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.
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]