Trump is president. It seems impossible, but here we are. Clearly the voters made a terrible choice, and we will all have to live with it. So do we then blame democracy? Is giving ordinary people the awesome responsibility to pick their leaders the root of the problem?
No. Absolutely not. Now more than ever, even at it’s darkest moment, we need to defend democracy, and work to expand it. Trump is only here because there was a deficiency of people power, not an excess of it. Remember when Trump hinted at not accepting the results of the election, and it was seen as one of the most dangerous moments of the election? Well, that works both ways. He won fair and square – in the current system – and we have to grapple with that.
Trump won through the electoral college. Clinton, as of time of writing, looks like she won the popular vote, like Al Gore back in 2000. This archaic system of electing the president was set up to protect the “rights” of slave states from too much democracy. As a result, voters in Wyoming have their vote count five times more than those in Florida. A fairer system of choosing the president would have us celebrating a narrow Clinton win today.
The US system of checks and balances could also use a hefty dose of extra democracy. The senate, now in the possession of Republicans, is one of the most skewed and unrepresentative institutes in the world. A voter in Wyoming has 66 times the ballot leverage over the senate as a voter in California. The lower house, Congress, is so plagued by gerrymandering that the Democrats would likely have control if the election process was fairer. Trump would likely be facing a hostile upper and lower house if he won at all in a more democratic system.
This was the first Presidential election after the gutting of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by an unelected, unaccountable supreme court. As a result, right-wing state legislatures could then close inner-city polling booths and pass voter ID laws, making it harder for poor and minority voters to get to the polls. On top of that, each election is held on a Tuesday, without any kind of national holiday, so workers often skip voting so as to not jeopardize their job. There’s a reason the electorate tends to be older, richer and whiter than the population at large, and it’s deliberate.
The winner-takes-all system of voting is also insane. Here in Australia, we have ranked voting. It allows us to vote 1 for a smaller party, then choose the order of the major parties we prefer. In an election with the two most unpopular politicians in presidential candidate history, a safe outlet for third parties that didn’t throw people’s votes away might have resulted in President Jill Stein or President Bloomberg.
Remember the super-delegates that might have cost Bernie Sanders the nomination? The party officials that tried their best to quash his insurgent campaign? A more democratic primary might have resulted in a Sanders victory over a humiliated Trump. After all, he was offering real hope of substantial change – not Clinton’s small, technocratic patches on a slowly deflating society.
But these are all technical quibbles with the method, not the system itself. There is a far deeper problem, and it’s the true reason we’re in this sorry mess right now. Representative democracy is fundamentally corrupt. We choose our leaders every few years, then they go off and ruin the country on behalf of the rich, the powerful, the well connected. The US has an especially vicious form of plutocracy, but all western democracies suffer from it to one degree or another.
Where is the people’s veto? Trump can now enact all sorts of crazy policies with a pliant congress, senate, and right-wing supreme court. The next chance the electorate has to stop him is in two years time, during the mid terms. He’s well aware of this, and will do his absolute best to jam through as much as possible before he gets held accountable. America elects a temporary nobility, and then hopes that the threat of upcoming elections will be enough to curb abuses of power. It’s not enough – we all need a more direct say on legislation.
One of Trump’s biggest selling points is that the country has been screwed over for years by a corrupt congress and senate. How could this not ring true when an unresponsive, barely-elected bunch of millionaires run the nation? It seems bizarre that this message was coming from one of the elite themselves – but let’s not forget that Clinton is pretty rich herself, and spent years cosying up to financial titans and Wall Street. It never looked like she was sincere about recognizing the capture of democracy by the wealthy, and her leaked speeches to hedge funds only confirmed that it was all politics to her. The only reason she ran a reluctantly left-wing campaign was that Sanders held her feet to the fire, and that contempt for the minimum wage, free tuition and proper healthcare was all too visible.
Finally, we come to Trump voters themselves. Despite how rigged the system is, ultimately, they did have a choice. Clinton or Trump. Why then, when presented with two choices, did they pick the objectively worse candidate? Perhaps the road that led them there was rigged – but the final choice was not. In the end, they did pick an amoral, regressive idiot to run the country – is this not proof of democracy’s limitations?
Only if you strip down the decision to such a narrow, context-free dichotomy. Sure, when picking the lesser of two evils, just that once, you always pick the neo-liberal ex-Walmart executive over the bankrupt racist buffoon. But what happens in the next election, and the one after that? Bill Clinton started the right-wing drift of the Democratic party, and Hillary Clinton never disavowed her husband’s time in office. Sure, maybe regrets over their “super-predator” comments, but how about his execution of the mentally disabled? The bombing of Sudan’s main pharmaceutical factory, the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity, the gutting of welfare? How about the massive surge in the prison population brought on by his tough-on-crime stance? If this is the way to win elections, how much worse would the lesser evil be in the next round? Perhaps it’s better to go with the reckless narcissist for four years, weather the storm, and hope for the left to get it’s shit together next election and actually present a candidate with convictions.
The temptation will be to declare that voters are stupid, democracy is wrong, and suggest all kinds of atrocities like poll taxes, literacy tests for voting and so forth. These will only do more harm, and let the rich and powerful burrow deeper into the flesh of the nation. There needs to be a way for the powerless to reject the dominant ruling class’s narratives. This is what we saw yesterday – an emphatic no to the Clinton machine’s cynical, triangulating electioneering. Perhaps voters thought that it’s better to risk everything on one last gamble rather than opt for the slow, steady, predictable death of low expectations that Clinton was selling. The greatest tragedy is that the only vehicle for that rejection was someone like Trump. Let’s hope that this will wake the country up to the danger of regressive anti-democratic structures like the electoral college and a gerrymandered congress. Let’s hope that the flaws in representative democracy become so glaring that we have no choice but to fix them, and abandon the endless odious “lesser evil” choices we’re constantly forced into. Maybe, by showing us how bad things can get, Trump will inadvertently make America great again. We just need to learn the right lessons.