A Tale of Two Republics

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.

Shit just got real

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.

Like racism?

 Well duh

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


  1. I’m gonna be level with you, Mouse. This is the best goddamn article you’ve done in months. Yes, counting the reviews.

    One thing you didn’t touch on, though, is how Trump is the logical conclusion of a political system that sells itself as the world’s biggest circus (or reality show, if you want to get modern). I think the electorate, if only subconsciously, has realized the President is an oversized celebrity before he’s any degree of policy-maker; thus, 99% of them vote with their gut and just look at how much they like the candidates’ temperament and (especially if a candidate is female) looks, rather than trying to extrapolate any possible policy.

    1. Thanks Lotus, I really appreciate that. You’re right. On one level I kind of envy the Bread and Circuses spectacle and I’m absolutely addicted to it but you’re absolutely right.

  2. This. Just… just this. This is such a perfect explanation of why the first-past-the-post voting system is horrible.

  3. A fascinating read. As an American I love reading people outside the USA views. Especially this election with (ugh) Trump.
    I agree the American system is out of whack. And the Irish preference voting sounds much better.

  4. If Trump’s nomination actually leads to reform of the voting system then by god all this madness over the last year will have been worth it

  5. I wish I shared your optimism that Trump won’t be elected. I’m a Republican and I fought tooth and nail to get someone… anyone besides him. And I take flak from the few Trumpists I know (thankfully most everyone I associate with hate his guts too) for remaining staunchly in the #nevertrump camp.

    Unfortunately I just have a sinking feeling that he will win. This is in large part because the democrats are not at all passionate about Hillary. That means that the faithful will go out and vote but the rest will be less likely to want to spend their time voting for a woman that most agree is a liar and is corrupt to the marrow.

    And I don’t even share your optimism that Trump wouldn’t attempt to become a dictator. He’s heaped praise on Putin. He had to be cowed into admitting that he couldn’t force soldiers into committing war crimes. He freaking praised the Chinese with their handling of the Tiananmen Square protests. So I don’t exactly have much confidence that he won’t bring similar attitudes with him into the Oval Office.

    But… there are two things that are long slim chances for hope.

    1.) A third party candidate actually can win… sort of. Because of the way the American system works, if a third party candidate can actually siphon off enough Electoral College votes so that neither candidate reaches the threshold, then the decision is then thrown to the House of Representatives. While they would likely put a party stooge in place, at least it wouldn’t be a Megalomaniacal Orange Raccoon.

    Don’t get me wrong, this would be really hard but if the right person came forward, it could happen. That right man is Tom Hanks by the way. Only half joking there.

    2.) and this goes to your point about how you can change the voting system to something other than the horrible first past the post. The States can actually alter the Constitution by forming a Convention of States. If you can get two thirds of the States to agree to the Convention then you can alter the Constitution. It’s happened all of never times. But it’s something that’s been talked about more and more and we actually recently got close to the two thirds number a couple of years back.

    While this couldn’t stop Trump, it could possibly be the mechanism for change during a Trump presidency when the rest of the country wakes up to how horrible of a decision it made.

    Or we might all wind up in gulags. I give it about 50/50 at this point.

    1. Once Sanders finally drops out I think there will be a boost in support for Hill but you’re right, there is a big enthusiasm gap. Watching this election I keep hearing “The Second Coming” in my head.

  6. Guys… A mouse just showed a picture of a cat as a break in all the scariness. This is not a good sign.

    I’m just wondering if Justin’s ever going to actually fix the election system up here, possibly set some precedent on this continent. Apparently he balked out of some of his environmental promises, so my faith is ever-waning. Doesn’t help that by the sounds of it if the Liberals do have a reform they’ll change it to a system which is less two-party system and more one that turns them into poll-equivalent of a black hole and makes them just about always win.

    1. Yeah, enacting a new electoral system under a majority government seems risky. It’s a little worrying that the committee tasked with figuring out which electoral system is the best consists of 6 Liberals to 4 of the opposition (although I suppose they’re just trying to be representative of the current proportions of the House). Hopefully there will be a referendum, or at least some sort of way to take the citizens’ opinions into consideration before changing to a system that could possibly guarantee one party political dominance.

      In any case, I guess we can only hope that they manage to get rid of FPTP and choose a system that is fair to all parties, which, as you say, will hopefully set precedent for countries like the US to consider reforming their system as well.

  7. Everything you said is absolutely correct, mouse. But I think there are other factors contributing to the rise of Trump that you didn’t touch on.

    1. Independents (that is, people who aren’t registered as members of any party) aren’t allowed to participate in many party primaries, and those who are registered as members of some other party are blocked from a party’s primary even more often. In other words, large portions of the American public – even those who can vote in the general election – can’t vote in the primaries, which explains why the Democrats are likely to nominate Clinton despite most Americans not liking her and why the Republicans will nominate Trump despite even less Republicans liking him.

    2. Trump claims he’ll push for protectionist policies and won’t cut Social Security, both of which appeal even to the Republican base, let alone the rest of the country.

    3. Other policies, he frequently contradicts himself (at various times he’s been pro-life and pro-choice, in favor of letting Syrian refugees into America and in favor of deporting them, in favor of and against invading Syria, etc.), and when you add that to the short attention span of most Americans and the fact that the Republican base isn’t that bright, you see how voters with very different opinions can all think that Trump agrees with them.

    4. Look at youtube videos like “Video Palin putting wrestles bears, Obama wears mom jeans Mail Online” and “Freedom’s Safest Place You Haven’t Met America” and note the criteria by which Obama is judged in both videos. American cnservatives want a president with a macho, “tough guy” personality, and Trump gives them that.

  8. Very enlightening post, Mouse.

    Thankfully, I doubt any third party candidate will pick up that much steam, so there’s hope for a Trump-free White House yet.

    Interestingly enough, I’ve found that the vast majority of voters this year are voting for who they hate the least, instead of who they like the most. I wonder how that will skew the results in the end….

    As an American, I would like to PROFUSELY apologize for Donald Trump. As a candidate, as a human being, and as the guy from The Apprentice.

    In all sincerity, if Donald Trump becomes president, I would like to apologize in advance for everything that racist bigoted idiot does. Starting with whatever he does to pollute the world after opening up those coal mines and pipelines in our National Parks.

    You know how Captains Kirk and Picard would ask the advanced aliens to understand that humans are foolish children, relatively speaking, but could eventually join the other aliens in wisdom and harmony?

    Just… keep that in mind when Election Day rolls around. We’re not malicious, we’re just foolish.

  9. It’s unlikely the US is going to jettison First Past-the-Post, and an artefact of Duverger’s Law strongly suggests that even if the US went PR, there will still be very strong incentives for a two-party system to form.

    The reason is simple: the US is led by a president, not a PM. It has Congress, not a Parliament.

    This has profound implications for how things will go.

    Unlike a PM, a President is directly elected, requiring a majority–meaning that (s)he /must/ be the first past the post. After all, you can’t split up the presidency 40/30/30 for a three-way deadlock, a la PR. It’s all-or-nothing.

    Since parties will want to go for that presidency, that in turn incentivizes them to canvass for interest groups and crowd out smaller parties. In short, even if you pulled off a miracle and introduced PR at lower levels, there will /still/ likely be a two-party system in the US, because the top job that everyone will be aiming for is, by definition, simple-majority, first-past-the-post (where the post is 50%+1).

    This isn’t to say that all is hopeless. There very likely will be change; the Republican Party as we know it is dead. The thing is, broadly similar things have happened in the US before; take 1968 and the infamous Democratic National Conventional, aka Tear Gas For Everyone. Southern Democrats moved to the GOP, African-Americans deserted the Party of Lincoln for the party that brought them Civil Rights, and so on.

    Instead of two monolithic groups, it’s more accurate to describe them as two /coalitions/. The names are constant but the interest groups within them are forever changing. Some move in, some move out, and drag the party toward or away from the center on certain issues as they go. On some issues there’s even broad agreement. And sometimes there’s a major change as the emergence of new issues causes a reshuffle of the cards. (LGBT rights is one such issue.) Neither is going to relinquish its primacy on the stage–but both can, has, and will continue to change; it’s just that it happens less visibly and more slowly than in a Parliamentary democracy (where subgroups can visibly form new parties instead of building alliances of interest groups /within/ and sometimes across the existing parties).

  10. Hello, American former political consultant here, great well thought out post. I do think you’re wrong, though, in some of your characterization of American discontent. I don’t blame you as I think the media does a horrible job of reporting on what’s actually happening. I think you are wrong that there is a significant (as in math term not as in synonym for “large”) number of Americans that want to vote for a third party candidate but don’t feel able to. Partisan political identity is very engrained in the American psyche. And that’s not to say that you can’t get 5 people to leave a message here or even 10,000 people saying they want more than 2 parties, but America is large and the vast majority of people identify strongly with a political party. This is why Trump has a chance to win. And the reason for the disenfranchised feeling among many is really much more due to the political deadlock in Congress, which is due to strategic redistricting. I would compare the GOP to the MCU while the Dems are DC. The GOP played a very long game and started a long time ago, systematically winning state legislatures around the country – including in blue states – so that when redistricting happened after the 2000 census and the 2010 census, they were in charge to carve out strongly partisan districts where compromise is not looked at kindly by the voters. This led to elected officials, on both sides, that had no incentive to compromise or get anything done. This is why Americans hate Congress but love their Congressmen. Which helped lead to the professional candidate as politician who is great at getting elected and not so great at actual policy, all the guys that paid my bills for 10 years. And the Dems were left like DC, trying to catch up. I think I could have made that analogy much better but it is very late here. I could probably write a thousand more words on this subject, including that a third party candidate who gets 5% of the vote and no electoral votes can play extreme spoiler in a presidential election. I think it’s likely that a third party candidate will arise on the right, probably someone religious as that’s Trump’s weak point, that can take a few percentage points away. Anyway, just wanted to leave a line (probably way too many lines) praising your well thought out post before telling you you’re wrong. 🙂

    P.S. I wrote this on my phone so please excuse any typos. Thanks!

      1. I worked as a political consultant in Washington DC (still work there just not in politics anymore) but I worked on races across the nation from Maine to California. As a consultant, you work on many elections at the same time. I was a pollster (internal campaign polling not public polling) for 6 years and a persuasion direct mail consultant (do they do this in Ireland?) for 4 years. I worked on all types of races from local mayoral races to the presidential race. Over my last 4 years in direct mail, I worked on 77 different races (I’m still tired!). Mainly, I worked on Congressional races in battleground districts. I left politics in 2011. It was an exciting and dramatic career but it tarnished my soul and I’ve spent the last 5 years trying to polish it…hmmm, I think that sounds like a sexual innuendo in America not sure in Ireland, but it wasn’t intended.

        Sorry for the long reply, I’m verbose.

      2. Verbose commenters are the best commenters. That’s absolutely fascinating. “Persuasion direct mail?” Don’t think we have that. We usually just get flyers through the letterbox. “Polish it” definitely translates. Did you work for one party exclusively?

      3. Yes. You can’t really be successful if you don’t pick a side. No one will trust you. You have to drink the kool-aid (is this an expression in Ireland? It comes from Jonestown if not. If it is not already painfully obvious, I know virtually nothing about Ireland) to work in politics. You have to have a deep belief in your cause to do the things that are required to be successful, and you can’t have belief and play both sides.

        I should make you actually ask, but I’ll assume you’re just being polite. I worked as a Democrat, and I am still a Democrat today.

      4. I guessed. Good rule of thumb, if it’s a well known expression in America we’ve heard of it here, we watch an insane amount of American TV. Going back to your earlier point about American loyalty to the two party system, I thought that the number of people identifying as Republican or Democrat was at an all time low?

      5. That may very well be true, but the March 2016 (I think that is the most recent on these numbers) Gallup poll has 40% identifying as GOP and 46% identifying as Dem. That’s 86% of Americans (i.e. “vast majority”). And if you look at people who vote, even more people are going to identify with a party. Now, maybe you’ll say, Independents feel left out of the process and that’s why they don’t vote and if we changed to your proposed system these people would vote. I accept that as an argument that is possible, but I wouldn’t agree. Most of these people are not interested in politics and are not going to vote regardless. In a free society, some people just aren’t going to give a shit.

        Goodness, I have so many thoughts on the nuances of the American two party system, the viability and use of third party candidates, political identity, and why people vote and how to influence that, however I don’t think I have the capacity to articulate it all in a comment reply. I’m sorry, I know that’s a lame response. 😦

        I do want to thank you for writing your perspective on US politics. It’s always great to get an outside opinion. We need more smart and politically engaged people in the world!

  11. I really dislike your generalizations about the Republican Party. I myself am a Democrat, and I feel like using strawmens only exposes people’s bias and gives creditablity to your opponents. (This is not specific to this post, or Trump in general. I used to hate Trump with a burning passion like you, but then I figured out he was all talk and he downgraded himself to a mere annoyance.)

    But, anyway, as I’m commenting on a 2 year old post as I read all of your reviews in order, I’m wonder 1. Now that this has happened, what do think of it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s