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Kathleen Hall Jamieson on the resilience of the U.S. system of politics and government

“When we faced a genuine crisis — and there were challenges to what we knew about the outcome of the election — our courts did their job,” said Jamieson.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Annenberg School for Communication
Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson – whose work often focuses on understanding and improving democracy – did a Zoom discussion via the University of Minnesota last week on the theme of the “resilience” of the U.S. system of politics and government, which seems particularly relevant in the immediate post-Trump moment.

Jamieson’s primary purpose in the first portion of her interview with U of M political scientist Larry Jacobs was to celebrate the elements of the U.S. system that came through, under tremendous pressure from Trump (who was the one actually trying to steal the election, which he had lost by a considerable margin in both the popular and electoral vote).

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I’ll just pass along a few of her opening remarks along those celebratory lines, then link you to the full presentation, which covered many topics.

Said Jamieson:

Well, first let me set up a premise, which is if we’re going to stay mobilized to protect something, you can’t start from the premise that it’s hopeless.

So you’ve got to start by saying: I’m going to look at the places that are working and working well, asking why they’re working well, and how to increase the likelihood that they are protected.

I mean the worst scenario would be if we just give up, and then parts of our system that are working well fall into decline.

So what do I mean by resilient? I mean that when we faced a genuine crisis — and there were challenges to what we knew about the outcome of the election — our courts did their job.

The people who believe that there was extensive fraud had the opportunity to go into a system in which the discourse norms are clear. There is such a thing as evidence. There is such a thing as proof. There are standards of what constitutes proof.

We’ve always worried, because the nature of the rhetoric recently has been to say judges are just partisans, so it’s just another, effectively another elected branch; they just pretend they’re nonpartisan.

Well, we had a chance to test that, and what we saw was that the party of the individual [judge] did not predict the judicial outcome. The party that nominated the individual, in cases where we’ve got judges who nominated or recommended through a process, did not predict the outcome.

And that outcome across the courts was highly consistent: Confronted with the same kinds of evidence, the standards of evidence, the standards of proof worked.

And so you saw Republican [judicial] nominees and democratic nominees — you saw Trump nominees and non-Trump nominees — just coming to the same sets of conclusions.

What that says is, we are still capable of reaching reasoned judgments, based on evidence and a standard of proof, and it means one of our branches is solid.

So what do I mean by resilient? Ultimately the outcome was protected. Ultimately there still is a place in which discourse norms — that we traditionally have hoped would characterize all of our branches — were being honored.

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I agree with her point. What we just survived, from Election Day to the violence at the Capitol to a successful (if not peaceful) transfer of presidential power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden occurred based on the honest and true results of the election, which is, of course, how it’s supposed to work.

But never in two and half centuries of constitutional history has that transfer been so threatened or even in doubt as to whether it would occur.

And I would add to Jamieson’s discussion of judges that the same was true for a great many key players who were not judges, but were secretaries of state or various other election officials or state legislators, etc.

It’s hard to  know, hard to grasp, and impossible to quantify how close Trump truly got to stealing the election. But, wielding enormous power as president, with the help of a great many (but, crucially, not all) fellow Republicans who seemed willing to aid and abet his efforts to the steal the election, he probably got closer than any previous election loser.

And bear in mind, while he is a world-class self-promoter, cheater (and tweeter, until he got banned), he is lacking in many areas of competence, intelligence, familiarity with the U.S. system of government, etc.

I hope we will study this hard. I hope we will figure out how to make our elections ever more tamper-proof, including especially cases where a lying, thieving loser holding the full power of the presidency is the election-tamperer-in-chief. I’m still, at some level, surprised and impressed that Trump wasn’t able to pull it off, but I can’t help think that a more competent thief might have had better luck.

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Jamieson (who came to prominence as the long-time director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and as the co-founder of Factcheck.org, and a long-time crusader for honest, accurate journalism), happens to be a Minneapolis native.

The discussion with Jacobs covered a great many other topics as well. A video of the full hourlong Jamieson-Jacobs discussion is viewable above or by clicking here.