Sunday, 18 December 2016

American Democracy

I was unusually interested in this year's US election. Certainly, I paid attention to what was happening in 2012 but I didn't bother looking at predictions of who would win, consistently. I guess the differences were twofold. Firstly, Trump has said some pretty insane things and the whole process was, deservedly, a very-concerning laughing stock. Secondly, more people in my IRL life were paying attention. In fact, I told someone back when Bernie Sanders was still a Thing that neither Trump nor Sanders could ever actually win an election. And the thing is, I wasn't actually wrong.

Obviously, the US held elections recently and a whole bunch of people and propositions that I don't really care about were elected and one of them was a man known as Donald Trump. But Trump didn't win an election, because that would imply that American democracy is a democracy rather than a prolonged farce. For starters, a lot of people have made a big deal about how Trump lost the popular vote so that's definitely part of the farce. Yet, it's not fair to judge Trump's electioneering by this, of course (he wasn't trying to), but it is something to bear in mind when people are talking about a new dawn of fascism or whatever (because mandate). If you're an American Democrat who's really struggling with Trump's victory, just remember that the majority of Americans don't like Trump. Further to this dawn-scepticism, I daresay, like many others, that without a certain policy-violating "ex-republican" FBI director Clinton probably would've won. Crucially, the states she needed (Michigan, Pennsylvania,Wisconsin and Florida) were all close defeats (although I believe Florida was a bit wider and Michigan much closer... probably the only state where you can blame Stein-voters, being 5:1 versus Trump's margin), but not "a few missed ballots" close (the recounts must be seen as audits). But I have to stress that the Electoral College is just one aspect of the farce.

The first thing to note is that a lot of Americans have some pretty screwball ideas about what the US is. They will, quite seriously, tell you that the US is a republic... not a democracy. To these idiots, democracy has to mean direct democracy. They are completely unaware of the distinction that is made everywhere else in the world. A republic, to us in NZ, is very simply "not a monarchy" but a lot of theorists (if we can call them that) like to talk from the etymology and arrive at a definition incapable of excluding the UK, NZ or Australia from the republic club (except by mental gymnastics). That's a bit more excusable but it's stupid when you now need to find a new word to mean "not a monarchy" (but the internet seems to think all monarchies are absolute so maybe I need someone to fund a flight to the US for "research"). The root cause of this obsession is, naturally, the unquestioning worship of the Founding Fathers, Framers and American Constitution that wreaks so much damage in the US, because this is how they (those individuals) thought several hundred years ago (it was a different world! learn to understand this America!).

Once you understand that the US is not a democracy, advocates claim, you see that the Electoral College is fine and dandy. Well, that's obviously not true because, you know, maybe the US ought to be a democracy. In fact, because the US is a democracy in reality, it ought to be a better one. Why? What do we expect to gain from a democracy? Basically, if you are a stable, functioning state, democracy is how you stay in a stable, functioning state. People want what they've got and when you allow them self-rule, then they will preserve that. Democracy is like an opt-out. You're not really going to convince people to opt-in to terrible law in good democracies, but you may struggle to get people to move from it. Yet, over time, the way democracy works means that law will line up with the ethos of the age. This may be an old fashioned point of view that sounds a lot like common law and democracy are brothers in spirit, but I'm not sure if that's a view to disagree with anyway. In any case, how do structural and cultural issues pervert the course of American Democracy and turn it into farce?

The place to start is the way Americans choose their candidates. Now, in truth, I am opposed to the concept of electing a Head of State and I also think that there are problems with direct election of the Head of Government as well, but there are more practical reasons given nothing's going to change the inanity of presidential democracy. Firstly, there's the concept of election fatigue. Basically, the primaries and caucuses make the US election go on for far longer than it needs to and with the notion of a "general election" not existing, the campaign season in the US is perpetual. Secondly, while this means even newcomers like Trump gain an opportunity to get some campaign experience prior to the Real Deal (and maybe even allows nobodies to gain some coverage), the process weakens the party. Sure, the Democrats and Republicans are really macro-parties or coalitions, but what the pre-campaigning does is emphasise the differences within them, rather than show voters a coherent message. When voting isn't open to non-members, then you also have self-radicalising echo-chambers. On one hand, the former effect might reduce polarisation but what it actually results in is further entrenchment of the two-party system and reductions in the vision gap because it entrenches the vagueness of the platforms of each party.*

The Democrats and Republicans often end up visiting a lot of the US during these pre-campaign campaigns, but if a clear front-runner emerges then the odds that a decent spread of the US gets visited is lessened. Why? Simply put, this is a natural consequence of not all primaries, caucuses and whatever else happening on one day... a winner can emerge with much of the campaign already done, and maybe they win at this point. This issue of geographic coverage is a big part of the problem with the Electoral College.

At its heart, the Electoral College isn't an absolutely insane idea. After all, the US is not a unitary state so the federal government should recognise that states are important. Well, okay, you got me... I am not convinced that federal states should have powerful states. However, we've also got to recognise that this post would have to be massive to deal with the philosophical objections that underpin scepticism of federal states, presidential systems, republics (in the NZ sense) and, yes, even upper houses. And, in truth, these would need to be tempered by practical realities I don't know that much about. Worryingly, the US is not so good as a democracy even given these aspects (imagine they cannot possibly be any other way) and the Electoral College's distortions enter at this point. Appealing to the federal character of the USA doesn't absolve the College of its sins because that federalism matters in Congress (through the Senate). In other words, federalism is part of the federal government without the Electoral College. Which begs the question of the Senate. Basically, I choose to ignore the Senate's sins because the US President is the flagship of American Democracy. This is all very well and good but what are those sins?

Prior to the 2016 election anyway (I wonder why...), the Electoral College is firstly undemocratic in the sense that most people want/ed to see it gone (about 60%). It is secondly undemocratic in a number of different ways and I list four key ways below:
  • If you live in, say, Wyoming, your vote theoretically means more than that of someone who lives in, say, California. This is because the number of Electoral Votes that each state gets is awarded with their populations in mind, but it is not proportional to the number of people in the state. As a result, the number of Electors per Californian is lower than the number of electors per Wyomingite, i.e. Wyomingites get more bang for their buck vote. This clearly violates the principle of democracy that no-one's voice carries more currency than another's inherently. (If you're confused, this is how the Electoral College reflects the federal nature of the US... that's why it's not strictly proportional: the creators of the College weren't Evil.)
  • In practice, though, people in California and Wyoming don't really matter. In fact, the Electoral College encourages ignoring the vast majority of Americans in favour of the lucky few who live in six (relatively populated) states. This isn't an inherent flaw but it's the inevitable consequence of assuming (as we should) that candidates aren't going to act in ways that clearly hurt their election. That is, why bother racking up votes in "safe seats" like Texas, California or Wyoming when you can go to a swing state like Florida or New Hampshire and get voters who might actually be able to swing the election your way? This is a clear violation of the main point of democracy: the people's rule (not reign). Basically, the Electoral College disassociates campaigning from the majority of Americans. It really is that simple. The song may say, "I'm glad I'm not a Kennedy," but I'm glad I'm not an American. (If you're paying attention, you'll notice that this started from etymology... which I complained about earlier.).
  • The second of these bullet points is all about safe seats. In NZ, the existence of safe seats was recognised to result in "wasted vote". That is, votes that didn't contribute to the election in any way shape or form and may as well never have been cast. While translating wasted vote to an election of one person is a bit trickier, it's very easy in the context of the Electoral College. And sure, demographics and other reasons mean that maybe the safe seats change over time, but they're still there... which is the problem. The Electoral College actually disincentivises political activity among people whose votes for their preferred candidates are wasted. Mandate, or the engagement of the populace, is how democracy works. The Electoral College not only means you don't reach out to Americans but that Americans are incentivised not to "reach in" (as it were). Consequently, the exchange of ideas and confidence in the will of the people from which government should stem (respecting liberty**) is reduced. (Incidentally, this is an easy fix, because all you have to do is make the allocation of Electors proportional rather than winner takes all.)
  • The Electoral College also has a big role in the USA's vision gap problems because it further entrenches the two party system. Sure, you occasionally get someone who people think might be popular enough in one state that they could win that single state and thus end up getting attention because this leads to at least 4 Electoral College votes.*** Realistically, by breaking the US up into 50-ish different electorates, the minor parties have to do so much more to stand any chance of mattering in the election. Sure, the biggest issue is that it's a first past the post (FPP) country, but without the Electoral College, all the Greens and Libertarians in Texas and New York would become part of one single electorate (spanning the entire country). As it is, it's basically a divide and conquer mechanism so you can ignore saying and what they're offering more. This gives the Democrats and Republicans room to muscle in and go "We offer enough of what you want, that you can vote for us." This, then, reinforces voting against the Bad Guys rather than for the Good Guys. Without minimising the vision gap, democracy is unable to represent the right options in the policy space, and we can be suspicious of its abilities to work in the way we want it too. (That is, not only do we not get everyone we need, we don't necessarily get the ideas we need for the theory of democracy to work.)
There are numerous defences of the Electoral College, it is true. This post isn't really concerned with the Electoral College as such but I better address some of them that relate to the above. There will be five different bullet points to align with each above and the first reason.
  • But maybe if you put it to a referendum, Americans would keep the Electoral College based on that poll? It's a logical fallacy to note the suspect timing of the change in opinion... This exposes an issue with democracy: the tyranny of the majority. That is, I have outlined some reasons why the Electoral College hurts groups. And why is there a tyranny of the majority situation? Because of the part of the farce we'll get to in a moment: polarisation is a systemic consequence.
  • It's about states, not people! Well, it's really about whether or not you believe in the USA. It's all very well believing this sentiment (which really does justify the Electoral College in my view), but the harms that College creates and perpetuates for American Democracy will risk the USA's long-term stability. That is, assuming you accept my argument for the benefits of democracy. However, we shall pretty immediately see that this is not a justification for not changing the College (and maybe these changes are sufficient).
  • But the Electoral College gives rural Americans a voice in the President's election! No. That idea is countered twice. Firstly, by the following bullet point... the swing states aren't exactly rural. Secondly, about 20% of Americans are rural inhabitants. That's a huge voting bloc if you put all Americans into a single electorate. In contrast, something like 25% of the population live in the 10 largest urban areas. That's pretty big, it's true, but the largest urban areas drop off pretty quickly in size and, in any case, span a much larger area than just one city. And then's there's this map. All that green shows just how much of the US and how much of every state is tied to a metropolitan or a micropolitan area in an important sense... rural concerns can be unique, but even those ones will be reached out to because they're shared by 20% of the population and because those parts of the population can go to the places that everyone agrees politicians will go to... and those places are linked to the rural environment and don't want to lose those benefits either.
  • Wasted Vote is not a real Thing... it's just the vote that loses. I don't believe so. Wasted Vote happens when the system conspires to artificially rob votes of power. But the thing is, the Electoral College is actually a really good way of getting rid of wasted vote. As I said, you could allocate all Electors proportionately, based on the vote within each state. This does nothing to resolve the issue of the first bullet point but it does mean that there shouldn't really be any wasted vote. In fact, it eliminates the safe seat characteristic because it now matters by how much you win a vote. In other words, if you're a Republican living in Texas, by going out and voting you are contributing more than you were before. Previously you might have stayed home because your candidate is going to win in your state anyway and thus get all the Texan Electors. Now they'll only get the proportion aligned with the number of Republican votes. Similarly, if you're a Democrat in Texas, if you turn out and vote, your candidate will actually get something from the effort. We are now doing this main thing with democracy: engaging people and making their voices have Power.
  • The problem here isn't so much the Electoral College... it's the problematic but not farcical FPP system. Well, yes, I did say that (also, see the disclaimer). But I also said that there's this divide and conquer character to the College. To an extent the adjustment above would help deal with that (but not as much). To help things along, chuck in Single Transferable Vote (STV) like what NZ did with the first part of the Flag Change Referendum. This is a useful way of minimising the vision gap because it doesn't penalise voting for someone who is never going to win the whole thing.
Disclaimer: if you know an objection to the points I raised that I didn't consider, I didn't mean strawman your position... it's just that I didn't think of it as a rebuttal to my positions. Chuck it in the comments section and let's have a conversation.

Thus far we've considered candidate selection and the Electoral College and I think the case for farce looks pretty strong at this point. But the single largest contributor to why everyone laughs at the US Elections (before crying a bit when we think about the issues this causes in such a powerful country) is centred on voting for people, not policy. Now, you might say that this is a feature, not a bug but we've already seen that I don't treat this concept as validating Bad Stuff and have suggested that the issues noted above can be improved on without changing the system dramatically. That's also true here. And, again, I'd prefer it if there was dramatic change, i.e. that the US wasn't a Presidential Democracy, in part because it makes avoiding this problem really difficult (people are weak... which is one explanation for why many of these posts are written in the wee hours). Regrettably, the use of primaries means that this is much more ingrained than it otherwise would be as well. In any case, why is policy more important?

I have previously used this blog to suggest that politics is fundamentally about vision. What politics isn't about is people. Sure, we talk about politics is the sense of "office politics" or whatever, but what we're actually referring to is how to negotiate a world of [whatever]. Politics as vision, is about government, however... and government is very much about people. This is why we have this other sense of politics. The reality is that generally to govern you need to be able to manage personalities and negotiate the clash of vision. In this way we come across politics as what I am going to call power relations theory: power begs negotiation such that the more power you have, the less you need to negotiate. This seems to be a justification for directly electing presidents and whatever. After all, the direct election gives mandate (in theory) and from that comes power. Furthermore, to get elected, a politician must demonstrate that they have the personal skills required to deal with national politics. The reality is, though, that when I say government is about people, what I mean is that it's about the interplay of vision and the populace. I don't mean "office politics" wrought large.

Policy is not something I've studied but it is something that I have thought about (I've also thought about studying it). Policy, to my mind, is the intersection of Vision and Reality. Regardless of what historians might say about, say, 9/11 there was a reality to that: the objective proceedings. And it really doesn't matter that one person's objective experience is different to another's. In fact, the Reality includes their subjective experiences. Accessing this Reality (especially for historians) mustn't be understood as unproblematic... it may even be impossible... but it must be understood that there is a Real World Out There and Real Stuff Happens to Real People. Or, as a British comedy act put it, "We were pretty sure that child brothels would help with arts funding, but does that mean we did it. No. It never got beyond that pilot scheme in Yeovil." That fictional ministry had a vision (arts needs more funding) and they had an idea (child brothels) and then they ran a trial to see what the Real World thought of the policy. This sounds stupid, but in the comedy world of that sketch, it required a trial to figure out that there was a problem with child brothels... the procedure is more sound than the "reality" of the sketch. So, you might think, the clash of vision would thus be decided based on thought experiments and (computer) models/simulations or, if one still doesn't appear better, empirical evidence (perhaps from pilot schemes)? I'm going to say... no.

In the US elections, a lot of the discussion was about the vagueness of what Trump actually wanted to do. In other words, Trump offered Vision not Policy. More to the point, Trump wasn't particularly punished for not offering voters an idea of Government. Even now people are trying to figure out what a Trump-led federal government would actually look and feel like. Part of this is because Trump's not a normal candidate. Part of it's because the US system allows things to run away with the people. It doesn't matter, in America, that Trump's policies aren't policies, just that Trump is able to colour everything Clinton is offering (whether policy or vision) with Clinton. And she tried to do the same with Trump. The deplorables-thing was pretty much the same thing as anyone who argued that fascists and neo-Nazi or otherwise white supremacists were among Trump's supporters. That was meant to be a wake-up call about Trump. The idea being, once you were "woken up" you'd realise how stupid it would be to vote for Trump... for reasons that had nothing to do with either his policies or his visions. Now, I'm not saying that either Trump or Clinton's arguments were right, but I am saying that if you're able to demonise the advocate, you create polarisation because you make it personal. Republicans get behind their man (or even themselves). Democrats get behind their man (or even themselves). And maybe their Man is female but this doesn't matter. Net effect: a polarised society. Polarised societies find it harder to compromise (critics of compromise are generally far too Sith, believing the golden mean fallacy always applies), harder to listen (because facts don't actually convince anyone) and harder to look at alternatives (because if you have the Devil vs Satan, you're hardly going to turn to the Greens or the Libertarians or whoever else for alternative ideas when you're so busy making sure Evil doesn't get into the White House).

That paragraph may be talking around the points a bit so I'll summarise the morals I think it establishes. On first principles, an election system needs to incentivise policy revelation, discussion and criticism. In the US, policy is critiqued based on who is offering it, because the elections are about people not parties. While you can definitely personify parties, coherent, defined and viscous/consistent platforms leaves less room to attack the party as Satan (because this inevitably involves criticising the voters, which only happens in polarised society and even then doesn't work) and the people in the party. At the second level, if policy is light on the ground, then the system needs to reward Vision and offering better Visions rather than condemnation of rival visionaries/policy advocates. This is also true when policy exists because of the facts are not persuasive to people reality of human existence. Style may in fact be able to win over substance in good systems like New Zealand's but it could be argued that people see such campaigns as offering a vision of "pretty much what we've already got" and this is persuasive. At the third level, if you have a system that pits people against people, you have a system that rewards behaviour opposed to these principles and one that creates polarisation. I argued above that polarisation entrenches the two-party system that I earlier condemned**** and reinforces the incentives to attack people, not policy.

It may be a bit ironic to be talking about policy as the intersection of vision and reality with the obvious latent thought that theory is all well and good unless contradicted by reality, and to have not brought any facts to the table. Well, that just demonstrates the point. It is easy to talk theoretically and it takes will to actually find stuff and then incorporate it. Elections should not reward laziness. But this sort of thinking is infinitely better than attacking (as I did earlier) those who disagree with me as morons. And sure, I have basically just spent this entire post outlining why something is farce and used reason based arguments for why my alternatives are better (rather than outlining how they work out to be better) but I am an unpaid blogger with other things I want to be doing. And this post has, quite literally, taken me days to write as I've missed the spark of inspiration to keep going. Which reminds me, now that I've just made you read this pointless paragraph, there's another element of farce... the case of the likes of Puerto Rico.

Believe it or not, but it wasn't that long ago that Americans living in Washington D.C. (the capital city!) had no right to vote in US presidential elections. If that sounds absolutely mental, it's because it absolutely is. Democracy is about the people's rule, and when you exclude people from their rule... well, it's oppression. The thing is, this still happens. Millions of Americans whose only crime is being resident in the likes of Puerto Rico are arbitrarily excluded from having any say in their own president! (By arbitrarily, I mean that if you accept the arguments of this post, it's arbitrary exclusion.) However, I don't know how honestly other nations live up to this standard, (is there a NZ version of Puerto Rico for instance?) they aren't "the leaders of the free world" and they probably aren't lumbered with all the things we've read about above. But things become farcical in a more traditional sense given that both the Democrats and Republicans, according to Wikipedia, involve the likes of Puerto Rico in their primary process. In other words, one of the democratic failings is tempering the biggest failure: that of universal suffrage. But the US doesn't stop here... while Puerto Ricans are allowed to stand and become US president, there are some arbitrary restrictions on that role, which merely serve to underline this terrible farce.

To be honest, arbitrary restrictions doesn't go far enough. If you ask me (although, as this is a blog, I'm answering even if you don't), the US president, as a position, is indefensible from a democratic point of view. Firstly, it's a very restricted role. Do you remember the Birther controversy? You know, the political issue that Trump cut his teeth on? Well, that pack of lies hinged on what it means to be a "natural born" citizen. Generally, it's taken to mean that if you were born to private citizens in, say, North Korea and then immediately left for the US, you could not become US president for having the bad luck to be born overseas. Or, alternatively, if you were born overseas but your family immigrated and you were raised entirely as an American, that your parents weren't citizens at birth and you were born overseas you could never be president. What kind of message does this send? Compare and contrast the Queen. Basically, the next monarch will be Charles, then William and then George (barring deaths). I could never become king of New Zealand. However, this is not a democratic role... I don't think heads of state should be anything more than symbolic, and I think it is a contradiction for them to be elected. There are other ways of achieving this, but the system in place works. Were the Queen head of government we'd have a big issue. The US president is both (an issue as I said before) but its the status as HoG, which matters most. The HoG should be a role that any citizen can aspire to because (notice how much I am stressing this?) democracy is about letting people rule themselves. The US doesn't do this for completely arbitrary reasons. I have no idea why the natural born thing is in there... at least the Electoral College and whatnot have an obvious (if disagreeable) logic to them.

Secondly, we reach the ultimate demonstration of just how farcical Clinton vs Trump was. How many times have you wondered if Trump would be an absolute political nobody if he had been standing against Obama? In fact, aren't you curious as to why Trump wasn't standing against Obama? Well, if you're American you probably aren't because you'd be aware of term limits (boo! hiss!). These are incredibly undemocratic. If people want someone to be in for seven terms in a row, then you should let them do this. The US doesn't do this with its presidents (but allows it lower down the foodchain, i.e. remember this blog probably should label its presidential focus in the title): you're in twice and that's it. Now, there are lots of reasons why this is stupid. Chief among these is that politicians tend not to have top jobs forever. After all, you have to be really popular to just keep on rolling (and/or face bad opposition). You have to still have the will (the electorate should not be able to compel someone to lead them)... which, at this point, seems to be the main reason to think John Key's not going to hit four terms as PM.***** Or, apparently, you can just be really corrupt. Newsflash, term limits don't do anything about corruption. How could they? Once you have power (and especially if you've got there through corrupt means) much of government works on faith... so I would imagine, even with such a stubborn beast as the US constitution, it's not going to do much to give the power to paper, not people. Democracy is about faith, in that it only works if people feel like it can work. If people are broadly sceptical of democracy, you destroy mandate. And I don't see any evidence that people are sceptical of democracy, just that they're sceptical that it's absolutely critical (which is not the same thing). In contrast to the birth BS, you can see why people might be concerned about Presidents for Life but the truth is that term limits were introduced because FDR was too popular, not for any principled belief. I don't know if Obama would have been open to another term, but it's something we need to think about. And we need to think long and hard about the relationship between arbitrary limits to suffrage and arbitrary limits to political agency, because they're the great big principled problems that have nothing to do with the traditions of the US.

So, American Democracy... what have we learnt? It's despicable, it's disgraceful and it's deadly serious. But what makes it even worse is that it's showing no signs of ever changing. Even in Puerto Rico, where they say stuff and start stuff, nothing substantive seems to be going on. Which is a shame... because incorporating Puerto Rico as another State represents the sort of compromise between principled democracy and the entrenched reality that the American political system is How America Is which could evolve the whole thing from farcical to flawed. The difference being, of course, that it matters to be seen to try. (Hell, even the DC solution would help, on the presidential level... but half measures like this depress the impetus for needed more over-arching reform.)

Winston Churchill (who quite aside from being one of the last British Imperialists was also half-American) once said, "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” He was wrong. The best argument against democracy has nothing to do with the conversation. Rather, it has everything to do with how we listen. If we listen to the average voter, we aren't democratic. In a democracy, we listen to everyone. But not in America. Even now, not in America.

*Vagueness means you can be all things to all people. They are connected (which is why they can radicalise each other) but this prevents the independence of the different wings. I assume, then, that more political parties is better for democracy. 

**By which I mean, "People should have freedom to the extent that their freedom does not impinge another's".

***Does getting some Electors in the Electoral College even mean anything, though? After all, it's treated as a Rubber Stamp and that's before considering this comment from Garrett Epps that I read in a BBC article, "The electors never meet, they don't debate, they vote only once, and they disappear. To me, that's not a deliberative body."

****Ah, the tyranny of choice. It is possible that too many options creates a major problem because people aren't actually able to process more than X options (whatever X is). Thus paralysed, the voter manages to make things worse. In practice, a voter need not be considering all the parties, merely a decent number... what marketers might consider the "consideration set". If there are enough different consideration sets being evaluated and enough people evaluate each unique set, I argue that it is functionally no different to if all parties were evaluated by all voters. The maths there may be a bit dodgy but in practice, NZ seems to work well with a lot of parties so perhaps undone maths achieves the same result as complicated maths that people may or may not already possess the capability to perform. Anyway, this footnote exists to ward off defences of "a few" party system democracies.

*****Weird phrasing, huh? Well, the truth is that I wrote everything above this days after I wrote that in late (25) November as part of my first draft of the post... I kept the phrasing because, obviously, Key resigned for reasons poorly described as "personal reasons" because he seems to honestly have resigned for such reasons.

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