Friday, 11 November 2016

It was a triumph for Trump. But for democracy? Not so much

It’s become a bit of a recurring refrain these days: you have to bow to the will of the people. And you have to learn to listen to them.

If you’re in any sense a democrat, then the first statement is so obvious as hardly to need saying. So why do people say it? 

Because they mean rather more than you might think. What they mean is that not only should we bow to the will of the majority, but we should like it. That’s no part of the democratic compact. We have every right to oppose a decision of the people and to try to amend it; the only obligation on us is to accept that if the will of the people remains firm, we have to acquiesce to its ultimately being acted upon, however much we dislike.

What about listening to people? I keep being told that too, and it’s another obvious idea. So again the people who say it must mean more than the words suggest. They are asking us not so much to listen, but to go along with what we’re hearing. If people are saying that there are too many immigrants, I feel I can listen and then explain, yet again, in the clearest possible terms, and with as much patience as I can muster, that they’re problems aren’t being caused by immigrants.

Indeed, by focusing on immigrants, they let off the hook the very groups they should be targeting: employers pressing down on wages, reducing rights at work, making jobs as precarious as possible, all with the support of a government that regards being “business-friendly” as meaning backing those employers, reducing their taxes while increasing everyone else’s, and recouping the money by cutting back on benefits. Opposing racism, as well as being morally right, also makes good economic sense. So I’m fully prepared to listen, but not with a view to reaching some kind of compromise with notions that are both repugnant and counter-productive.

What does all this mean in practice, right now? Well, in the US, we are under an obligation to accept the outcome of the 8 November election. It was fought under long-accepted rules – the provisions of the US constitution – and Trump won. We have to accept that he has the right to occupy the White House.

But that’s as far as I’m prepared to go towards all those people who tell me to knuckle down and stop complaining about his victory. Why shouldn’t I complain? It is perfectly democratic to prepare to oppose him. And this is particularly true in the case of Trump: his victory may have been won under the rules, but it wasn’t democratic, in the strict sense that it did not reflect the will of the people. Why?

Trump: elected but not democratically
Because Hillary Clinton beat him. She took 60,556, 142 votes to his 60,116,240, a clear majority of 439,902 even though it was small (under 0.4%).

Why was she denied?

Well, as its name implies, the United States was set up by a bunch of states which agreed to pool their sovereignty. They certainly weren’t prepared to give up all control over their lives though they went a great deal further than, say, the European Union, where states are retaining so much of their sovereignty that one of them, Britain, is even packing its bags and leaving.

One of the impacts of the retention of states’ rights in the US was that the President would not be elected directly by the people but the states, though with each state casting a vote weighted to reflect the size of its population. In other words, the President is elected indirectly with voters only choosing electors, state by state, and the electors choosing the President.

This can obviously create a situation where the people’s choice is out of line with the electors’, as it did this week. The phenomenon is relatively rare but, strangely, it has happened twice in the last five elections. In 2000, Republican George Dubya Bush beat Al Gore despite having fewer votes, before Donald Trump pulled off the same trick against Hillary Clinton this week.

Just in case anybody has forgotten, Dubya was the man who seemed to fulfil HL Mencken’s famous forecast:

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

He took us into the Iraq War, one of the most appalling decisions of recent decades, which has left the Middle East in chaos and led to the emergence of so-called ISIS with the atrocities that we know followed.

Now we have Donald Trump elected in the same way, against the will of the people. This is encouraging, if only because it shows that there’s still a majority in the US against the unstable bigotry Trump represents. He seems likely to illustrate Mencken’s prediction about the Presidency, even more fully than Dubya did.

So, Trump has won the office, in accordance with the rules. We have to accept that. But he doesn’t represent the will of the people and lacks democratic legitimacy.

Given the fear we must have that he’ll take decisions even more catastrophic than Dubya’s over Iraq, why on Earth shouldn’t we oppose them?

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