I’ve spent the past 36 hours trying to decide whether — and how — to write about the presidential election that happened on Tuesday. This isn’t a ‘political’ blog and I don’t want to unleash a rant on my readers; on the other hand, it’s impossible to be a resident of the United States right now and not have something to say about the election and its outcome, so bear with me. Because, let’s face it, almost no-one saw this coming.
For starters, there’s the “failure of the polls” stories that are everywhere. Personally, I think it’s more accurate to talk about “the failure of model interpretation” but that doesn’t sound nearly as pithy. Media and commentators of every hue presented the various voting model predictions as ironclad results — but instead of saying “there’s an 85% chance of Hillary winning” they should have been adding “assuming that turnout demographics match our underlying polling samples as well as previous elections.” Definitely not pithy.
Simply, Democratic voter turnout was lower, and Republican turnout higher, than implied by headline model summaries.
There’s also a great deal of chatter in some circles about the “problem” of the Electoral College system, an issue that crops up periodically in American politics. I wrote about the mechanics of the College before [The U.S. Presidential Election]. It’s not lost on many Democrats that Hillary won the popular vote (just) but lost in the Electoral College, as did Al Gore in the 2000 race against George W. Bush. As the role of the College and its procedures are laid out in the U.S. Constitution, an amendment would be needed to change the process — but I wouldn’t hold your breath. It’s a very long-drawn-out and arduous process that stands little chance of success without widespread bipartisan support.
To summarize, an amendment needs to be proposed by the Congress with a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate; the subsequent joint resolution then goes to each of the 50 States for debate and a vote in their legislatures. A proposed amendment becomes part of the Constitution once it is ratified by three-fourths of the States (i.e., 38 of the 50).
In other words, if challenges to the Electoral College are seen as a Democratic Party complaint, any such attempt will be dead in the water, at least for the next four years.
But more important than any of this is the staggering degree of divisiveness manifesting across the country. People on both sides are very angry, and publicly so. The day after the election, there were massive demonstrations against Trump in major cities on the east and west coasts (and also in Chicago, which often feels like an east coast city despite being bang in the heart of the mid-west). I saw one report claiming the New York protest on Wednesday evening was 20 city blocks long — that’s about two miles.
I’ve heard of professors at universities cancelling classes on Wednesday on the grounds that their students would feel traumatized and would need time to process the results before getting back to their studies. I’ve also heard anecdotes of Republican-supporting students being seriously bullied on campuses. And plenty of Republican commentators are bemoaning what they see as Democrats’ unwillingness to accept the results.
There were certainly protests and complaints after Al Gore lost in 2000, but they focused on the flawed electoral procedures in the key state of Florida (remember those ridiculous hanging chads?); and ultimately, the deadlock was resolved by the Supreme Court. Even as they lamented the outcome, most Democratic commentators (and all of the ones I know) emphasized that America resolves its electoral disputes in the courts, not on the streets.
Somewhere in the past 16 years, that sentiment seems to have shifted. Certainly a whole generation of young voters have grown up taking it for granted that the tide of political progress is basically liberal (in the American sense). They now face a Republican Congress and President who are intent, if we take their statements at face value, on reversing much of that progress. People tend to get angry when their rights are taken away.
I know of Republican supporters who said that the party’s tax and other policies were so important to them that they “looked past” Trump’s racist and homophobic statements, not to mention his overt misogyny (which I guess is easy to do when you’re white and/or straight and/or wealthy enough not to feel threatened). Liberals find that stance hard to swallow.
I was struck, when I first came to this country, by the widespread acknowledgement, on both sides of the bipartisan divide, that whatever you may think about a particular individual, you always have respect for the office of the President. The vitriol of parliamentary political debate was notable by its absence. But things started to slide in 1987 when Democrats furiously denounced Reagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court of conservative judge Robert Bork, which arguably contributed to the Republican backlash against Bill Clinton after he was elected in 1992.
Things seemed to calm down somewhat in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But they definitely accelerated again after Obama’s election in 2008. Some of his detractors channeled their anger into the so-called “birther” movement, challenging whether he was a “real” American in what was essentially veiled racism.
And now America has a president-elect who not only championed the birther movement, but also espoused outright racism against Mexicans and Muslims.
There are cycles to American politics, just like in any democracy, and the optimists will say that the cycle will turn again. In that earlier post on the presidential election, I mentioned the Schumpeter business column in the October 15 edition of The Economist magazine. We are now facing the consequences of a 20-year rise in the business of extreme media: “the entrepreneurs of outrage and barons of bigotry” have succeeded in installing a mouthpiece in the Whitehouse.
I can only hope that the next four years do not irrevocably damage this great country, and that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”