A few weeks ago I wrote a post about Donald Trump where I called him mean names and mocked the size of his tiny, tiny hands. It was fun. We all laughed. Good times.
He’s now the nominee of the Republican party.
Also, around a month ago I wrote a post on the results of the most recent Irish general election and how it was going to be damn near impossible to form a government. Let’s tie those two together almost as if that was my plan all along. *tents fingers*
Trump. What? FUCK.
Trump What FUCK indeed, amigo. There’s a whole squirming nest-of-naked-baby-rats mess of factors that have brought us to this point and account for the appeal of Donald Trump.
This is a big part of it, no question. Some of it is just the general home-grown racial tension that’s been apiece with the American cultural landscape since…oh, Columbus. But more specifically to this moment in history is the fact that vast swathes of white America is in full on demographic panic. Current US immigration policies have led to a huge shift in the size of the Hispanic population relative to non-Hispanic whites, something encouraged by both main parties. The Democrats, obviously, because Hispanics form a core part of their coalition, but the Republicans too because, while they make political hay from coded racist appeals to white voters, having more low skilled workers than there are low skilled jobs helps keep wages depressed which is good news for the Koch brothers and other corporate Republican donors. Throw in lingering post 9/11 Islamophobia and a candidate who promises to deal with all of the above in short order, and presto, you have a Trump rally.
So Americans are just racist and we can all go home?
No, and here’s where I think it gets scary. Because I think the rise of Trump means that we’re seeing the final days of American democracy as we know it.
To counterbalance the grimness of that last sentence, here is a picture of a kitten wearing a jaunty little hat.
Now, I don’t mean that Trump is going to win (he probably won’t) or that once he won he’d abolish democratic institutions and declare himself dictator*. Any president who tried that (particularly one whose support in his own party is as tenuous as Trump’s) would very quickly find himself impeached, arrested or shot in no particular order.
No, the problem is built into how America actually votes. Sooner or later, Trump was going to happen.
How America votes.
As someone who has seen Hamilton, I can say with some authority that the American Founding Fathers were some smart motherfuckers. The nation they founded is both the oldest surviving democracy, and the first democracy of the modern era so they obviously did something right. But there is a fatal flaw built into the system, and that is First Past the Post Voting. First Past the Post is probably the most simple and intuitive way of deciding an election. Everybody votes. The person who gets the most votes wins. Fair and simple, right? Wrong. Look up “First Past the Post” on Wikipedia and you’ll see that under the “Arguments For” section there is exactly one item (“Well, it’s easy to understand”) and under the “Arguments Against” section there’s a goddamn essay. This video sets out in brilliant detail why this system is terrible and I strongly urge you to watch it as well as all of CGP Grey’s videos on voting systems. They’re really interesting, I promise, he uses cartoon animals. But the main problem is this: All First Past the Post systems inevitably create two party systems that make it impossible for third parties to achieve prominence. The vast majority of voters have next to no influence on the election result and so become disillusioned and check out of the democratic process. The two parties focus exclusively on motivating their bases which leads to them demonising the other party which in turn leads to polarisation and partisan gridlock. Sound familiar?
Parties as monopolies
Both the Democratic and Republican parties are monopolies. If you’re a progressive leaning voter, you vote Democratic or you go home. Ditto if you’re a conservative with regards to the Republicans. There literally is no other game in town. Even if you are staunchly opposed to many of the positions of that party. If, for example, you’re a devout Catholic who’s staunchly pro-life but are also opposed to the death penalty, foreign wars, corporate greed, climate change and poverty, who do you vote for? The main parties are now ideological grab-bags of different groups with wildly different and often contradictory agendas thrust together because it’s either this party or the other one.
It’s like living in a small town with only two pubs and you have to drink in this one because in the other place your ex is probably going to be making out with the Religious Right in the corner. And like your ex, the parties will take you for granted because that’s what monopolies do. They get corrupt and complacent. They don’t bother coming up with fresh ideas or trying to solve problems with innovative thinking or hard work. They rely on stale talking points and shop-worn ideologies because there’s no one else on their side of the political spectrum to force them to innovate and to compete for your vote. They know they can do a terrible job because you literally have nowhere else to turn.
Don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos
The single greatest piece of political satire to emerge from the United States in the past thirty years is Citizen Kang, a Simpsons short where Bill Clinton and Bob Dole are kidnapped by the aliens Kang and Kodos who then impersonate them to run for election and take over the country. Homer manages to unmask the aliens but Kang reminds the horrified humans that they have to vote for one of them because it’s a two party system. When somebody says that they’re voting for a third party candidate the aliens cackle “Go ahead! Throw your vote away!**”.
But voting for a third party candidate is not even throwing your vote away (that would be staying home and voting for nobody). Voting for a third party candidate in the current US system is actually a vote for the candidate you least want to win.
Let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario. Instead of refusing to concede, Bernie Sanders launches a third party campaign against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. On election day the result is:
Donald Trump: 45%
Hillary Clinton: 30%
Bernie Sanders: 25%
You see what happened? Despite the fact that 55% of people voted against Trump, he wins because Sanders and Hillary divided the (much larger) progressive/non-crazy vote between them. This is why no third party can get traction in American politics, because the greater its success, the more the people who vote for it are punished. And this, I think, helps explain Trump as much as anything.
The Wrecking Ball Candidate
If there’s one thing consistent in the support for Trump it’s rage. Trump and his supporters are right about one thing, the system is rigged. The Democrats and Republicans will keep each other around because it’s useful to have an enemy, but only one. Who will the next president be? A Democrat or a Republican. And the one after? A Democrat or a Republican. And the one after that?
Americans often react in horror at the European far-right parties that infest the corners of the continent’s politics, but those parties perform a necessary and useful function, namely by siphoning off the most racist and xenophobic voices and keeping them isolated and on the fringe. If the Drumpf family had never left Germany, right now Donald would probably be the leader of some pissant operation like the NPD. Not, as now, one Clinton-scandal away from the most powerful office in the world.
Trump was able to rise to the top of a cluttered and weak field of opponents like a drug dealer selling the best product. Whereas his opponents cut the racism, jingo, paranoia, rage and misogyny with codewords and a basic deference to the norms of civilised debate, Trump gave it to them pure and uncut. He has disqualified himself for the Presidency dozens, literally dozens, of times over. When you openly brag about using torture, not even as an intelligence gathering tool, but purely out of malice? The possibility of you being president should not be something still under discussion. He is a perfect, almost suspiciously perfect, indictment of American politics and the need for the system to change.
This is what I mean when I say we are approaching the end of American democracy as we know it. The First Past the Post, two party system, which generates by its very nature a political culture of polarisation, extremism, complacency, mediocrity, disenfranchisement and frustration has finally manifested its own nemesis.
Trump is a wrecking ball launched at the two-party system by the American people. He is the massive heart attack your doctor always warned you was coming if you didn’t cut it down to three cheeseburgers a day.
He is the rising ocean and the dying bees.
He is the final warning
Either the system reforms, or it collapses.
The second republic
Proportional Representation: Single Transferable Vote is a voting system that was first introduced to Ireland by the British in a desperate attempt to keep Sinn Féin from getting power. We ended up keeping it after independence because we found we are actually really good at it (kinda like the English language) and because it’s probably the most representative form of voting yet devised. That doesn’t mean that it always works out perfectly, mind you.
Take for example our most recent election, the results of which looked like this.
Because no one party won enough seats to form a government, or even a realistic coalition, we spent 64 days in limbo while the parties negotiated with each other. The final result is that Fine Gael has now formed a minority government with Enda Kenny being re-elected as Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil agreeing to support the government in matters of control and supply while otherwise acting as the opposition. What this means is that Fianna Fáil is still opposed to the government, but won’t vote in a way that would cause the government to collapse. This caused a lot of wailing in my Facebook feed about how our democracy is “broken” as well as pictures of Enda Kenny circulating with the caption “WE DIDN’T VOTE FOR YOU!”
To those people, I would like to make the following points:
- It’s true that you didn’t vote for Enda Kenny for Taoiseach but that probably has less to do with his unpopularity and more to do with the fact that the Taoiseach is elected by the Dáil and not the electorate.
- Since his party won the most seats, he is literally the most democratic option of any of the possible candidates for the office and before you start, no, I didn’t vote for Fine Gael.
I say this because this is probably the worst possible time to be recommending this system of government. It’s like touting the safety of airships immediately after the Hindenburg went down. I mean, yeah, they really were incredibly safe but you would not want to be the PR flack for Deutsche Zeppelin that week. But let’s really look at what happened here.
There were so many viable parties that no one party got a majority of the vote, meaning that every vote mattered.
After the election, the two largest rival parties were able to work together to ensure a working government was in place, one that best reflected the wishes of the electorate as expressed at the ballot box out of all possible outcomes.
These, I think, would be problems that many Americans would be glad to have.
Switching to a system that allowed preference voting would finally break the monopoly of the two parties and allow for the rise of third, fourth and fifth parties.
Let’s go back to that hypothetical election. As before, the results were:
Donald Trump: 45%
Hillary Clinton: 30%
Bernie Sanders: 25%
However, in preference voting you don’t simply vote for your favourite candidate but rank all candidates in order for first to last. Also, a candidate cannot be declared the winner unless he or she wins 51% percent of the vote, that is, that more people support them than are opposed to them. So what happens if none of the candidates reach 51%? The lowest scoring candidate is eliminated and their votes are distributed amongst the remaining candidates according to their second stated preference. So, in this case, most of Bernie’s votes go to Hillary, pushing her over the 51% threshold. The beauty of this system is that there’s no spoiler effect. You can vote with your conscience without worrying that you’re helping the candidate you least want to win. And, ironically, because people can now vote for candidates they know have little chance of winning, the odds of those candidates succeeding actually goes up. And because it creates a system where parties often have to work together in coalition it fosters comity and decreases partisanship. You can’t really demonise another party if you’re hoping their supporters might give you their third or fourth preference.
Look, the democratic system created by the Founders was like the Wright Flyer. It was a goddamned marvel, first of its kind and created by bona fide geniuses. But you will notice, when you go abroad, you don’t fly on a Wright Flyer. Because in the time since it was built others have taken the design and built upon it and improved upon it to the point where you can fly to Australia in less than a day while watching The Force Awakens and pooping in middair. The rise of Trump is the proof that America needs to start thinking long and hard about how it actually votes and how that system could be improved to be fairer, more inclusive, and less prone to partisanship.
When I look at everything that would need to happen for this to be possible my heart sinks. You’d need two parties willing to give up their monopoly on power, when you have exactly two less than that. You’d need massive, systemic constitutional reform that would be blocked and obstructed at every step. You would need a huge reserve of political courage, drive and resolve on behalf of both parties and an energised, engaged electorate constantly applying pressure to get it done. When you look at the current set up it’s hard to see any way reform is plausible or even possible.
Nothing short of a calamitous, catastrophic crises might provide enough impetus to reform how America chooses its leaders.
Ah. Hello, Mr Trump.
*I think a Trump presidency would look like George W. Bush’s only worse, but still broadly within the historic norms of the US presidency. So relax, he wouldn’t be a dictator. Just the worst president in history by a mile.
** Of course, since they’re both non-nationals they should have instantly been stricken from the ballot as ineligible for the presidency and also arrested and tried for the abduction and subsequent death of both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole as well as fraud but whaddya want, it’s a cartoon.