Ideological Tunnel Vision

I rarely write about partisan politics on this blog. Today, though, I’ll make an exception. As the spectre of a second Trump term remains possible, here are some thoughts on the US election.

Avoiding democracy

A second Trump term is possible largely because the US electoral system is designed to avoid democracy. To be fair to the US, though, many of the world’s democracies have similar features.

In many democracies, government power is decided not in terms of the popular vote, but in terms of subregion plurality. Whoever wins a plurality of votes in a given district gets all the government representation (in the district). The result, often, is that government power has little to do with popular sentiment and more to do with the quirks of regional differences.

The US electoral college is just one example of this backwards system, though one that is admittedly bizarre. The electoral college creates a two-step process for electing presidents. Voters in each state technically vote for ‘electors’, and these ‘electors’ then vote for the president. The catch is that electors in each state are allotted by plurality. Whoever gets the most votes gets all the state’s electors. As Trump’s 2016 win (and Bush’s 2000 win before him) shows, this means that a candidate can win the election with a minority of votes.

The electoral college is uniquely bizarre only because state ‘electors’ are purely symbolic. They have no role after the election. But in all other ways, the electoral college is similar to the first-past-the-post system found in many democracies. This system often leads to minority rule.

In Canada, for instance, we suffered through a decade of rule by Stephen Harper. Throughout his time in power, Harper was disapproved of by the majority of Canadians. Yet he won three elections. How? Two reasons. First, Harper’s disapproval was spread out across the whole country. His approval, in contrast, was concentrated in the West. Second, the progressive vote (against Harper) was split between 4 parties, while the conservative vote (for Harper) was consolidated in a single party.

Interestingly, Stephan Harper eventually lost power to a party that promised to implement proportional representation. But once in power, it decide not to. It was a clever bait-and-switch that many keen observers saw coming.

Back to the US. With its state-biased senate and electoral college system, the US merely takes the problems of non-proportional representation farther than other democracies.

The ideological landscape

Much has already been said about the anti-democratic nature of the US electoral college. What gets less attention, though, is that a huge chunk of the US population still voted for Trump. To observers outside the country, this fact is inexplicable. How can Trump — with his incessant lying and near-criminal ineptness — possibly get so many votes?

This points to the importance of ideology. In ideological terms, the US is an outlier. Its devotion to free-market fundamentalism is extreme. If you live outside the US, you already know this. But what’s interesting is that many Americans have no idea that their country is such an outlier. They have ideological tunnel vision.

Many working class Americans simply can’t imagine having paid sick days, paid maternity leave, or paid vacation. And yet outside of the US, this is the norm. And then there’s healthcare. In no other industrialized country is healthcare so expensive and the outcomes so poor. And yet many Americans simply can’t imagine having free healthcare for all.

What’s at play here is the power of ideology. You can only see this power when you’re outside of it. The absurdity of feudal caste systems, for instance, is obvious to all modern observers. But given the ubiquity of such systems in the past, this absurdity is evidently not obvious to those inside the system.

The same is true for any ideology. When you’re surrounded by it, you can’t see it. I speak from experience. I lived in Texas for 4 years. When I first arrived (from Canada), what struck me was the oppressive media landscape. In the corporate media, the range of expressible opinion was tiny. I only noticed this because the US ‘Overton window’ was much smaller than in Canada. But over time, I forgot. The US media landscape became the new norm. I only (re)realized how oppressive it was when I started reading Noam Chomsky.

Free market ideology

The US is a good example of what happens when free-market ideology runs rampant. Talk about power is framed in terms of ‘freedom’. And corporate power is framed as ‘efficient’ and even ‘democratic’ (you vote with your money). Government power, in contrast, is framed as wasteful and corrupt (counting votes even gets called ‘stealing the election’).

To the outsider, this ideological landscape is bizarre — it’s right up there with the divine right of kings. And yet many Americans have evidently been hoodwinked.

If Trump does win a second term, there will be much soul searching on the left. Many people will blame the electoral system. Fewer will blame free-market ideology. But the fact is that both are to blame. And both are frustratingly hard to change.

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[Cover image: Naveen Annam]


  1. Trump is bad enough, but as you pointed out, even after four years of experiencing his ‘governance’ almost half the country voted for him this election. Once could have been a protest-vote fling. Twice is true love for a racist, misogynistic, corrupt, lying, ignorant, wanna-be dictator (God help us if his dream ever comes true).

    How can we non-Trumpers live in the same country with the kind of people who would vote for a person like him twice? It will require an almost superhuman level of forbearance and mercy to forgive them over and over.

    But for those of us who believe that a habitable climate, and perhaps the human species, can be saved only by the rapid de-growth of industrial civilization, Trump’s ineptitude is a silver lining. He may initiate economic disintegration faster than he reduces mitigation of carbon emissions. His treatment of the pandemic is indicative of his incompetence. Many countries have held the coronavirus at bay and rapidly re-started their economies. Not the US under his ‘leadership’. I guess we’re lucky he’s running the economy into the ground but I wish I didn’t have to see him or hear him speak ever again.

    • I felt the same way during the Harper years in Canada. Harper, though, was more Machiavellian than Trump. He didn’t say outrageous things openly … just did them and then lied about them. Looks like the Trump years are over. Here’s hoping US democratic institutions can recover from the degradation of the neoliberal years.

  2. The electoral college makes US elections a lot like coalition governments elections. No one party can really get a majority, so one of the larger parties winds up having to compromise with one or more outlier parties to form a government. In the 1930s, FDR had the northern progressive Democrats compromise with the old southern Confederacy democrats, so he could get us the New Deal at the cost of excluding blacks. Starting with Reagan in the 1980s, the Republicans formed a similar coalition. Basically, the racist south and midwest elect the same people for the same reasons, but they are part of a new coalition.

  3. Just a note on tunnel vision. In a lot of your criteria here, America is only an outlier in the west, not in the rest.. This is largely because they’ve forced free market fundamentalism on nations across the globe, but it’s a worthy note that Europe is the place that’s not normal. Uganda had free healthcare after independance but was forced to privitize. Their education system is also privitized as well and many kids drop out of highschool because they can’t afford it.

    Even the veberian definition of a state as a “monopoly on legitimate force” is full of eurocentric tunnnel vision as that “monopoly” doesn’t exist in many states across the globe. Anthropology even has the term WEIRD for western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic countries.

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