“Alabama sends a message” declared a Wall Street Journal editorial the morning after last week’s special election for United States Senator from Alabama. What message did Alabama send? For the Journal editorial board it seems the message is that morally flawed candidates are likely to lose because voters “will only accept so much misbehavior in a politician, no matter the policy stakes.” For both parties, that is an important message. Donald Trump (and Bill Clinton) got elected notwithstanding some pretty bad behavior, but Roy Moore’s defeat and Al Franken’s downfall suggest the bar is rising.
Others have suggested that the message Alabama sent goes far beyond voters’ declining willingness to accept bad behavior on the part of elected officials. In three different reports CNN described Doug Jones’ narrow win as “massive,” an “earthquake” and a “stunner,” while the many talking heads on the network’s various ‘news’ programs explained how the future of the nation would be changed by the Alabama election. The New York Times described the election result as “a triumph for decency and common sense.” The Washington Post proclaimed “Republican Roy Moore’s stunning defeat in Alabama . . . a watershed moment for the national movement around the issue of sexual abuse.”
Maybe, but can we really read much into a victory by 21,000 votes out of over 1.3 million votes cast? How is that massive? At least some establishment Alabama republicans were probably stunned that their candidate lost, but was there really a political earthquake. Based on exit polling, it appears the political fault lines dividing rural from urban and black from white Alabamans is more entrenched than ever. If Jones’ election is a victory for decency and common sense what are we to make of the 650,000 Alabamans who voted for Moore? And if Moore’s defeat marks a watershed moment for sexual abuse, what must we think of the 260,000 women (based on exit polling reported in the Washington Post) who voted for Moore?
Moore may be a despicable character, but not everyone who voted for him is indecent, lacking in common sense or indifferent to sexual abuse. Good people can, for good reasons, vote for deeply flawed candidates. Democratic elections do not divide the righteous from the deplorable, although winners often think themselves righteous.
To counter the self-righteous and self-interested abuses of power experienced in the first decade of our nation’s independence, the founders of our constitution designed a system of divided and limited powers meant to force election winners (“majority factions” in the words of James Madison) to work with those defeated at the polls. The founding generation understood well that unrestrained democracy too easily becomes a winner-takes all contest. The brutally partisan nature of our present-day politics suggests that our elected officials have lost that understanding and that our constitutional safeguards have frayed.
This winner-takes-all view among the elected is encouraged by media pundits’ confident explanations of the significance of election results. A candidate who garners as little as 50-something percent of the vote is said to have won in a landslide. The people of Alabama, we are told, have spoken up for decency when, in fact, nearly half of the people who bothered to vote preferred the loser. Do the losers’ votes count for anything? Or are they just chopped liver?
In her commentary on the Alabama election in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan recounted that upon a friend’s landing at JFK “[t]he entire plane, back to front, burst into applause” when the pilot announced that Doug Jones was in the lead. It is possible, maybe even likely, that the passengers on an international flight were unanimous in their relief at a prospective Jones victory. But what we know for sure is that among the 1.3 million Alabamans who voted in the election, precisely 650,436 were not applauding.
So the real message sent by Alabama is that the state, like the country, is deeply divided. In some other states the margin of democratic victory would have been much larger, but in any state there would have been significant support for Roy Moore – not because of his many shortcomings but because he represented, better than Doug Jones, a perfectly legitimate view of the proper role of government.
The message sent by Alabama is not that Democrat prospects are bright in the 2018 election or that the Trump presidency is in precipitous decline. Rather the message is that in the election of Doug Jones, just like in the election of Donald Trump, roughly half of the electorate preferred the other guy. With an electorate so divided, humility on the part of the victor would be the appropriate response to that message.
Jim Huffman is dean emeritus at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.