winning the GOP presidential nomination. But it does not always take much. Turnout for the primaries is so low only 9% of Americans chose Trump and Hillary as party nominees. More voted for others, but that’s all it took. Trump won the nomination with 13 million votes, with 16 million Republican voters choosing someone else (both record numbers). He thus won 45% of the primary votes, which is about what Mitt Romney (52%) and John McCain (47%) accomplished. In other words, it would take less than half of Republican voters in the primaries to usher a more extreme racist (or sexist or criminal or what have you) to the Republican nomination. After seeing what many conservative voters could ignore or zealously embrace about Trump, this does not seem so impossible these days. Many Trump supporters, in a tidal wave of surveys and studies, were shown to have extremely bigoted and absurd views. From there, it isn’t that hard to envision a similar situation many conservatives faced in 2016, where they voted for an awful person they disliked to continue advancing conservative policies and principles. You have to stop abortion and the gays, you have to pack the Supreme Court, and so on. Some, to their immense credit, refused to do this — not voting, voting third party, or even voting for Clinton. But of course they were a minority. (And no, if you also believe absurd things, Democrats and liberals did not swing the election for Trump.)

The day of the election I felt more confident of Clinton’s victory than I had a couple weeks before. Previously, I had predicted that Trump was “probably” going to win. Perhaps it was a foolish optimism that washed over me on election day, when I expressed that Clinton would somehow eke out a narrow victory. I — and everyone else — should have known better. The tendency of the two parties to trade the White House every eight years, Clinton’s unpopularity on the Left, Trump as a reaction to the country’s first black president, the threat of the Electoral College handing the White House to another Republican with fewer votes…all sorts of factors should have made this an easy election to predict. Perhaps many of us simply did not want to face reality, did not want to believe we lived in a country where someone so awful could win, where so many voters are just like him or simply don’t care enough about his awfulness to refuse to vote for him. But after the shock and horror at Trump’s triumph abated, I could not shake the dread that this was merely the opening salvo in a battle against increasingly dangerous, extremist candidates.

Let’s hope, whether he — and it will certainly be a straight white male, given the extremist base — comes along in mere years or many decades, that we will not make the same mistake. Whether he will win is of course impossible to say. It will depend on how passionately we protest, how obsessively we organize, how voluminously we vote.

But Abortion!

There exists a particularly obnoxious set of visuals and memes produced by both conservative and less sophisticated liberal social media pages (looking at you, Occupy Democrats). They have to do with hypocrisy, and often revolve around abortion.

An example from the Left reads: “Only in America can you be pro-death penalty, pro-war, pro-nuclear weapons, pro-guns, pro-torture, anti-health care, and anti-food stamps and still call yourself ‘pro-life.'”

One from the Right goes: “Oh I get it now… The death penalty is bad, abortion is good.”

The implication or accusation of hypocrisy appears in conversation as well. Often when I post or write something critical of some horrible thing it’s only a matter of time before a conservative friend or acquaintance drops by with the tired “Yet you support abortion rights, what a hypocrite.” There is a good chance if you’re reading this right now it is because you just said something along those lines, as my quest to one day be able to reply in article form to any political comment or question, to save vast amounts of time, continues.

The problem with such accusations of hypocrisy is that they are so easily reversed. Well, well, well, you’re pro-life yet not a pacifist — what we’ve got here is a hypocrite! Why, you’re a pacifist yet somehow pro-choice — at least be morally consistent! 

Typically, when someone comes along guns blazing in this fashion, they’re employing the whataboutism fallacy. It’s distracting from or even discrediting whatever was originally posited by accusing someone of hypocrisy. So perhaps I post about how I think we shouldn’t conduct drone bombings in the Middle East and Africa because they kill far more innocent civilians than actual targets. When the inevitable “but abortion!” comes, there is usually no agreement concerning the immorality of the original issue addressed. Sometimes there is, but usually the individual only provides it later (when pressed), after the implied or explicit accusation of hypocrisy. The individual isn’t much interested in discussing whether the original issue is or isn’t moral. He or she wants to discuss abortion and make sure you know you’re two-faced. In turn, I try to keep things on-topic (and celebrate agreements where we find them), a debate preference that seems to annoy some people to no end. I often say that each issue, each moral question, needs to be weighed on its own merits. People don’t often grasp right away that this belief is connected to whether or not someone is actually a hypocrite, and I don’t explain it because that would further derail the conversation away from whatever the original topic was. As a remedy, I’ll briefly explain my thoughts here.

Say you’re a conservative and you’ve posted about how killing babies in the womb is wrong. Here I come with “But you support our War on Terror, which kills countless pregnant women and other innocent human beings. Hypocritical much?” If you’re like me, you’d be somewhat annoyed at this distraction from the cause you were trying to advocate for, or perhaps you’re unlike me and don’t mind taking whatever detour someone wants to go on. Regardless, you likely think and believe something along the lines of: These things are not the same. They’re a bit different, they have slightly different contexts — even if they both result in similar tragedies. You’re probably counting the ways in which they’re distinct or shouldn’t be compared right now.

In thinking so, you are essentially acknowledging that each moral question should be weighed on its own merits. Unless you actually think you’re a hypocrite, you believe these are slightly different situations and therefore different stances concerning them may be morally justified.

And you would of course be correct. These situations — torture, war, the death penalty, abortion, homicide, unregulated gun ownership, free market healthcare, and on and on — are unique, and have very different questions you have to answer before you can make a decision on whether they’re ethical. You have to work through unique factors.

Many of the most deeply conservative and fervently religious people believe abortion is never morally permissible under any circumstance, while others (conservatives and liberals, religious persons and nonreligious persons, etc.) believe there are some or many instances where it is. The purpose of this article isn’t to argue one way or the other, which I have done elsewhere. No matter what you think about abortion, I hope to simply demonstrate that people across the political spectrum are a tad too quick to use the h-word. So what are some standard questions about abortion that make folks think differently?

  • Was the pregnancy the result of rape?
  • Does birth endanger the life of the mother?
  • Should the government force you to give birth against your will?
  • Is it less moral to commit abortion as the pregnancy goes on? Does the age of the fetus matter?
  • Does the fact that women seek unsafe black market abortions, resulting in health complications or death, in societies where abortion is illegal change the moral equation at all?

Those are important questions to think about and answer when deciding whether or when abortion is morally permissible, and each person will answer differently.

But the relevant question here is: Do we also need to ask those questions when we ponder the morality of war?

Not really. Those questions aren’t going to be very helpful when deciding whether massacring civilians while dropping bombs to kill terrorist suspects overseas is the right thing to do. The questions concerning war won’t sound like the questions concerning abortion, and vice versa. Each issue, each situation, has its own array of unique questions to consider. They’re truly dissimilar contexts. This is why accusations of hypocrisy like we saw above don’t make a lot of sense.

In fact, such accusations of hypocrisy are so easily reversed because they don’t really have much to do with hypocrisy at all. It’s a bit like saying it’s hypocritical to think killing someone in cold blood is wrong but killing someone in self-defense is not. It’s the same result, right? In either case someone is killed. You hypocrite! Well, no, these are different circumstances with different moral questions and answers. Real hypocrisy has more to do with situations that are essentially the same. If I curse like a sailor but lambaste others for cursing, that’s hypocrisy. If you think women should be forced to give birth regardless of circumstance but wouldn’t think the same for men if they could get pregnant, that’s hypocrisy. If you’re Mitch McConnell, that’s hypocrisy. And so on. It has to do with holding yourself to different standards than you hold others in the same situation, which is pretty disingenuous (the word actually derives from the Greek word ὑπόκρισις [hypókrisis], meaning play-acting or deceit). But in different situations you have unique things to figure out and may therefore end up with different moral answers. Even a close analog to abortion, infanticide (more universally opposed, yet not without exception, as with the infant in constant agony from an incurable illness), has a difference people have to mull over, namely that the baby has not yet been born. One can think both are wrong, that the difference is insignificant, but the fact remains it is a literal difference — the situations aren’t identical. They’re much closer than other comparisons, true, but there is a difference that is more significant to some than others. That’s my point. So you have to ask different questions and decide for yourself if different scenarios have the same moral conclusions; they may, but when they do not it isn’t necessarily hypocrisy, simply because the scenarios were not indistinguishable.

(This isn’t the only context in which “hypocrisy” isn’t really used correctly. I once thought of writing an article entitled No One Knows What Hypocrisy Means after I was called a hypocrite for frequently criticizing white attacks against innocent people of color but rarely — though not never — doing the same for the reverse. But one is an exponentially bigger societal problem than the other. I didn’t posit that one is the wrong thing to do and the other the right thing to do; it simply makes sense to focus most of our attention and energies on more prevalent problems.)

The conservative can say to the liberal, “You’re a hypocrite for being a pacifist yet pro-choice,” but why bother? The liberal can simply respond, “And you’re a hypocrite for being pro-life yet pro-war.” Stalemate. Are we all hypocrites then? I would posit, instead, that none of us are. I personally don’t believe a conservative who is pro-life yet pro-war is a hypocrite (if I did, we know what that would be an example of). This is because I know these issues are not the same, that the conservative has different reasoning for and answers to unique moral questions that could result in divergent conclusions between scenarios. I may not agree with that reasoning or those answers one iota, but I understand them and how they may not lead to the same place.

Some Things Are Worse Than Other Things: the Philosophy of False Equivalence

Imagine, if you will, six scenarios:

  • A Nazi punches a man walking down the street because he is a Jew; a Jew punches a man walking down the street because he is a Nazi.
  • A woman says to another “You’re the problem with America. Get out of this country, fucking bitch” because she is Hispanic; a woman says to another “You’re the problem with America. Get out of this country, fucking bitch” because she is unabashedly racist.
  • A restaurant owner refuses to serve a man because he is gay; a restaurant owner refuses to serve a man because he despises gay people.

The mind’s first temptation may be to construct creative contexts, but there are no ambiguities here. The Nazi is not just an ultraconservative; he believes in Nazism and wears the swastika. The Hispanic woman is a citizen born in Idaho and the racist woman knows it; the racist woman is not merely concerned with how unfair illegal entry is to those waiting their turn or that illegal immigrants are “stealing jobs,” but rather she does not like Hispanics — living in the same neighborhood as they, working with them, hearing Spanish, and so forth. The first restaurant owner and the second man denied service both go way beyond trust in biblical teachings about how homosexuality is an abominable sin — it disgusts them beyond words, they believe it should be a crime as it once was, they don’t value the life of a gay person equal to that of “normal” straight person. These being hypothetical scenarios of my own creation, there are no excuses nor saving grace available.

The question explored here isn’t which of these things are wrong and which are right. People have different ideas concerning when violence, extreme disrespect, or denial of service is acceptable, if ever. Sorting through all that, making a case one way or another, is not the point. Let’s proceed from the standpoint that all of these things are morally wrong. That is, after all, the typical premise of someone presenting a moral equivalence relevant to this discussion. The premise is: a racist attack is morally wrong and an attack against a racist is morally wrong. The moral equivalence is: an attack against a racist is as morally wrong as a racist attack.

Is it?

Are the scenarios above and their inverses truly equal in their “wrongness”? Or can two things be wrong, but one slightly less wrong?

Today, this debate arises constantly. We have open Nazis walking around the mall and white supremacists attacking or murdering people of color, unhinged riders unleashing racist rants on the bus, with medical institutions refusing to treat LGBT Americans and pastors wishing more gay people had died in the Orlando massacre. We also have Antifa and others sucker-punching Nazis and advocating we “Kill Nazis,” a gunman killing Republicans, business owners kicking out Trump supporters — and people attacking them physically or verbally. Opposing protesters brawl in the streets.

To reiterate, all of these things could be called morally wrong. After all, they do harm to others. But here we need to add an important point: to say a scenario is more morally wrong than its inverse is not to advocate for either. To conclude, for instance, that denying service to a bigot is less morally egregious than denying service to a gay person isn’t to automatically or necessarily advocate for denying service to bigots. One can still oppose both because he or she has determined they are both on the spectrum of immorality, even if at different points. Likewise, to say that some things are worse than other things, to believe a scenario worse than its inverse, is not to say this is always true for any other scenario and its inverse. As we will see, where motives are more equal the immorality of actions are more equal.

Turning back to our hypothetical situations and whether they involve false equivalences, we first have to agree upon the principle that some actions can indeed be morally worse than others — that a spectrum of morality makes sense. This shouldn’t even have to be argued, but there may be some religious fundamentalists or others who posit all “sin” is equally wrong. So lying about your age is just as wrong as rape. This sort of black-and-white thinking isn’t something most people, including people of faith, take seriously, so we won’t spend much time on it. (And we’ve already seen how morality is opinion-based even if God exists; see Where Does Morality Come From?The Philosophy of MoralityYes, Liberals and Atheists Believe in Absolute TruthIs Relative Morality More Dangerous Than Objective Morality?) Most people would conclude stealing money from a man’s wallet is not as wrong as killing him, and so forth. So some wrongs are more wrong than other wrongs.

Then we need to recognize that the same action, doing the same harm, can be less wrong — even morally right — if done for certain reasons. Ethics are situational. Motives matter. Again, most everyone accepts this. Take an action like killing. Killing a man because you want his wife or because he looked at you the wrong way is a bit different than killing in self-defense or in war. Those last two situations are often regarded as morally right, though there’s plenty of debate about it. That doesn’t matter — what matters is that the underlying principle is agreed upon: the same act will have a different moral status depending on why someone does it. A spectrum is easy enough to envision. Perhaps killing someone in self-defense is less wrong than killing someone in war, which is perhaps less wrong than killing someone because he or she used the “white” restroom, etc. Use your imagination.

If motives matter regarding the morality of some actions, might they for others?

The actions of our scenarios are the same, but the motives are not — which may alter the morality of the action.

Think of the possible motives, the driving forces, of the Nazi, the racist woman, the bigoted owner. What comes to mind? Conspiracy theories about the inferior Jews ruling and ruining the nation, discomfort with a country growing less white, preferring gays scared back into the closet — out of sight, out of mind. Whatever you envision, it likely isn’t good. It isn’t something you find morally right. And what of the possible motives of the Jew, the Hispanic woman, the gay man? Opposition to Nazi ideology, racism, and discrimination come to mind. These are likely stances you agree with and find morally right, even if you don’t approve of the action that followed.

How is it, then, that anyone can say these scenarios and their inverses are equally immoral? How are two identical actions equally wrong despite one having more moral motives and the other more immoral motives? This is like saying that killing in self-defense is just as bad as killing someone for looking at you the wrong way. It is saying that motives do not matter.

But most people believe they do. Why the double standard? Does it involve the severity of the action? Why do motives affect the morality of a more serious action like killing but not a less serious one like a punch, name-call, or refusal to serve? There is no logical reason that I can see. Lying is a less serious action, but we all understand that lying about someone raping you would be worse than lying about how late you were past curfew.

Again, there may be situations where X is as equally wrong as Y, but it seems like that would require motives that are more equally wrong. Lying to your spouse about losing the dog is roughly as wrong as lying to your spouse about spending vacation money on a new television. Killing over jealousy is about as wrong as killing over insults. But the motives of our situational pairs are much farther apart, polar opposites in fact. (One may insist they are the same because each attacker wants to exert power over the other, put him in his place, seize control, do what’s best for herself, express hate, intimidate, hurt, and so on, but that only takes one temporary step backward. Why are they doing those things? What are the motives behind those motives? Can all hatred be equally wrong — say, racist hatred versus hatred of a racist — if the motives are ethical polar opposites? Aren’t the motives morally different, even if you frown upon where they lead? Of course they are, as we saw above.)

(Now, folks will disagree over what motives are moral, but for each person there will always be an array of motives that include some more moral and some less. If you’re a Nazi sympathizer, you’ll think racist motives more right and opposition motives more wrong, and apply the same to the actions — but no one in his or her right mind can hold both racism and anti-racism as equally moral or immoral! Therefore the logical argument in this piece, finalized below, applies to everyone who accepts the premises with which we began, that not all sins are equally wrong and that the same action can have a different moral flavor dependent upon motives.)

Is the double standard topic-based? If our near-universal way of thinking about ethics involves an action having a changed moral character following a changed motive, there has to be some kind of justification for not applying this to matters of bigotry. I cannot think of any such justification. What possible reason could there be to exclude this topic, to create a new, special standard that doesn’t apply to anything else? None exists. (Imagine excluding matters of war — what could possibly justify doing that?) A racist attack therefore must be morally worse than an attack against a racist. (Or, if you’re a racist or one of their sympathizers with different views on the motives, as discussed above, it must be morally better! They cannot be equal.) Some may say it’s radically worse, others just slightly, but based on our premise of ethics it must be worse (or better, for you Nazis) to some degree — it’s a logical necessity. If they were equally wrong, we’d have to throw motives out the window, and there would be no reason to stop at matters of bigotry (just as there’s no reason to exclude it). Self-defense would be just as wrong as cold-blooded murder based on that new premise. Lying to save an innocent life would be just as wrong as lying to end one. And so on. With no justification existing to exclude actions related to a certain topic, one must hold all actions to the same standard — either motives matter or they do not. (Same for hatred and so forth.) Again, that’s what’s logically sound for each person regardless of his or her unique views on what’s ethical: you can’t logically think two identical actions equally wrong if you also think one motive is more moral than the other (which you will if in your right mind). If you think motives matter for other moral questions, that’s simply what makes logical sense.

If it’s still difficult to see our scenarios as false equivalences, it may help to consider others, perhaps from other time periods, where gaps between “wrongness” seem bigger, more obvious. The way humans observe history is always less morally confused than the way we observe the present. Hindsight and all. Note these also could unwisely be labeled identical attempts to exert power over someone, hurt someone, lash out in hate, and so on:

  • Would a slave killing his master be as wrong as a master killing his slave? Isn’t one about liberation, the other subjugation?
  • Would a rich woman stealing from a poor woman be just as wrong as the reverse? Might one motive be greed, the other need?
  • Were the Allies just as wrong to invade France in 1944 as Germany was a few years earlier? Is there any side in any war less wrong than another?

Motives matter, always. That is why some things are worse than other things.

As a last word, while I don’t believe this fact affects the logic, it’s important to note that in our scenarios, and real-world ones that spark the equivalence debate (one truly wonders why it’s difficult to see that the alt-right, full of people who advocate a “White Ethno-State,” is generally evil, whereas Antifa, full of people who advocate standing against “racist and fascist bigots” is generally not), attacks against bigotry are a reaction to bigotry. Bigotry comes first; the only “reaction” it entails is one against who people are: their ethnicity, sexuality, gender, etc. Reduce bigotry and there will be fewer reactions; but reduce reactions and bigotry will crush people per usual. Again, this isn’t to necessarily advocate for violent or hurtful reactions. It’s simply to recognize the worse problem, the root problem — and focus our energies on obliterating it in ways ethically acceptable to each of us personally.