Now that the two major US political parties have chosen their candidates for presidency, it’s time to review our options. Mainly, what is lacking in the US is respect.
“Can I just say to the Bernie-or-Bust crowd, you’re being ridiculous,” asked US comedian Sarah Silverman at the convention. The answer is clearly: “yes, you can say that – but disrespect is unlikely to sway anyone.” How should we speak to each other? In bold, I have highlighted the main arguments I have been hearing.
If you don’t vote, you can’t complain. Not true – the sentiment may be a reasoned personal opinion, but it’s a free country, so you are also free to ignore other people’s moral imperatives. The US could make voting compulsory (other countries have), but until it does, not voting remains a legal option for Americans. On its own, subsequent complaining about elections you did not participate in might even be productive if accompanied by action – but we’ll come back to that in a moment.
People refrain from voting for good reasons. For one, voting in the US is a pain – long lines to voting booths sometimes a long drive away and always on a workday. I know of no other country that calls itself a democracy where voting is made so inconvenient. Furthermore, the US does not hold a single election like other countries, but closer to 13,000; if you move from one place to another, inform yourself of what paperwork needs to be done, or you may be denied your vote. The US voting system disenfranchises an astonishing number of citizens in this way (and we haven’t even gotten to the other issues, such as general voter suppression or convicted felons losing their votes for life, i.e. even after they have served their sentences – both a rarity in democracies internationally).
Then, of course, there is the widespread sentiment that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are worth voting for. A surprising number of Americans I have spoken with this year did not know that they can probably write in a candidate – it is a right that exists in most US states but not necessarily in other democracies (is civics no longer taught in US schools?). Again, these rules can be changed, but until they are, it is not un-American to write in whoever you want or to abstain from voting; it is un-American to complain about those who exercise their rights. And that brings us to the option of third-party candidates.
Don’t vote for third-party candidates, we are told. “If you're interested in building a third party, a viable third party, you don’t start with president. You don't start by running someone for fucking president.” This potty-mouthed sentiment made quite a splash on the Internet this month. Before I discuss the merits of its content, a word on the tone: that’s the first time the f-word has been used on this website. Too many Americans are monolingual and insular, so too many of us don’t realize what we sound like to the rest of the world. A lot of the world speaks English, and the Internet means they are also watching us as well. No one appreciated Jon Stewart more than I did, but I can’t help but feel that what the US debate needs the most is calm reasoning, not humorous cussing. A statement like “Frankly, most of you are fucking stupid” (to quote one website defending Hillary Clinton) might be potentially funny, but we need to start taking voters seriously.
Back to the content of the potty-mouthed statement above: the speaker was complaining about parties like the Libertarians and, in particular, the Greens for running people for president but not at lower levels. In reality, running candidates for top offices might be the best way of creating a new political party in the US. The Greens responded by pointing out that they do indeed run candidates in elections all up and down the political ladder, but I would go further by pointing out that the Democrats and Republicans do not by any means always run candidates in all elections.
"More than half of Kentucky’s mayoral elections are unopposed, according to a new report from the Center for Local Elections in American Politics (LEAP), part of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. The research also finds that contested mayoral elections tend not to be close." (source)
The term to know is uncontested elections. Across the country, Democrats and Republicans increasingly do not bother to run a candidate at all. Voters have no choice (aside from abstaining, writing someone in, or selecting a third-party candidate). For instance, the chart below shows that around a third of the seats in state congresses are completely uncontested. If the measuring stick of political party legitimacy is running candidates at all levels, then the Democratic and Republican parties are unelectable. (Here’s an article on US sham elections from 2004.)
One major reason for uncontested elections is political gerrymandering. I wrote about this back in 2003 (in German), and a certain Barack Obama also mentions it as the main problem with US elections (along with campaign financing) in his 2006 book Audacity of Hope, but little has changed since then aside from Citizens United. Suffice it to say that other countries do not generally have political gerrymandering, the effect of which is that your vote does not count: voters are put into geographical constituencies with clear majorities. As I wrote back at the time, voters don’t pick politicians in the US; politicians pick voters.
Under the circumstances, we should be working to make it easier for Americans to vote and to make their votes count more – not shaming disillusioned Americans into participating in a system they justifiably feel has disenfranchised them. (Kentucky, the aforementioned state abandoned by both major parties, is likely to choose Trump this fall.)
The entire process in America is hard to explain to foreigners, and it doesn’t help that we drag it out for two years. The Democratic Party allowed Independent Bernie Sanders to run on the party ticket – unthinkable in most other countries, where party loyalty reigns supreme. Unfortunately, his inclusion was not handled well, so an issue that would probably not have raised eyebrows in most European political party systems – a party favoring a loyal member over an outsider – became a nasty mudslinging event. Again, a bit more respect on all sides would have helped cool down tempers. It’s perfectly normal for the Democrats to support Clinton, who is practically the heir apparent, and it’s perfectly normal for large swaths of the American public to reject the notion of an heir apparent as antithetical to the democracy they strive for. (The last president who was not from either Harvard or Yale was Ronald Reagan. Yes, it often takes a dynasty to produce a woman leader, but Angela Merkel is an exception – further evidence of the health of German democracy.) In Europe, such battles probably rage within parties all the time, but mainly behind closed doors among party ranks, not drawn out for more than a year in public.
One commenter over at the Atlantic has called for a return to pork-barrel politics towards securing party loyalty. He says party loyalty simply cannot be done without. Some amount of wheeling and dealing behind closed doors (within parties and coalitions) is indeed helpful, but notice the way Americans argue: let’s go back to what we used to have in America without looking at any other political system in the world. After all, we’re #1!
I cannot speak for all countries, but Europe has long dealt with hyper-nationalist populists (such as Le Pen in France, Gerd Wilders in the Netherlands, and more recently the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany). The big difference is that Europeans try to understand what legitimate reasons people may have for supporting such parties – and it generally boils down to: they are disenfranchised and looking for easy answers, which these politicians give them. But the blame is more equally shared, and much of it is placed on the major parties for failing to enfranchise everyone. In the US, we tend to blame people for stupidly voting against their interests instead of trying to understand why, say, support for Trump makes sense to so many. Then, you could try to change those conditions towards producing a long-term solution.
If you don’t vote for Clinton, it’s your fault if Trump wins. This is what the blame sounds like, and it is true almost nowhere. For instance, as an American living in Europe, I can only vote in the last place I lived in the US, which happens to be Texas. And Texas happens to have been the most consistently Republican state in the country during my adult life, so my vote for either Democrats or Republicans has always been fairly irrelevant. (Note: there have been lots of reports over the past two years about Hispanics possibly flipping Texas back to the Democrats in the foreseeable future or at least making Texas a swing state.)
In reality, I cannot bring about or prevent a victory by either Clinton or Trump. In fact, none of our votes actually count if the electoral college is free to view the popular vote merely as a recommendation, as I explained back in 2004. At least I can show my discontent with the political options offered to me by submitting a protest vote.
Only that this time around, we are not supposed to do that because Trump must not win. In every election I can remember, we have been told, “this time, there’s a lot at stake.” This time, it’s supposed to be really true.
Trump winning is the worst-case scenario. Maybe that is so (or maybe the entire political system, including the military, will rebel against him, leading to a revolution that will bring about the fundamental change we need – hey, I get to dream, too). In the 1990s, Ann Richards lost the Texas governorship to George W. Bush when she failed to take him seriously. I learned from that lesson, so you will not find any statements from me at any point suggesting that Trump cannot win. I have always taken him seriously. I now welcome the rest of you to Team OMG Trump Might Win.
A Trump presidency could indeed be really bad (here’s a nice list). “Some Bernie-or-Bust folks just can’t imagine how bad things could get,” wrote one commenter – to which I would respond with the words of an American conservative: "What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are" that are voting for Trump (he refers specifically to Kentucky). If you think I can’t imagine how bad things will get, I wonder whether you know how much so many Americans are already suffering. Did we really believe that we could save the banks in 2008 and leave so many others behind – in America and Europe – without any repercussions?
“The checks and balances of the system, which foster a degree of diplomacy and fastidiousness, are not working. And that’s on view for all the world to see.” Unfortunately, that quote comes not from America, but from the UK. The British, at least, are still capable of being concerned about how the world sees them as they muddle through their Brexit. America needs to rediscover the art of being embarrassed. Michelle Obama called on Americans to raise their standards of debate: “when they go low, we go high.” But in the same speech, she also added, “this country is the greatest on Earth.” Ms Obama, the world is watching. People will make up their own minds, and if they see folks with fundamental problems claiming to be the best, the effect ranges from comical to sad.
For all of its uncertainties, Brexit has revealed a British ability to share the blame equally. The Remain campaign is roundly criticized for failing to make its case (latest great example from the LRB). There is thus more hope for the UK than the US (when will the Democrats assume co-responsibility for half of America voting for Trump?). That British LRB author speaks of the US system as one in which there are “no penalties for falsehoods.” What bothers me the most about Americans politically is their growing inability to interact with each other meaningfully between elections. It’s a culture shock for me to see how many Americans my age withdraw into video games or watching sports on TV (or, more recently, binge-watching TV series) after work. And when we do engage with each other, it usually doesn’t take long before we start calling each other stupid.
“Democracy isn’t a spectator sport,” President Obama has said. I have felt disenfranchised by the US political system my entire adult life, which is why I have spent so much time not focusing on voting every few years – giving my approval to a very limited set of options that the political system offers me – but on expanding those options in-between elections.
So let me turn this around. I am told that I cannot complain if I do not vote. I say voting does not let you off the hook. Very, very few of you will vote in a state where votes actually matter this fall. (Note: votes matter everywhere in Germany; the US system is broken and needs fundamental changes.) But even after the elections, and regardless of who wins, your participation in the democratic process is desperately needed. We can start by looking for ways to speak to each other respectfully.
Far too many Americans are disenfranchised and suffering. They feel they have nothing to lose. Let’s work to make sure that everyone feels that they have too much to lose – and that their voice and vote matter. Otherwise, this fall, exercise your American right to vote your conscience, and don’t let anyone judge you for that.