Donald J Trump got it completely wrong when he claimed that American democracy’s inadequacies ejected him from office. In fact it was America’s democratic inadequacies that got him into office in the first place. In attributing his defeat to the system, saying that it is vulnerable to massive fraud and blaming electoral officials, voting machines, the US Mail and bitterly partisan politicians, he was not thereby confessing that he became President on the back of fraud and incompetence in 2016. No, he did not question that election, though it gave him the White House on a minority of the popular vote. But the truth is that Trump’s 2016 victory was indeed an artefact of the US electoral system’s inadequacies, though very different ones from those he nominated in 2020.
The most impressive feature of the November 2020 elections in the United States was the dedication and assiduity of officials managing the process. A scrupulous endeavour in Red and Blue states alike, aimed at getting it right, was obvious to onlookers around the world. It contrasted sharply both with the efforts of Donald Trump to subvert the outcome and the belief of his supporters, notably those who invaded the Capitol in early January, that American democracy had been violated.
Almost as impressive as the election officials’ work was the constant iteration, by everyone on all sides of the political divide from the Left of the Democratic Party to the base of Mr Trump’s version of the Republican Party, of belief in a concept they call “democracy”. The United States of America sees itself as an exemplar of democracy, the very word now having a resonance sharply different from the associations it had for many political thinkers from Plato to James Madison, one of the Founding Fathers. Indeed Madison himself described democracy as “the most vile form of government”, thus disagreeing with Plato only in that the latter thought it was the second most vile form, only tyranny being worse.
In Madison’s remark lies the clue to the system employed by the United States of America to elect its representatives, senators and President. It is by express design only a semi-democracy, a limited and constrained democracy, in which a number of filters exist to dilute the effect of the popular will. Many Americans might take exception to this claim for, like all its fellow polities in the Western world, the US sees itself as democratic because it has competing political parties, holds periodic elections by secret ballot, has a significant degree of accountability in its institutions, upholds the rule of law, does not have state-controlled media, respects the civil liberties of the populace, and almost always – despite the events of January 6 – experiences peaceful and orderly changes of government as a result. All this is true, but it is not enough. The defects do much to nullify these virtues. The defects are as follows – and the surprising thing is that everyone knows them, yet no-one does anything about them.
For elections to the House of Representatives voting is conducted on the plurality, or “First Past the Post” system. This is intrinsically undemocratic, as a simple example shows. Imagine a congressional district with twenty voters, in which five candidates offer themselves for election. Suppose three of them get four votes each, one gets three votes, and one gets five votes. This last has more votes than any other individual candidate, and therefore goes to Washington – representing five out of twenty voters, the other fifteen having no representation.
Plurality voting squeezes out minority parties, leaving their supporters without a voice, and reduces the political debate to two main parties, who vie with each other to get their hands on the levers of government. The danger of factionalism – against which James Madison eloquently warned in Federalist Paper No. 10 – is thereby realised. Inevitably, polarisation of the political debate results and, as we see in today’s US, in the extreme acquires the bitter character of virtual civil war.
Two-party polarisation driven by plurality voting deprives so many voters of genuine representation that they lose faith in electoral politics. Voter turnout becomes low, partisan divisions more acute, mutual distrust and dislike across the political divide more volatile. A sense of impotence or – worse – betrayal at the ballot box prompts a search for alternative means of expression, including direct action, all the way to violence. This is one of the unhealthiest products of a sharply binary system, which in the US is not only the direct outcome of plurality voting, but the reinforcement of its ill effects by gerrymandering of congressional districts and voter suppression techniques, themselves deeply and obviously undemocratic. And in squeezing out all but the voices of the two parties’ partisans, ethnic and minority groups are politically marginalised and deprived of sufficient legitimate participation in the political sphere.
Another cause for concern is that election arrangements differ from state to state, down to the variety of different ballot-counting machines manufactured by different companies. In every democratic process, consistency and uniformity is vital to merit trust. Trust was maintained in the 2020 election by the assiduous and dedicated people conducting the process, but they had the extra burden of having to check and double-check the systems and equipment they were working with. For those intent on undermining confidence in the process, this is a gift. All the mechanical and procedural aspects of the process itself have to be unchallengeable. As they stand, they are not.
These points relate principally to elections to the House of Representatives, populated by people who are in constant electioneering and fund-raising mode because their term of office is so short at just two years. Although Senate terms are longer, here matters are even more remote from democracy.
Because the Senate is a States’ House, it is by definition not a body representative of the popular will. Because each State sends two senators, irrespective of population, the Senate is permanently distorted in its political orientation towards the conservative outlook of small-population, mainly rural states. Accordingly a small percentage of the population has a large influence on the governance of the US, often in ways that serve it ill. This is a drag on any government’s ability to respond to the changing needs and exigencies of a large, wealthy and powerful country. When Congress and White House are at odds, the result can too often be paralysis, as shown by the occasions on which a national budget is not agreed and the Federal government is bankrupt for a period.
Worse yet is the Electoral College, in origin specifically designed to act as a filter against the popular will. The brainchild of Alexander Hamilton, it was devised to ensure that no person unfit to occupy the White House would ever do so. He had in mind populist demagogues whose ability to rabble-rouse might be his (or her) sole ability. Its raison d’etre failed most dramatically in the case of Trump. The Electoral College’s subversion of the democratic will is manifest; twice in the last twenty years it has given the White House to a candidate with a minority of the popular vote.
On these three counts alone – the voting system, the Senate, and the Electoral College – the structures of the US system are undemocratic in tendency. Now add the fact, shocking to any constitutionalist sensibility, that the Supreme Court, which adjudicates application of the US Constitution, is populated by political appointees. The recent history of appointments to the Supreme Court bench is a crude illustration of this fact. The Senate prevented President Obama from making an appointment to the bench in his last year in office, but in the last months of Mr Trump’s presidency, and in a matter of days only, it hastened through an obviously political choice, unbalancing the Supreme Court for decades to come. This failure of the “separation of powers” is serious. Among essential reforms required is the system of Supreme Court appointment, together with determination of how long appointments last: life-tenure is arguably another fault of the system.
The Constitution of the United States has acquired something like the sacred and unrevisable air of Holy Writ. It is right that the Constitution should not be the plaything either of politics or fashion, and that additions or amendments should be matters of high seriousness and careful process. Even so, to the outside world adherence to certain of its provisions – most notably, of course, the “right to bear arms” – appears problematic. Leaving aside whether the right in question relates to militias or individuals, the fact is that when this right was enshrined in the Constitution, the arms in question were muzzle-loading muskets and flintlock pistols. A massacre of school-children would be hard to achieve by their means. The Founding Fathers could not anticipate the dangerous weapons that have since evolved, readily purchasable even by unfit persons.
A phenomenon of recent decades both reflecting and increasing political polarisation is the existence of partisan news media, serving the predilections and antipathies of their audiences. Alongside this is the use of social media techniques, such as “micro-targeting”, predicated on detailed psychological profiling, which allows campaigns to send to selected groups of voters messages that others cannot see and therefore cannot, if the messages are misleading, challenge. The quantum of misinformation and “fake news” on partisan news and social media subverts democracy, which can only survive when reliable information is available to all, and the claims and promises of political campaigns are visible to all.
Finally, there is the question of donations to political parties and individual politicians. Supreme Court decisions empowering unlimited spending by Super PACs are one symptom, though a major one, of the distorting effect of money on US governance. The combination of big money, plurality voting, gerrymandering, voter suppression, low turnouts, and partisan media and messaging, has proved toxic: that, and the Electoral College system, has resulted in a dramatically unfit person occupying the most powerful office in today’s world.
The effect of the US electoral and constitutional system is ultimately to reserve power to a minority consisting, in practical terms, of the senior personnel of the two party machines and their donors. Thus viewed, “the people” in American democracy are ranched cattle whom the campaigns herd, corral, and take on a drove to the Chicago cattle yards of the ballot box, there to be figuratively slaughtered.
A great and defining contribution of Joe Biden’s presidency would be the setting up of a Constitutional Commission to summon the American people to the task of thinking about their democracy and its institutions, and to updating them. To free himself from any accusation of reforming the system to benefit himself or his party, what reforms are made would have to be scheduled to take effect after Biden left office. It would be an act of nobility and patriotism of the highest order for Biden to use his majorities in both Houses of Congress to initiate this process, resiling himself from reelection in order to avoid the charge of seeking to do, by more covert means, what Trump so crudely tried to do, in the way of securing his own re-election.
I write these words in our own would-be democracy, which is in an even worse case than the United States. We here in the United Kingdom urgently need reform of our plurality voting system, our vague, easily-manipulated and uncodified constitution, our permanent clique-driven minority-based government, and our antiquated institutions that have no relation even to a pretence of democracy. The problems infecting American quasi-democracy are bad; ours are worse. By looking across the Atlantic at faults which are egregious, yet not as bad as our own, we should be motivated to put our own house in order as a matter of urgency.
A Message from TheArticle
We are the only publication that’s committed to covering every angle. We have an important contribution to make, one that’s needed now more than ever, and we need your help to continue publishing throughout the pandemic. So please, make a donation.