Monday, November 7, 2016

The Flaw in the American System

Ezra Klein thinks Trump's close approach to the presidency points out a terrible flaw in our current electoral system:
Political scientist Julia Azari has written the single most important sentence for understanding both Trump’s rise and this dangerous era in American politics: “The defining characteristic of our moment is that parties are weak while partisanship is strong.”

Here is the problem, in short: Parties, and particularly the Republican Party, can no longer control whom they nominate. But once they nominate someone — once they nominate anyone — that person is guaranteed the support of both the party’s elites and its voters.
Another way to put it would be that Trump won the nomination while garnering 13.6 million votes, less than a tenth of the electorate. But if this had been a bad year for the Democrats – stock market crash, recession, military disaster – that would almost certainly translate into the presidency.

I am not as worried about this as Klein, because I think a Trump presidency would more likely be a train wreck of embarrassment than the prelude to dictatorship, but it is something worth pondering.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

I will admit, it does seem like our political parties themselves are disappointing and full of a bunch of unlikeable, unelectable people.

But what's the alternative? The two options that seem to suggest themselves logically both seem pretty hard to realistically achieve.


1) Reform the parties to be stronger. But how? Where are we going to find people worth electing, who are also popular with large swathes of the population?

Part of the problem is the societal expectation that our presidents be celebrities. It doesn't matter if you'd be a genius at actually running the country if you can't also stand in front of a camera, project a certain "image", and generally devote lots of time and effort to being a carefully constructed cartoon rockstar media icon.

The other part of the problem is the expectations of the parties and the politicians themselves. They all play a little game amongst themselves, with lots of convoluted unspoken rules, lots of corruption and underhandedness, and lots of shady dealing and compromise. To be president, you not only have to understand and play that game, but you also have to be fairly good at it, because people aren't just going to let you "win" and have your way, even if you get elected. You could have the perfect agenda for your presidency, but if Washington at large isn't on board with it, you won't get anything done.


2) Convince society at large to be less partisan. Yeah, good luck with that.

Tribalism is alive and well. People cling desperately to fabricated allegiences, wrapping themselves up in arbitrary nonsense, and making it a deeply invested part of their identities and sense of self worth. People often pick political parties the same way they pick sports teams - and in far too many cases, their allegiences have less to do with quality of performance or actual worth, and more to do with a kind of blind faith or family and community tradition.

Many Americans manage to be "Conservatives" or "Liberals", "Republicans" or "Democrats" without really understanding or giving much thought to the what those things actually mean. They aren't ascribing to a certain social theory or political philosophy - they're just acting as a fanbase for a chosen favorite "team", and so long as their team "wins", they often don't much care about anything else.

The comparison I would make is to ancient Byzantium's system of demes. Our elections are far closer to chariot races than to discussions of policy and how best to run the country. One side cheers for the Blues, the other side for the Greens, smaller minority groups support less competitive demes such as the Reds or the Whites, and it's all basically just an excuse for vapid entertainment and angry hooliganism.

It simply remains to be seen whether we end up having our own Nika riots this week...