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Americans need to stop blaming Trump, and take responsibility for their broken system

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So there was a Presidential debate the other day, and it went as expected, by all accounts. I didn’t watch it, and never had any intention to. I’ve taken a strong interest in US federal politics in the past 4-5 years or so, with the advent of Trump, but in watching cable news I’ve always had the remote handy so as not to have to hear anything coming out of Trump’s mouth, or the mouth of some of his acolytes. Trump’s presence and position makes me feel enraged, a feeling of actual violent loathing which has always come over me when I encounter bullies. This has nothing to do with politics, or at least political ideology. Of course bullying is a feature of politics. The term ‘authoritarian leader’ is generally a euphemism for a bully, and we all know who the current ones are. 

However, as a person who, if not philosophical, has read a fair amount on philosophy and psychology over the years, I try to use those insights to calm and divert. For example, there’s the issue of free will, which I won’t go into in detail here, but we’ve learned – from the Dunedin longitudinal study, for example – that early childhood shapes our character far more than most of us are willing to admit. This often goes unnoticed because most of us have had relatively normal childhoods within the broader social milieu, which also shapes us to a large degree. However, as a person who has been in fairly close contact with highly dysfunctional families and the children born of them, the long-term or permanent effects are clear enough. In the case of Trump I don’t want to speculate too much, but it’s clear from family members, long-term witnesses, and psychological and neurological professionals, that Trump’s seriously damaged persona was in place from a very early age. Many of those who’ve known him longest say things to the effect that you have to think of him as an eight-year-old, or ten-year-old, or pre-adolescent, and it would indeed be worthwhile if neurologists could gain access to his pre-frontal cortex, which of course will never happen now. Some argue that he has deteriorated in recent years, and of course I can’t respond to that in any professional way, but I’m certainly skeptical. The bluster, the attention-seeking, the endless repetitions, the perverse doubling down, and the complete inability to say anything insightful or thought-provoking, these all represent a pattern of speech and behaviour that hasn’t changed in the couple of decades since I first encountered him. Of course this behaviour is exacerbated when he’s under pressure, and it’s this pressure and scrutiny, rather than his age, that gives the impression of deterioration, IMHO. 

I’ve described Trump, only half-jokingly, as a pre-teen spoilt brat turned crime machine, but whatever descriptor you choose to use, it should be clear to any reasonably sane and insightful observer that he’s not normal – and that this abnormality has entirely negative features, such as extreme selfishness, vanity, incuriosity, vindictiveness, blame-shifting and solipsism, which tend to damage others far more than himself, and which explains the title of Republican strategist Rick Wilson’s book Everything Trump touches dies. But of course Trump himself bustles and blunders on, and on. Indeed in some business and political environments, these ‘qualities’ can be very beneficial to the individual endowed with them, as Trump’s business career, however ‘fake’, has shown. 

 It’s this environment that needs to be analysed with a view to cleaning it up, so that those people like Trump, and the greatest influence on his life, his father, are unable to thrive. Think of Vibrio cholerae in faecally contaminated water. Draining the swamp indeed. 

I have written before about the political reforms that are urgently required, though I recognise that many of them will never be instituted, until it’s too late. Business and judicial reform are also urgently required, and perhaps the silver lining to the Trump debacle will be some long overdue attention to these areas, when and if the nation survives this crisis. I’m reluctant to make suggestions in fields in which I have little or no expertise, but I’ll make some anyway. In doing so, I’ll claim the benefit of being an outsider, as I note that very few American pundits, in spite of their obvious intelligence and wealth of knowledge, make mention of them.

  1. Vetting

Americans love to boast that, in the land of opportunity, anyone can become the nation’s President. It’s great for inspiring schoolkids, but have they really thought this idea through? The USA, as many of its inhabitants love to tell us, is the most powerful country, militarily and economically, in the world. It surely follows that any candidate for the highest office in that exalted nation, that of actually leading it, in the manner of a CEO,  should be fully versed in its operations, alliances, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – as would be expected of any other potential CEO. Herein lies a major problem of democracy – populist demagoguery. Because of America’s direct election system, Trump could bring his circus cavalcade directly to the people, in the teeth of scorn from Republican stalwarts, most of whom fell in line with him over time. Trump had had no experience in any form of government, and the business cognoscenti knew very that Trump’s businesses were shambolic. So the warning signs were clear and obvious from the beginning of his candidacy.

Under variants of the Westminster system, used in every other English-speaking democracy, there’s an informal vetting system that, in a sense, flies below the radar. To become Prime Minister (primum inter pares – first among equals) you need to have already won a local election, and to have impressed your parliamentary colleagues as a worthy, articulate, responsible, collegial leader. It’s not a foolproof system of course, but by its nature it emphasises the team as much as its leader. As with a soccer team, the Prime Minister, the Captain, is just perhaps the most prominent member, and if she loses form, or ‘goes rogue’, she can be replaced without too much fuss. The team may be affected, but not massively disrupted. But consider the US situation, where the presidential candidate, or candidate for Captain of the soccer team, gets elected by the people because of all that she promises, in spite of never having played soccer in her life, knowing nothing of the rules, and after being elected, gets to choose her own team all of whom are just as clueless about soccer as she is. That isn’t far from the current American situation. The President, or Captain, needn’t worry about a revolt from within, no matter how poorly the team is performing, because they owe the captain their highly lucrative jobs, which they would never have gotten without her. 

After the failed impeachment process earlier this year, the American pundit Chuck Rosenberg said something that made my jaw drop. He said that removing a President from office is and should be very difficult. That the US is, fortunately, not like Britain, where the PM can be removed by a simple vote of no confidence by his party. I believe the exact opposite to be true. Of course, there’s a sense in which Rosenberg is right. Under the highly problematic US federal system, removing a President creates a crisis unlike anything created by the removal of a Prime Minister under the Westminster system. Under the US system, this completely unvetted President gets to choose his own running mate, who is likely to be no more competent than the President, a very low bar in Trump’s case. Indeed the President gets to choose a whole team of sycophants to ‘run’ his administration, none of them elected by the people. So, yes, given this autocratic system, dumping the President is indeed a dangerous event. The  Vice-President, barring illness, must take over, in spite of never having been independently elected. Under the Westminster system, however, dumping the Captain allows other elected team members to put their candidacy forward, and the team, the whole membership of the right or left wing party that’s in power, gets to choose a new Prime Minister – again based on the qualities described above.

   2. Power 

Special executive powers, veto powers, power to shut down the government, power to select a team of unelected Secretaries (State, Defence, Treasury etc) – performing the role that previously elected Ministers perform under the Westminster system, as well as extraordinary power over the judiciary, including personally selecting an unelected Attorney-General with apparently unlimited power to over-ride judicial decisions as well as to personally determine the legal liability of the President while in office. These are the gifts bestowed upon the person of the incoming President by virtue of his winning a majority of Electoral College seats. Compare Prime Ministers, who must go to work within the parliament, leading the debates, under the constant scrutiny of his fellow ministers and colleagues, and within spitting distance of the opposing elected representatives. 

It seems obvious to me that an American President’s position, between elections, more closely resembles that of a monarch, only slightly hindered by a sometimes oppositional Congress/Parliament, than does the position of a Prime Minister under the Westminster system. And now we see that the ‘monarch’ can even go a long way to manipulate the forthcoming election in his favour. As many American pundits are finally noticing, a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ Constitution is wholly inadequate for reining in a President who is not in any sense a gentleman, but will Americans ever be self-critical enough to enact clear-cut laws limiting Presidential power, forcing tax disclosure, setting clear and enforceable guidelines on emoluments, and ensuring a uniformly free and fair federal electoral system? Time will tell, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on it. 

3 Hero worship 

Sections 3 and 4 are less about the USA’s political system and more about its political culture, so will I suspect be much more difficult to change. 
Contrary to popular belief, Superman wasn’t born on the planet Krypton, but in Cleveland Ohio. Batman and his boyfriend Robin were born in New York, not Gotham City. Spider-Man, Wonder-woman as well as mere mortal heroes such as Rambo, Indiana Jones and John McClane were all typically American do-goodnicks and swamp-drainers, and no doubt classic presidential material. They seem to me to testify to a somewhat naive national tendency of Americans, a desire to place their trust in heroic individuals rather than teams, programs, policies and processes. Presidents are recalled by their numbers, worshipped by their admirers and reviled by their detractors, whereas in most other democracies, leaders evoke much milder emotions and are soon forgotten once replaced. Presidential elections are hyped to a mind-numbing degree, involving grotesque expenditures and apparently mandatory gladiatorial debates. All of this OTT razzle-dazzle seems almost designed for self-aggrandising con-artists like Trump, and it’s clear that he revels in the circus and the adulation. Much of his Presidency has been nothing more than a punctuated campaign rally. How to dial the nation down from all this hyperventilating claptrap? Possibly the Trump overdose might actually help. Once Trump’s dumped, a look around at how so much of the world is faring very well without American exceptionalism may lead to an extended period of good sense and sobriety – and a unity never before experienced, but which will be necessary to save the country’s reputation. 

4 Partisanship and Tribalism 

This, admittedly, is now a global problem. Social media, much of it headquartered in the USA, has led to huge increases in conspiracy theories, vaccine ‘hesitation’ groups, flat-earthers and other mind-numbing activities and belief systems. It’s becoming rare to find people reading old-fashioned newspapers with their diversity of takes on current affairs. The viciousness of Youtube political commentary is there for all to witness. People are throwing verbal bombs at people they’ll never meet, whose human lives of friendship, humiliation, suffering, struggle, anxiety and achievement they seem not even to know how to care about. We tend to see this trend as predominantly American, perhaps because we’re inundated by American media here in Australia and most other far-flung English-speaking countries. We constantly see videos of “ordinary Americans” apparently beset with certainty and contempt, however mask-like and brittle. It does seem like Trump has set this agenda, but many pundits also argue that the country has been polarised in this way for generations. The tragedy for Trump supporters is that they get so little in return for their adulation, and it seems the most disadvantaged and desperate are the most deluded. As I’ve argued from the beginning of this presidency, it’s highly unlikely to end with a whimper. The worst is surely yet to come. I’m certainly not wishing for it, but it may be the only outcome that can shake the country out of its ‘exceptionalism’, and towards a more realistic program of political (and media) reform and cultural healing. 


Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2020 at 11:27 pm

some thoughts on fascism and American exceptionalism

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Fascism isn’t compatible with democracy, that’s the common view. Yet we know that fascism can utilise democracy to get started, and then toss it aside, when it, fascism, gets itself sufficiently established. It happened in Germany, of course, and in modern Russia Putin has trampled upon the seeds of democracy that were just starting to take root after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now his brand of fascism has managed to prevail for the foreseeable.

Also, fascism, though somewhat limited, can occur between democratic elections, if the elected person or party is given too much power, or leeway to increase his power, by a particular political system.

Fascism is a particular type of popularism, generally based on the leadership rhetoric of particular, highly egotistical individuals, almost always male. Other current examples include Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Phillippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Kadyrov in Chechnya, Kim Jong-Un in North Korea and Orban in Hungary. There are certain features of this political brand. Ultra-nationalism, militarism, ‘law and order’, control of the media and persecution of opposition are all essential elements.

I note that historians would mostly disagree with the ‘fascist’ moniker being used today – they like to restrict it to the early-to-mid 20th century, generally being quashed as a ‘coherent’ political movement by the second world war. Even the term ‘neo-fascist’ is generally grumbled about. I think this is false and ridiculously so. The elements of fascism described above have been used by states not only in the 21st century but since the origins of the state thousands of years ago, though of course no two fascist states are identical, any more than their leaders have been.

Every state, even the most democratic, is susceptible to fascism. The USA’s susceptibility is worth noting. To me, its ‘soft underbelly’ is its obsession with the individual. Perhaps also an obsession with worship, saviours and superheroes. Of course, Americans like to describe themselves as the most democratic people on earth, and the world’s greatest democracy. In fact, having listened to more US cable news shows since 2016 than is good for my health, I find this declaration of America’s top-class status by news anchors, political pundits, lawyers and public intellectuals to be both nauseating and alarming. It betokens a lack of a self-critical attitude towards the USA’s political system, which lends itself to populist fascism more than most other democratic systems. Few other such nations directly elect their leaders, pitching one heroic individual against another in a kind of gladiatorial contest, two Don Quixotes accompanied by their Sancho Panzas. Their parliament, too – which they refuse to call a parliament – has become very much a two-sided partisan affair, unlike many European parliaments, which feature a variety of parties jostling for popularity, leading to coalitions and compromise – which to be fair also has its problems, such as centrist stagnation and half-arsed mediocrity. There are no perfect or even ‘best’ political systems, IMHO – they change with the personnel at the controls.

It’s unarguable that the current administration which supposedly governs the USA is extremely corrupt, venal and incompetent. It is headed by a pre-teen spoilt brat with an abysmal family history, who has managed to succeed in a 50-odd year life of white-collar crime, due to extraordinarily lax laws pertaining to such crime (the USA is far from being alone amongst first-world nations in that regard), and to be rewarded for that life, and for the mountain of lies he has told about it, by becoming the president of the world’s most economically and militarily powerful country. Unfortunately for him, the extremely high-profile status he now has, and which he revels in, being a lifelong, obsessional attention-seeker, has resulted in detailed scrutiny and exposure. Now, it may be that, even with the laying bare of all the criminality he has dealt in – and no doubt more will be laid bare in the future – the USA’s justice system will still fail the simple test of bringing this crime machine to book after he is thrown out of office. Then again, maybe it will be successful, albeit partially. And the crime machine is well aware of this. And time is running out.

The USA is in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, and suffering terribly. On this day, July 24 2020, the country suffered over a thousand Covid-19 deaths in the past 24 hours. The USA has approximately 14 times the population of Australia, where I live, but has suffered more than 1000 times the number of Covid-19 deaths. It is a monumental tragedy, with hubris, indifference, blame-shifting and deceit at the highest government level, and heroism, frustration, exhaustion and determination at many state levels and especially at the level of critical and general healthcare. And there’s a presidential election in the offing, an election that the current incumbent is bound to lose. He hates losing and will never admit to losing, but there is more at stake for him now than for any other previous loss, and he knows this well.

Which brings us back to fascism. It has recently been tested, on a small scale, in Portland, and it’s being threatened elsewhere, but to be fair to the people of the USA, their civil disobedience, so disastrous for getting on top of Covid-19, is a very powerful weapon against fascism. It remains to be seen whether it will be powerful enough. The next few months will certainly absorb my attention, happily from a far-away place. I’m sure it’s going to be very very messy, but I’m also interested in 2021 in that country. How will it ensure that this never happens again? Serious reform needs to occur. Greater restrictions on presidential candidature must be applied. Not financial restrictions – wealth being apparently the only vetting criterion Americans seem to recognise. How is it that a person is allowed to become the leader of such a powerful and dominant country on the world stage without any of the kind of vetting that would be the sine qua non for the position of any mid-level CEO? Without any knowledge of the country’s history, its alliances, its laws, its domestic infrastructure and so forth? To rely entirely on the popular mandate for the filling of such a position is disastrous. This sounds like an anti-democratic statement, and to some extent it is. We don’t decide on our science by popular mandate, nor our judiciary, nor our fourth estate. We have different ways of assessing the value of these essential elements of our society, and necessarily so. The USA now suffers, via this presidency, for many failures. It fails to vet candidates for the highest office. It fails to provide any system of accountability for criminality while in office. It fails to ensure that the candidate with the greatest number of votes wins office. It fails to ensure its electoral system is secure from foreign and/or criminal interference. It permits its elected leader to select a swathe of unelected cronies without relevant experience to positions of high domestic and international significance. It permits its leader to engage in extreme nepotism. It fails in dealing with presidential emoluments. The current incumbent in the ‘white palace’ may not be able to spell fascism, but his instincts are fascist, as shown by his absolutist language, not necessarily the language of an adult, but neither is the language of most fascist leaders, who share the same brattish love of insult, thin-skinned intolerance of opposition, and lack of common humanity. These are precisely the psychological types who need to be vetted out of all political systems. This isn’t 20-20 hindsight. Vast numbers of people, in the USA and around the world, saw Trump as the mentally deficient liar and con-man he’s always been. It’s up to the USA to ensure that such a type can never rise to anything like this position of power and influence again. It requires far more than soul-searching.

Written by stewart henderson

July 25, 2020 at 11:53 am

the USA’s weird Electoral College system

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number of electors per state, favouring rural states

Canto: What do the words ‘electoral college’ mean to you?

Jacinta: Let me see, ‘electoral’ has something to do with processes and methods relating to elections, and a college is an educational institution, and connected words like ‘collegial’ and ‘colleague’ bring to mind teams and teamwork, in an educated sort of way. I’ve also heard about the electoral college in relation to US federal politics, but I’m not sure what it means. At a guess, I think it just means the electorate, and the regions it’s made up of, though why that would be called a ‘college’ I’ve no idea.

Canto: Well there’s this American-only phenomenon called the Electoral College I’ve been hearing about since I’ve been tuning into what has become, hopefully briefly, Trumpistan, but the term has kind of washed over me, and I’ve not thought of it as anything more than a fancy term for the electorate and its divisions, as you say. But no, a little book called Will he go?, by Lawrence Douglas, a professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College, has taught me otherwise, though I’ve not completely got my head around it, so now’s the time.

Jacinta: Wikipedia tells me it goes back to that worshipped but problematic constitution of theirs. It also seeks to explain how it works, but it doesn’t really explain, at least not in its initial section, how it was thought needful.

Canto: Well, Douglas has a chapter in his book, ‘The Electoral College revisited, alas’, which opens thus:

The Electoral College is our constitutional appendix, a vestigial organ that has ceased to perform any valuable function and can only create problems for the body politic. It is a deservedly unloved part of our Constitution. Recently asked what part of the Constitution she would most like to alter, Justice Ruth Baider Ginsburg quickly answered, ‘the Electoral College – I’d like to see it abolished.’ Most Americans agree. No poll conducted over the past 70 years has found a majority of Americans supporting it. Only roughly one third of those polled in 2019 ‘would prefer to keep’ it.

L Douglas, Will he go? p 49.

Douglas goes on to argue that the USA is the only country in the world where the loser of a presidential election, based on popular vote, can actually win it by means of another system, namely the Electoral College in this case.

Jacinta: But in Australia we often have parties losing the popular vote but gaining more seats and so gaining ultimate victory, or in cases where neither party has an outright majority, it’s the party that can form a coalition with minor parties or independents that can form government.

Canto: Yes but here they’re talking about one-on-one presidential battles, no coalitions. Though such one-on-one races are just indicative of a bad political system, IMHO. And the reason parties win with a minority of votes is because the voters in some electorates are ‘worth more’ than the voters in other electorates. This imbalance was sort of deliberately created to provide more rural states with more power, so they wouldn’t be swamped at every election by the urbanites, but with the dramatic increase in urbanisation in recent decades, and the increase in productivity of those urban states, it’s become clear that the most urbanised states are effectively subsidising the rural states, while being dudded out of their share of the vote.

Jacinta: This isn’t a problem with the Electoral College, though, is it? The solution to what you’re talking about could surely be solved by a kind of independent commission on demographics, which could redraw the electorate every few years, say, on the basis of the movement of peoples….

Canto: Which would thus constantly be reducing the value of the rural vote, which would, if people considered the value of their vote to be a high priority in their lives, increase the rate of urbanisation. I’m wondering if that would ultimately be a good thing. But to return to the Electoral College..

Jacinta: Before you go on, this problem of losing the popular vote and winning the election, which has become much more of a factor in recent years in the US, is far more of a worry in these one-on-one contests, because you could have contests between, say, a centrist candidate and a far-right or far-left candidate, and if the extremist candidate manages to win the contest based on electoral boundaries rather than popular vote – which can be done more and more in the US, even with a substantial loss in the popular vote – that candidate and his personally appointed courtiers (another example of American exceptionalism) can do substantial damage to the public interest during his term, given the extraordinary powers given to one person by the system. That’s what’s happening now – though Trump is neither right nor left, nor up, he’s just down down down.

Canto: True, and if you regularly adjusted those boundaries so that they better captured one-vote-one-value, it’s probable that Trump would never have been elected. As Douglas writes, perhaps a little optimistically, ‘it seems fair to say that it is harder to convince 50% of the electorate to embrace a politics of division and intolerance than it is to convince 40%’.

Jacinta: Trump has never had 50% popular support at any time during his presidency, which provides support for that.

Canto: So the Electoral College system is little understood by even tertiary-educated Americans. Douglas suggests that its very opacity from the public perspective is a damning indictment, but it requires an amendment from the most impossible-to-amend constitution on the globe to change or dump it. In fact their constitution is hoist by its own petard in this case, as the system gives disproportionate power to less populous states, who would have to ratify its elimination. It’s a collection of electors, 538 in all, so requiring the magic number of 270 for a majority, who meet every four years to decide who’ll be the President.

Jacinta: I thought the federal election did that. So clearly the EC, if I can call it that…

Canto: Please do.

Jacinta: Clearly the EC is tightly bound to the election. I knew there were some 500-odd parts to the election, or the electorate, but I just thought that meant 500 electoral regions, a certain number in each US state, just as there are currently 47 electoral districts here in South Australia. Why would they need electors, and what are they?

Canto: To be honest, it’s confusing – when people, including Douglas, complain about the Electoral College, it seems to me they’re complaining about the electoral system, which again can be made to be highly unrepresentative of the popular vote, with safe electorates and swinging electorates, which can change as electoral boundaries change, and that can happen quite often, in Australia at least. But, the electors…. it all started with the very concept of the President, and the so-called separation of powers. In the USA they originally had the idea of a President being something like a monarch, only elected, and having to fight for re-election every so many years. But they also wanted a parliament, again like Britain, which they, presumably just to be different, called a congress, as a ‘coequal branch of government’. But in Britain, parliament has long since ceased to be a co-equal branch, it is the government. No need for a separation of powers, parliament is the power.

Jacinta: You’re right, the US congress is just another parliament, and the USA is still just a British colony – why can’t they face facts?

Canto: Anyway, back in the day, there was a huge amount of argy-bargy about this separation of powers, with constitutional conventions and various formulae and compromises, and finally they settled on this weird electoral college thing, with electors from each state ‘in the same numbers as their representatives in Congress’.

Jacinta: So a state with, say, seven electoral districts will have seven electors. For what possible reason? If one guy wins the district, he wins the seat. What more do you need?

Canto: That’s the billion-dollar question. I’m trying to get to the reasoning. In fact, your straightforward option was favoured by some constitutional convention delegates, such as James Madison, though he recognised that this might disadvantage the South, where there was a disproportionate number of slaves, and of course, they would never be allowed to vote, even if they were freed. Though I’m not sure how this situation could be resolved by an Electoral College. The whole idea of this EC seems as complicated and bizarre as quantum mechanics.

Jacinta: And as impossible to get rid of.

Canto: So, an elector for each electoral district, who was expected to be a proxy for the district, voting the way the district voted. But each state was able to choose its electors and to decide on how they chose them. You would think this wouldn’t matter, as they were required to vote the way their district voted. But get this, they weren’t legally obligated to do so – at least there was no clear law, and still isn’t any clear law, forcing them to do so, and there have occasionally been ‘faithless electors’ who’ve cast their vote for the loser.

Jacinta: Which is highly undemocratic. But I still don’t get…

Canto: Don’t bother, just thank the dogs you don’t live in America.

Jacinta: Oh well, I’m sure they do their best, the poor wee souls…

Written by stewart henderson

June 22, 2020 at 11:01 pm

there’s no such thing as a fair election 2: Australia’s systems, and the real value of democracy

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Canto: So let’s talk about varieties of representative democracy, because I’ve never been clear about them. Looking at the Australian experience, this government website has a summary which starts thus:

The Australian electorate has experienced three types of voting system First Past the Post, Preferential Voting and Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote).

The first-past-the-post system hasn’t been used in Australia since the 19th century. All our elections now use forms of preferential and proportional representation voting. Australia, incidentally is one of only three countries in the world that uses preferential voting in major elections. Under full (as opposed to optional) preferential voting, each candidate on the ballot must be given a preference, from first to last. This tends to favour major parties, whose candidates are recognisable, but it can also lead to a local election being won by a candidate with fewer votes than her major opponent.

Jacinta: Yes, this can occur when no candidate gets a majority on the first count. A second count is then held and the candidate with the least votes is excluded. That candidate’s second preferences are distributed amongst the remaining candidates. This may give the second most voted-for candidate the lead, with over 50% of the vote. Or it may put the most-voted-for candidate over the 50% line. Or neither, in which case a third count occurs, until one candidate scores over 50%.

Canto: Yes, as this shows, minor party candidates need to score highly in the first count to have much chance, as second preferences are more often than not directed (by how-to-vote cards, which they may not choose to follow) to the more high-profile major party candidates. This is why minor parties almost never win a seat in the House of Representatives, which, unlike the Senate, uses the preferential voting system. And overall, there can be a problem with this type of voting in single-member electorates, in that one party may win a few seats by large margins, while another wins many seats by a small margin, and so wins more seats while losing the popular vote. That’s of course why governments often engage in pork-barrelling to swing marginal seats.

Jacinta: Some of the concerns raised by full preferential voting can be alleviated somewhat by an optional preferential system, but that brings its own problems which we won’t go into here. Let’s look now at proportional representation, which in the Australian context is described thus on our government website:

Proportional Representation is not a single method of election, for there are a number of variations in use, including the Single Transferable Vote, two variants of which are used in Australia. One is used in Senate elections, and the Hare-Clark version….. is used for elections to the Tasmanian House of Assembly and the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The Senate model for elections is described thus:

Each state and territory acts as a single, multi-member electorate in Senate elections. In half-Senate elections six senators are elected from each state, and two from each territory. In full Senate elections, which follow a dissolution of both houses of the Parliament, 12 senators are elected from each state and two from each territory.

To be elected, a candidate must achieve a quota of votes. Without going into detail, the system provides a greater likelihood of minor parties gaining a Senate seat, and so a greater diversity of voices tends to be heard in that chamber. This also helps the Senate’s function as a ‘house of review’ as the governing party has difficulty in gaining a majority there.

Canto: In ‘Choices’, a chapter of David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, proportional representation is described even more negatively than other options, as it tends to result in watered-down, compromise solutions which end up pleasing nobody and, more importantly, don’t actually solve the problem at hand. But the real issue is broader. We can try to invoke mathematics and social-choice theory to make political systems more representative, but even if this was ‘successful’, which various no-go mathematical theorems show can’t be done, the question arises as to whether the most ‘truly’ representative system will be the fairest and best. As Deutsch points out, all this argy-bargying about voting and representational systems is about input to the system rather than output in the form of good decision-making – the institution of good policy and the removal of bad policy. The creation of pathways to good policy.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s worth quoting what Deutsch, partially channelling Karl Popper, is aiming for here:

The essence of democratic decision-making is not the choice made by the system at elections, but the ideas created between elections. And elections are merely one of the many institutions whose function is to allow such ideas to be created, tested, modified and rejected. The voters are not a fount of wisdom from which the right policies can be empirically ‘derived’. They are attempting, fallibly, to explain the world and thereby to improve it.

Canto: Interesting that Deutsch is careful not to say anything negative about democracy here, but he’s actually underplaying the role of democracy in decision-making, because we all know, I think, that new and important and worthwhile ideas aren’t created by democratic process, but by intellectual elites of one kind or another. These ideas are often carried forward by elected officials who have either helped to create them or have been persuaded by them. It may be that they don’t work or ‘their time hasn’t come’, but if there is a kernel of truth or real benefit to them, as for example with renewable energy and electric vehicles, they will, with modifications and adaptations, succeed in the end.

Jacinta: Yes, and what this sort of progress has to do with democracy is that there really is no political system that nurtures innovation and improvement in the way that democracy does, even if it does so with what sometimes seems frustrating slowness, and with the blockages by vested interests that so often infect politics, democratic or otherwise. Patience, I suppose, is a virtue.

Canto: Yes, democracy is in some ways a politics of persuasion, an invitation to try and discuss and dispute over new ideas, with accepted rules of engagement, trial and error, modification, exchange and respect, grudging or otherwise. And of course, with ongoing elections, it’s also a politics of renewal and revision, and that’s the fairest way of going about things as far as I can see it.


David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2020 at 3:34 pm