Both sides don't do it.
And when journalists shrug their shoulders and say the democratic process is little more than the two main parties throwing around distortions and untruths, they are failing to do their jobs and helping to take our country to a dangerous place. Candidates must be confronted for their blatant falsehoods. Lies cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged because it enables the election of the dangerously unprincipled and puts the nation at great risk.
We end up with an illegitimate president.
But the current problem in this election is about more than simple lies. The Romney campaign is using tactics that are clearly designed to complement the outright lying and distortions of the president's record, which are serving to encourage bigoted resentment among white voters in swing states. An even more cynical tactic being utilized is to disenfranchise poor and minority voters to keep them away from the polls on Election Day. Because the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling unleashed corporate money, the Romney campaign and its associated super PACs are able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars from secret donors in pursuit of this strategy.
As unlikely as a Romney victory may seem after the campaign's clunky and sometimes embarrassing national convention, his strategy forces us to consider a question that we avoided in 2000. What, exactly, constitutes a legitimate presidency? If the candidate is carried into office floating on a raft of lies that has deceived the voters, do we recognize his power? The candidate has spent unknown tens of millions to foment unrest with a lie that the president eliminated Welfare to Work provisions of federal assistance laws with an executive order, which is patently and demonstrably untrue. (Point of clarification: the president made it easier, at the request of numerous governors, for state's to design their own welfare to work programs as long as they adhered to federal requirements and moved more people into work.)
Romney's running mate seems to lie almost pathologically and exaggerates his performance time in a marathon by more than an hour. He is either too insecure to serve beside a president or he has trouble discerning reality from what he wants to be true, which serves as an explanation for why he thinks his budget plan won't decimate American institutions and infrastructure.
The country should be prepared for an election-day nightmare if the Pants on Fire Pair win by a margin smaller than the number of demonstrably disenfranchised voters in Cleveland or Philadelphia or Miami.
The question we ask is not an alarmist one. Rather, it is as important to our democracy as it is to a family stocking up on flashlights, food, and drinking water before a storm makes landfall. If victory comes through callous lying, cynical voter suppression and the kind of dog whistle race-baiting that gives confidence to an attendee of the GOP convention to throw peanuts at a black journalist and call her an animal, are there are any circumstances under which Americans would judge an election outcome illegitimate? Because if that line hasn't been crossed by the Romney campaign we may be in more trouble as a country than we've yet been able to realize.
There may be a second election that comes in the days after the vote. In 2000, Karl Rove led the Bush campaign down to Florida to challenge the outcome of the vote and launched an immediate psychological war on network news shows. What the cable reporters never showed were corporate jets from companies like Enron flying in with hundreds of young Republicans in Brooks Brothers suits. They eventually showed up on TV yelling and creating chaos outside of recount centers as if there were a spontaneous outburst. America succumbed to national anxiety and the term constitutional crisis became currency on talk shows. Al Gore was backing away from exacerbating the crisis even before the Supreme Court ruled Bush had won. This time, democrats, on behalf of the integrity of American democracy, need to be ready to defeat any attempt to steal the election.
The high court's ruling certainly did not make case law but it sent the unmistakable message that the need to maintain the illusion of electoral legitimacy trumped all questions about the actual integrity of the voting process. In other words, no matter the circumstances, it is more important to maintain an illusion of democracy than to actually have a democracy. Shrugging acceptance of the Romney strategy would guarantee the same ending. No matter how illegitimate or unconstitutional the election process, anyone challenging that legitimacy would be accused of causing yet another constitutional crisis.
The facts of 2012, however, are that Romney is causing such a crisis by building a campaign around voter disenfranchisement and fundamentally dishonest and racist campaign themes, and all of it funded with blank checks from secret donors.
We have to consider the possibility that Romney's strategy is taking us in the direction of a de facto political apartheid. The lies represent only one stretch of fence being constructed. Suppression of voters through impossible to meet registration laws are attempts to disenfranchise poor and minorities that are decidedly more likely to vote for Mr. Obama. Fortunately, progressives won huge victories recently in Ohio, in the Texas redistricting and Voter I.D. cases and in Florida, where Republicans had placed requirements on voter registration groups that had virtually shutdown voter registration efforts for progressive organizations. Legal avenues for challenging those sane and protective court rulings, however, have not yet been exhausted. The American legal system, if it eventually upholds these discriminating regulations placed on voters in conservative state legislatures will have approved a key element of a new apartheid.
Waiting to ask a question about a legitimate election and president until after the results are being reported is almost irresponsible. The question will be the focus of blame for prompting a constitutional crisis when the actual cause will be Romney's political practices. During inaugurals, Americans consistently take pride in the peaceful transition of power but can that be considered an absolute virtue under any circumstances? And what is the alternative to passive acceptance when the facts require the rejection of an election outcome as illegitimate?
We think the question needs to be raised. We are in an extreme circumstance in which one candidate's strategy includes the manipulation of voting procedures to disenfranchise a significant segment of qualified American voters. We raise the question rhetorically. We are trying to start a conversation. The fundamental question: Are there any circumstances under which an American election outcome would be considered illegitimate? If so, what would we then do about it?
We are not challenging Romney's personal legitimacy as a candidate for president, which is the tactic the GOP has used on the president with birtherism insinuations and campaign phraseology like "We are the real America." Instead, we are simply asking if America must accept the illusion of a fair and open democracy after it is made abundantly clear that the election system is anything but fair and open.
And if we don't accept it, then what?