“If, as it appears, the election will come down to Trump vs. Biden, the U.S. is headed for a constitutional crisis and the social and political chaos that implies. Like prisoners of the economists’ dilemma, there seems to be no way out. Whichever wins, the others’ partisans will pronounce the president to be fundamentally illegitimate. In turn, illegitimacy justifies and emboldens scorched-earth tactics, more norm-busting and institution-destruction.” So wrote John Cochrane, noted economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, in his blog on Oct. 18.

Illustration on the turmoil coming with the next election of Biden versus Trump by Alexander Hunter/The Washington Times

President Biden is correctly viewed as personally corrupt and worse yet to have corrupted the justice system. This, coupled with his disregard for basic truths and for the Constitution and, in particular, the Bill of Rights, will cause many of his opponents to disregard his authority whenever possible.

Many of former President Donald Trump’s opponents view him as nothing more than a showman who will say and stop at nothing to feed his ego. His never-ending denial that he lost his bid for reelection, despite overwhelming evidence that the electoral corruption that did occur was insufficient to change the result, makes some believe that he will attempt to become a dictator if reelected. Thus, anything is permissible to stop him.

Given the many alleged violations of the law by both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, whoever wins will likely try to get the other jailed, which in turn may spawn a revolt by each of their respective supporters. The U.S. has been fortunate that most people, despite great disappointments, have accepted and respected the outcomes of elections even when they did not go their way. The U.S. has managed to have a peaceful transfer of power for more than 220 years.

Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill could engage in harsh political debate, but at the end of the day, have a beer together and swap old stories. Major American sports teams, despite fierce and emotional rivalries, come together at the end. Those few owners, managers, coaches and players who violate the rules are punished and forever have their reputations tarnished.

This type of civility found in sports and most other aspects of American competitive life has been breaking down in the political sphere. Politicians overtly lie time and time again, despite overwhelming factual evidence, and exhibit no shame. Rep. Adam Schiff, California Democrat, is perhaps the best example. He has shown no remorse about his role in the Russian hoax, only a never-ending ambition for higher office. Despite his bad behavior, he now appears to have a good chance of winning a Senate seat. If voters do not punish rascals and liars, the system loses its integrity and ultimately will fail.

Polls show that most voters realize that both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump are deeply flawed and would prefer some unnamed person. Yet the two political parties have so rigged the system that a knight on a shining horse has almost no way to get on the ballot in many states (i.e., the filing dates have passed for some and soon will in many other states). As Mr. Cochrane put it: “Old men in smoke-filled rooms, desiring to win a general election, would never have picked these two.”

In part, as Mr. Cochrane notes, we have gotten into the mess because the “rewards of winning and the costs of losing are now too great.”

As the American Founders well understood, democracies are not inherently stable and eventually seed their own destruction. The early Greek experiments with democracy were short-lived. The Roman Republic (before the Roman Empire) managed to function for several hundred years, a record that has not been surpassed since (except perhaps by Iceland). At the time of the American Revolution, most people probably had a better grasp of political history than the typical American does today. Man-on-the-street interviews and basic knowledge tests reveal immense ignorance of basic historical facts, let alone the structure and functions of our government. Many American schools no longer require courses in U.S. and world history or in civics (i.e., political theory and structure).

I remember my 10th grade civics instructor, who was a very open liberal Democrat but did a highly professional job in teaching us the history and structure of the federal, state and local governments. Despite his avowed biases, he made no attempt to indoctrinate but instead explained the subject in interesting ways. Too few of the current generation have the benefit of such fine teachers — and the current political mess is partially a result.

The breakdown in an unbiased and competent justice system, coupled with the breakdown in fiscal responsibility by the political class, can either be solved by the election of true tough-minded reformers (Margaret Thatcher comes to mind) or, more likely, by a meltdown of the economy and civil society as we saw in Eastern and Central Europe in the late 1980s. After a few years of great hardship, the people in the former communist societies were able to reestablish the institutions of functioning civil society and economy.

In the short run, we are faced with the “prisoner’s dilemma” because too many are no longer playing by the rules. The American Founders tried to anticipate what could go wrong. And the Constitution has worked for two centuries because the vast majority played by the rules it set out. But when the rules are thrown out, game over.

• Richard W. Rahn is chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth and MCon LLC.


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