Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Electoral College Got Us Into This Mess and It Can Get Us Out of It

The 2016 presidential election has come and gone and one thing is abundantly clear: Hillary Clinton won. And she didn’t just squeak by. As of the current count, she won by over a million votes with that number likely to grow as absentee ballots continue to be counted.
But although Clinton won the vote she has been declared the loser of the presidency because of an anomaly of electoral math. Donald Trump accrued more votes in the Electoral College, the body that actually decides the presidential election. However, that isn’t entirely true either since the Electoral College does not cast their vote until the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, which this year is December 19th. Trump’s supposed victory is nothing more than an assumption based solely upon the expectation that the Electoral College voters will follow the results within their state even if the national total doesn’t reflect the state-by state outcomes.

The funny thing about the Electoral College is this: there is no Constitutional requirement that the electors actually follow the will of the voters. The Founders devised the Electoral College as a stopgap measure to prevent the great unwashed from electing someone who was unfit for office. It is a fundamentally undemocratic concept that was born out of a distrust of direct democracy. After all, in the late 1700s most people were uneducated and information traveled slowly. And for most presidential elections the Electoral College was little more than a rubber stamp; the 2016 election is only the fourth time in our nation’s history that the president-elect lost the popular vote (although notably two of these instances have occurred in the last sixteen years).

Donald Trump is exactly the kind of candidate that the Electoral College was designed to prevent. After running a campaign based upon xenophobia and lies and proving himself completely ignorant of world affairs and matters of state, as well as being unusually cozy with the authoritarian elites of Russia, Trump’s transition to the White House has gotten off to a foreboding start. He has named a white supremacist to be his chief strategist, refused to put his estate into a blind trust, intends to give his children top secret security clearance, and apparently has little understanding of what the job of President of the United States actually entails. If ever there was a candidate who demanded to be overruled by the Electoral College, Trump is it.

But with the popular vote going to Clinton, the Electoral College wouldn’t be overruling anyone but themselves. Naming Clinton to the White House would be consistent with democracy and with the intentions of the Founders.

There have been calls to amend the Constitution and abolish the Electoral College. That’s a debate worth having but it should not be our primary concern. The immediate question for all of us—and especially for the members of the Electoral College—is this: are we prepared to ignore the expressed will of the people and hand over the presidency to an intellectually, experientially, and psychologically unfit candidate because of the eighteenth century equivalent of a computer glitch?

If the answer to that question is no, then the Electoral College voters ought to defer to the popular vote and name Hillary Clinton the next President of the United States. If the answer to that question is yes, then we face a crisis of democracy.

If the electors hand the presidency to Trump—an office he did not earn and does not deserve—they will do so over the wishes of the majority of Americans. The message to the citizens of this country will be clear: their vote did not matter and this government does not honor their wishes. This threatens to disillusion a generation of voters but the consequences could go well beyond depressing the turnout at the next election. The stability of our society is predicated upon trust and over the recent decades, trust in all of our social institutions has rotted. The confirmation of Trump as President of the United States could be the coup de grace that fundamentally breaks American democracy and precipitates a social collapse.

This is not hyperbole. People aren’t bound to follow the law or to be moral citizens. They choose to follow the law and they choose to behave in a moral way because it’s advantageous to do so. Our acquiescence is conditional. It rests upon the fairness and integrity of the system. And as Americans feel further and further alienated from their government and social institutions, the vote is one of the few things keeping us bound to each other and to the social contract. Removing that incentive weakens the few remaining pillars that prop society above a sea of chaos.

And perhaps those pillars will come crashing down. I don’t write that with nihilistic glee. I don’t want to be witness to the collapse of American civilization or to see our democracy weakened to the point at which it becomes meaningless. And I’m not saying that Americans should burn down Washington D.C. if Trump is inaugurated. But if the popular vote is nothing but a patronizing charade, what is left to dissuade them from doing so?

There is an opportunity to avert all of this. But the citizens will have to demand it and the members of the Electoral College will have to do what is best for the country. That is asking a lot and listening to the way our media and politicians and many of our fellow citizens have resigned themselves to a Trump presidency does not fill me with hope for the future. We’ve been so thoroughly conditioned to accept what “everybody knows” and to comply with traditions that most Americans do not have the capacity to imagine possibilities others than the ones given to them by authorities. But if Trump is made President and our society is crippled by a combination of depressive disillusionment and white nationalist totalitarianism, remember that we did this to ourselves.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Democracy Means Getting What You Deserve

We are now less than forty-eight hours away from the end of the 2016 presidential election. This political circus, which has gone on for about eighteen months (and has been the subject of press speculation for even longer than that), has been headlined by the two most unpopular presidential candidates in a generation. Since Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were officially crowned as the Democratic and Republican Party nominees, the consistent and overwhelming sentiment to be found on social media has been something along the lines of “Ugh, how did we end up with these two?”

Voter antipathy about our presidential choices is understandable but it is also hypocritical. It isn’t as though Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were foisted on the public. They are the end result of a democratic process. Even though the Democratic National Committee certainly did what it could to tilt the primary table in Hillary Clinton’s favor, she was ultimately and overwhelmingly chosen by the voters. And Republican primary participants were given nothing less than a smorgasbord of potential candidates from libertarians to neoconservatives to evangelicals to business executives but they chose Donald Trump.

And that is the point. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s presidential candidacies are not a conspiracy or an aberration. They are accurate representations of their parties.

Denial of this fact has been virulent on the Republican side. The past few months have seen the publication of many frustrated think-pieces written by otherwise reasonable Republican or conservative voices—take this one by S.E. Cupp as an example—who can’t believe what has happened to the party. These right wing commentators attempt to let themselves, their political leaders, and their constituents off the hook by describing Trump as an outside force that hijacked the GOP and took it in a violent, misogynistic, xenophobic, and anti-intellectual direction. But to believe this requires overwhelming ignorance of recent Republican history. This was the party of Dick Cheney and John Yoo who oversaw the implementation of torture. This was the party of South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson who yelled “You lie” at President Obama during the 2009 State of the Union Address. This was the party of the Willy Horton political advert and birtherism.  This was the party that has refused to even hold hearings on Supreme Court nominees. This is the party that has passed discriminatory voting laws intended to disenfranchise the poor and people of color. This is a party of gay reparative therapy and climate change denial. Donald Trump did not invent any of this. He has simply taken the prevailing Republican attitudes and behaviors to their logical conclusion.

On the Democratic side of the ballot, the candidacy of Hillary Clinton is marked by the enthusiasm of a few—Democratic Party elites, some feminists, and Clinton true believers—and a sigh of resignation by everyone else. The regard for Clinton by the progressive wing of the party ranges somewhere between reluctance and hostility. This should not be a surprise. If a Republican were up for office with the identical voting record and policy positions as Clinton, traditional Democratic voters would rally to defeat her.

So how did this person become the Democratic nominee for president? Silly as it may seem, the best way to explain Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is a comparison with McDonald’s. Most anyone, even those who eat fast food on a regular basis, would acknowledge that McDonald’s food is mediocre. So why would they sell hundreds of millions of hamburgers each year? Surely part of their success is the low price and high availability of their products but perhaps more important is brand recognition. McDonald’s is predictable. When customers patronize a McDonalds they know what they are getting and they can reasonably expect the same experience in a restaurant located in Los Angeles, New York City or Winona, Minnesota. The customers don’t want quality and they certainly don’t want change. What they do want is familiarity and reliability.

The Clintons are the McDonald’s of American politics and Hillary Clinton is a mediocre candidate. She is familiar and we recognize her as part of the political landscape from her turns as a First Lady, a United States Senator, and Secretary of State. But she possesses no vision (or even the illusion of one as Barack Obama did in 2008) and she is fundamentally unthreatening to the status quo or to the power elites that run Washington and Wall Street. In fact, she personifies the establishment power structure. Clinton’s highly touted experience combined with her close ties to Wall Street may not have compromised her in an obviously corrupting way but they have captured her thinking. Like the rest of our elites, Hillary Clinton will not be able to face the challenges of the future in an innovative way. That would require upsetting the status quo. Institutional thinking will not permit that. This is exactly what the Democratic establishment and the party’s primary voters wanted and that’s what they got.

Let me head off the pseudo-feminist nonsense that says Hillary Clinton will approach our problems differently because she is a woman. That’s the kind of idiotic platitude that liberals tell each other when they want to sound like they care about women’s issues. The fact is that institutions shape individuals, not the other way around, and Hillary Clinton is more invested in the institution than virtually anybody in American politics.

The nominations of Clinton and Trump distill what has happened to America’s major political parties over the past generation. The Democrats have shifted rightward to occupy the space that Republicans did a few decades earlier. Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill and 1996 welfare reform act were really an extension of Reagan-era policies. The signature legislative accomplishment of the Obama years, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) is nothing less than the Republican health care plan advanced by Bob Dole in the 1990s and enacted by Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the 2000s. America’s policy of drone assassination is of a piece with Richard Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. And the interventions in countries like Syria, Libya, and Yemen have been about as disastrous as Ronald Reagan’s misadventures in South America. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have much more in common with these recent Republican presidents than they do with the legacies of Franklin D. Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party has become the National Front.

The Democratic and Republican parties have given us exactly who we wanted. The Democratic voters, in their bereft of imagination and lack of courage, have rallied around a custodian who will tend to the institution and keep the machine running with minimal interruptions. The Republicans have nominated a stupid and bloviating psychopath who will turn back social progress of the last fifty years or burn the place down.

And that, my fellow Americans, is your choice this election day. But please, as you head to the polls, spare me the sanctimonious whining about your options. You did this. It’s your fault. And the consequences will be yours to bear.