Why are elections everywhere so close?
The plethora of wafer-thin majorities that deny genuine legitimacy suggest mischievous higher powers may be messing with our minds
Why are elections so tight almost everywhere? It’s a grand metaphysical mystery of our time. Last week’s election in which Turkey’s autocrat was reelected by a wafer-thin margin is only the latest reflection of societies being so evenly divided that mischievous higher powers seem to be messing with our minds.
What could possibly be behind it? I do have a theory. But first, the dilemma and the data.
In theory, one might see close contests as a triumph for democracy and a reflection of deep, considered discourse. In some cases that might be true, but it’s rare; generally vulgarity and nonsense rule the day. Either way, though, the more bitter the battle is, the more nefarious are outcomes close to the 50 percent mark. They eliminate the possibility of true mandates at a time when these would be useful, because we are in the middle of a civilizational conflict that few saw coming.
Fascism had “Mein Kampf,” and communism had “Das Kapital,” but no one wrote “The Authoritarian Manifesto.” It was by stealth that a major global movement arose, mobilized the magnetic field of history’s vile dictatorships, and declared war on liberal democracy.
This movement despises liberal democracy’s idea that openness, human rights, minority protections, and checks on power are as important as majority rule to ensuring order, prosperity and a decent way of life. It preys on the lesser angels of people everywhere, tempting them with the comforts and certainties of closed societies, tribalism, and strongman rule.
When such revolutionaries win by a sliver—or, indeed, lose by only a sliver—it is asking for trouble. The problem is exacerbated when one finds stark socioeconomic divisions with the populist right supported by what is in effect the underclass. That yields ironies like the right in many places arguing for redistribution instead of the more usual capitalism.
The latest case of an even split is Turkey, where in Sunday’s presidential runoff the authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdogan won reelection with 52 percent of the vote versus 48 percent for more liberal challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
The Islamist Erdogan has done vast damage to Turkey: it is a former aspiring true democracy where generals, politicians, activists, and journalists now often find themselves in jail; where courts are cowed, and the media is run by cronies of the president. As he has demonstrated, the president has vast powers to damage to the economy. Yet for half the Turkish people, that seems to be just fine.
Something similar happens in the United States, where every election in recent memory shows an electorate cloven approximately in half. It doesn’t feel that way? Consider the facts:
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