Sunday, 15 May 2016

What elections should be

For a year now, most of the news I see, the e-mails I get, and the social media I follow have mostly been about one thing: The US presidential election. I haven't talked about it on this blog, and don't plan to much, as it's outside what I usually write about. 

Most of my friends know that I have strong beliefs, and have campaigned for various candidates and causes, though, so people have asked me to talk about it. Until now, I disappoint them by telling them that I have been working hard to avoid hearing about the US election campaign.

It's not that I don't care. It's that voting, for me, is a sacred but simple duty. I make a list of the issues I care most about, pick the positions I most favour on those issues, and research the votes and statements made regarding that issue by each of the political candidates. If the issue is electric rail systems for cities, most likely no candidate will have spoken in favour of it -- but if one has, they rise a bit in my assessment. Most will likely be far away from me on most issues, but I will vote for whoever is closest.

I will do that the week before the election -- not just for president, but for every office I can vote for. Until then, I have donated to the campaign of someone I respect, but other than that I'm not wasting time worrying about it. And after the election, I will also not spend time worrying about it.

That's all voting needs to be for me. I don't need to care about every speech or talk show interview the candidates do. I don't need to know what they sound like; I can read transcripts of their words. I don't need to know their spouse's name, or how funny they can be. I don't care about their race, their reproductive plumbing, their flamboyant piety or from what wacky character they are six degrees removed. I don't care about the teacup scandals that crawl across the bottom-screen news feed or the hall-of-mirrors news coverage of the coverage of the coverage. I don't want to know, because I don't need to know -- and I have been avoiding most of the news and "un-following" most of my social-media "friends" until the election season is over.

Friends of mine consider that shockingly naive, and tell me that I can't just assign scores of their qualifications, like I'm rating candidates for a job interview. But here's the thing: This is how voting is supposed to work. For that matter, it's how job interviews are supposed to work. You have a list of imperfect people applying for a job, and you pick the one who will do the best.

If they're not charming, that could be a liability if their main job is meeting the public - say, a salesman. If they are working as a civil engineer, it might not matter much. Selecting a representative for an office is the same -- and remember, you are the employer.

Some friends of mine object to being so dispassionate about politics, saying that we have to rally together to stop the next Hitler. Thing is, I hear that every four years -- that this election is the turning point of human history, our last chance to turn the country around, and the other side's candidate is the next Hitler, and you will be forced to flee the country if the wrong person is elected. I hear that from my Democratic friends about the Republican, and from my Republican friends about the Democrat -- whoever I'm talking to, the other side's candidate is the next Hitler. None of my friends ever flee the country, though, yet they are never put in concentration camps as they predicted.

I did make one exception recently, though; the newspaper I write for here was curious about the US election, and I offered to write a piece about it. I read transcripts of a few speeches and compared their positions early, so that I could explain my native country to people here. This is an expanded version of the piece I wrote for the Kildare Nationalist.


Twelve years on this side of the Atlantic, yet I still sound American enough that everyone wants to talk to me about politics. You’d think that would mean the Brexit, or the historic Irish upset, or the Iranian results, but no. Of course they want to tell me all about Donald Trump.

My native USA sits in an interesting position these days. We remain influential enough that people everywhere talk about our news as though it were their own, yet our increasing poverty and internal conflicts mean that we are one of the last socially acceptable groups for everyone here to mock. Hence media here often treat American news with a kind of reality-freak-show prurience, letting European audience feel better about themselves. If one idiot, in a country of a third of a billion people, decides to burn a Koran or hold an inflammatory sign, you can bet the European news will cover it.

Moreover, the media – here and around the world -- treat our elections with the same apocalyptic hysteria every election cycle, without realising how much they contribute to the result. Every single time I pass a television or look at a news site, it has Mr. Trump’s face on it – many people here seem unaware that the nominees also included actual Republicans, actual Democrats -- and Bernie Sanders, a socialist who’s still extremely well. None of those people received much media attention, and Trump did – and then reporters ask, with no sense of irony, why Trump is doing so well.

Moreover, most discussion about the presidential race deeply misunderstands the American political process, and the USA in general; most people here grew up with American television and visited the country, and feel like they know more than they actually do. A country isn’t an actors’ set or a few tourist traps, and I find most people here carry a lot of misconceptions.

Take, for example, the matter of scale. Countries on this side of the Atlantic all have small-to-medium areas, social-democratic systems, parliamentary governments and densely packed, secular populations. Even honorary European countries like Canada and Australia have European-sized populated areas -- they just have a lot of sparely-populated space attached.

Most people here don’t realise, though, that the USA is not a country at all in that sense. It is not just vaster – although it is, covering more than twice as much area as all EU countries put together. It is also the third most populous nation on Earth, behind China and India, with a third of a billion people. Most importantly, its states are not counties or provinces; they remain, to some extent, independent countries, with their own laws, voting systems and armies.

In other words, don’t compare the USA to any European country; compare it to the EU. In fact, the states vary even more than European countries; some are more socialist, agnostic and urban like EU nations, while others are poor, rural and religious like Middle Eastern nations.

Understanding this makes the conflicts clearer. Most people here believe that the USA has a death penalty, for example, but it’s actually just certain states – others made it illegal as far back as the 19th century. When people ask me if Mr. Obama will end the death penalty in America, I explain that those are state laws; the federal government does not control them.

Some recent reforms in US policy, from national health care to gay marriage, were opposed by people who didn’t oppose such policies in principle, but didn’t want the central government to have too much power. One person asked me why the federal government doesn’t just force the states to do what it wants, and I responded, “Why doesn’t the EU just force the UK to do whatever it wants?” In other words, the president – whether named Obama or Trump – just isn’t as powerful as people imagine.

Take another common misconception: Trump is calling himself a Republican candidate, yet the party isn’t in favour of him, and is attacking him at every turn. The same is true of Sanders for the Democrats – both are nominally running under a party banner, yet both are actually independents, and both are doing unexpectedly well compared to the parties’ chosen candidates.

Why they are doing well is no mystery; across the USA – an area larger than 43 Britains – lie small factory towns that used to be prosperous and are now desperately poor, as trade agreements allowed the factories to move to the Third World. Those deals, endorsed by mainstream Republicans and Democrats, were deeply unpopular with most Americans, and mainstream candidates have done very badly this election.

Meanwhile, the two basically independent candidates who promised to bring the jobs back – Trump on the right and Sanders on the left – have garnered a massive following of working-class people who do not ordinarily participate in politics. Trump’s followers are not the mobs of screaming, hate-filled morons they are portrayed as, but increasingly desperate people with genuine grievances.

In Ireland something similar happened, as the two major parties mishandled the 1990s boom and 2008 crash, and were punished in the last election. The difference is that in Ireland, as in most other democracies these days, voters can turn instead to third parties. The USA used to have vibrant third parties, who occasionally elected great leaders – Abraham Lincoln was one. In the 20th century, though, Republicans and Democrats conspired to pass laws that made third parties effectively illegal.

Thus, when voters think the mainstream parties have driven most Americans into poverty – as they have for some years -- they have no other option but to vote for the two major parties anyway … until two independents, a television personality and a socialist, run as a nominal Republican and Democrat, and their followers stage a coup inside the mainstream parties. This almost worked for Sanders in the Democratic Party, and has certainly worked for Trump.

None of this is meant to express admiration for Trump himself; I’m merely explaining why some support him, and why the party he claims to represent opposes him. It’s easy to watch the news or social media and sneer at people from a distance; understanding what’s actually happening is a lot less fun in the moment, but more rewarding in the long term.

One thing to remember, in case Donald Trump wins the presidency: As I mentioned before, the president has a lot less power than people imagine. The Republicans did everything they could to stop Mr. Obama’s plans, and the Democrats do the same to Republicans. With Trump, both parties are likely to oppose him at every turn. This isn’t to say that he can’t surprise us – the man is resourceful --- but it does mean that a Trump presidency might bring Americans together as never before.  

Photo: Kennedy meeting coal miners. 


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Brian, that was immensely helpful. Much better to hear it from someone who understands, than to try and make sense of the mainstream press.

Brian Kaller said...

Thanks, food! Glad you liked it. If you're interested in more actually decent commentaries about what's happening in the USA, I'd recommend these:

From Thomas Frank, a liberal Democrat:

From Rod Dreher, a traditionalst Republican:

From Jedediah Purdy, a home-schooled Christian in rural America:

Joel Milton said...

Excellent commentary, as always Mr. Kaller.

However, for your European readers particularly, and maybe more than a few of my fellow Yanks, I wish to point out that there is, in fact, a federal death penalty in the United States. I would say it exists parallel to the death penalty laws that the majority (32 at present) of our states have, but doesn't supersede them. The U.S. Military also has its own (separate) death penalty.

It was under the federal death penalty that Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh was prosecuted and executed in 2001, although Oklahoma also has a state death penalty that it isn't reluctant to use.

I agree very much that various states, or geographic regions, are on many levels functioning as quasi-countries or nation-states in their own right. California and Texas immediately come to mind, but there are many other examples. And I don't expect this Union to remain united in its present configuration into the distant future, either. Somewhere along the arc of empire, energy depletion, and peak-everything the United States will be united no more. Borders are nothing if not changeable, which is something the Europeans should be all too-painfully aware of.

Keep up the good work, it is very much appreciated.

Andy Brown said...

I think that's a pretty good summary. On the one hand, democracy has effectively disappeared as the two parties fight bitterly with each other, but both ultimately serve the interests and rivalries of a donor class - and barely bother to placate their nominal voters. On the other hand, a central tenet of American identity is still that we are a free people who have a say in how our communities and states are run. Now that the parties have made it crystal clear that they have no interest in responding to the desires of regular people - you are starting to see people look around for someone to upend the apple cart. For an essentially conservative country like the US, that's a pretty significant development.

Brian Kaller said...

Thanks for the compliment, and a fair point -- there is a federal death penalty, but it's rarely used -- Timothy McVeigh was one of the few people killed under it in 2001, and he was the first since 1963, I believe.

I agree that the USA has a reasonably good chance of breaking up in my daughter's lifetime. I don't think it inevitable -- it's been through a Civil War, world wars and a Depression, so it stands a chance of surviving the decline of its empire. In fact it stands a chance of coming out a better country, as Britain did after the loss of its empire. What I always pictured was not a world away from John Michael Greer's "Retropia," and that would be a place I'd like to live. I'm hoping we can avoid too unpleasant an outcome - I'm rather fond of my country, and wish it well.

Brian Kaller said...

Thanks Andy! My Republican and Tea Party friends often complain that GOP leaders just serve the elites, and have betrayed their base -- but when I tell them that Democrats say the same thing, they are incredulous. Everyone is struggling and frustrated right now, but most people think they are one of the only ones. I suspect one of the keys to Trump and Sanders' popularity is that they have made people realise they are not alone.

That's one reason I don't think this election is the end of the world. I have no problem with being conservative -- too much change at once tends to get ugly -- but I'm pleased to see movements like these. Even when I disagree with Trump and Sanders in certain ways, I wish the best for their movements.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20160520T173049Z

Dear Brian,

Thanks so much for this! Now I have learned several useful things on that endlessly interesting topic which is the USA.

PS: There apparently was once a debating club, perhaps in some duly prim school in England, that was made to work on the following: Resolved, that America is a Good Thing, and ought to be kept. In debating, the two teams have to muster arguments, as plausible as may be feasible, on both sides of their assigned resolution. The exercise, it is said, trains the mind.