an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘elections

what Americans will never do to save their democracy

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– stop relying on their gentlemanly 18th century constitution and create more L-A-W.


– reduce the presidency to a figurehead and place more power in the congress where it belongs


– encourage a wider range of parties to create an effective multiparty system which works by compromise rather than a two-party adversarial system which encourages hostility and winner-takes-all


– get rid of these worthless, ridiculous presidential debates (goes with reducing the power of the presidency)


– cap individual and corporate campaign contributions at a very low level.


– ban all electioneering claptrap until 2-3 weeks before elections


– thoroughly vet all presidential candidates via testing on US political history, presidential responsiblities, US foreign relations, treaty obligations etc A vetting for the job as for any CEO position. Duh!

Written by stewart henderson

October 29, 2020 at 7:33 pm

reading matters 3

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Will he go? Trump and the looming election meltdown, by Lawrence Douglas, Professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought, Amherst College

Content hints

  • failure of impeachment, high crimes and misdemenours, rigged voting, media scum, sleepy Joe, election hoax, treason, fraud, shades of 2016, tweetstorms, dictator worship, Putin, Erdoğan, Orbán, the USA’s quaint constitution, pathological lying, Presidential authority to ban media, Trump as weak authoritarian, foreign interference, catastrophic scenarios 1,2,3, the unforeseeable, the electoral college and faithless electors, uniquely awful system, hacked elections, profoundly antidemocratic outcomes, gerrymandering, swing states, 12th amendment, enemies of the people, problems of peaceful succession, civil war, hang on, bumpy ride.

Written by stewart henderson

June 28, 2020 at 3:01 pm

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.

References

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/RP0708/08rp05

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2020 at 3:34 pm

there’s no such thing as a fair election 1: the apportionment issue

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Canto: So we’ve been talking about how politics have been interacting with the Covid-19 pandemic, and came to the tentative conclusion that strong centralised governments, collaborationist and respected by their citizens, were faring better at managing the situation than right-wing quasi-dictatorial anti-government governments like Trump’s USA, Putin’s Russia and Bolsonaro’s Brazil…

Jacinta: And those three countries just happen to fill the top three places in Covid-19 cases, though to be fair, they have very large populations. Anyway, the Scandinavian countries we looked at all seemed to have coalition governments of some kind, and from our great distance we preferred to assume that they operated through some kind of more or less happy consensus – but maybe not.

Canto: So we’ve been reading David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, and there’s an interesting chapter, ‘Choices’, which looks at voting systems and what we want from government…

Jacinta: Or perhaps what we need, or should expect. What is objectively best, something which Deutsch, being a progressivist optimist, believes we’re converging upon – what he calls, in the political sphere, ‘advancing from misconception to even better [i.e. less damaging] misconception’. Deutsch considers first the ‘apportionment problem’ in the USA, a problem that many electoral polities have, as they attempt to represent particular electoral regions, with their different populations, fairly within a federal electoral system. The USA, like Australia and many other countries, has a House of Representatives, to indicate the aim of representative government. There are 435 US House seats, and the Constitution requires that these seats be apportioned to the states according to their populations. For example if state x has 5% of the nation’s population, it should get 21.75 House members. This is of course impossible, so the obvious thing to do is round up to 22, right?

Canto: Obvious, maybe, but brimming with controversy, because this rounding up, or down, will affect states’ representation, often rather more than was ever suspected. Deutsch imagines a more simplified House with 10 seats, and 4 states. One state holds a little under 85% of the population, the other three have just over 5% each. Rounding will mean that the large state gets rounded down to 8 seats, the three smaller states get rounded up to 1. This means that you have to add an extra seat, but it also means that the smaller states are over-represented, population-wise, and the large state is under-represented. And if you don’t add an extra seat, and the rule is that all states must be represented, then the larger state is reduced to a grossly unrepresentative 7 seats. You could of course add two seats and allocate them to the large state, giving it 9 out of 12 seats, but that still under-represents that state’s population, while enlarging the House to a questionable degree.

Jacinta: In fact a quick calculation shows that, to provide that large state with 85% representation, while giving the other three states a seat, you’d have to add 10 more seats, but then you’d have to add more seats to make the other states more representative – unless I’m missing something, which I probably am. And so on, the point being that even with a simple model you can’t, just from a mathematical perspective, attain very precise representation.

Canto: You could, on that simple model, take a seat way from the least populated state, and give it to the most populated one, thereby keeping the state to ten seats, but having no representation at all seems grossly unfair, and in fact the US Constitution explicitly states that ‘Each State shall have at least one Representative’. The aim, of course is to have, as near as can be, the right measure of representativeness. Having no representation at all, even in one small region, contravenes the ‘no taxation without representation’ call-to-arms of the revolutionary American colonists and the founding fathers.

Jacinta: Yet all the argy-bargy that went on in the USA in the 19th century over apportionment rules and quotas – and it was often fierce – overlooked the fact that black peoples, native Americans, the poor, oh and of course women, were not entitled to be represented. As Deutsch points out, the founding fathers often bandied about the concept of the ‘will of the people’ in their work on the Constitution, but the only ‘people’ they were really talking about were the voters, a small fraction of the adult population in the early days of the nation.

Canto: Nevertheless the apportionment issue proved the bane of election after election, eminent mathematicians and the National Academy of Sciences were consulted, and various complicated solutions were mooted but none proved to everyone’s satisfaction as the system kept chopping and changing.

Jacinta: Of course this raises the question of whether majority rule is fair in any case, or whether fairness is the right criterion. We don’t decide our science or our judiciary by majority rule – and good science, at least, has nothing to do with fairness. Arguably the most significant weakness of democracy is the faith we place in it. In any case, as Deutsch reports:

… there is a mathematical discovery that has changed forever the nature of the apportionment debate: we now know that the quest for an apportionment rule that is both proportional and free from paradoxes can never succeed. Balinski and Young [presented a theorem which] proved this in 1975.

Deutsch calls this a ‘no-go theorem’, one of the first of which was proved by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow more than twenty years before. Arrow set out five basic axioms that a rule defining ‘the will of the people’ should satisfy:

Axiom 1: the rule should define a group’s preferences only in terms of the preferences of that group’s members.

Axiom 2: (the ‘no dictator’ axiom) the rule cannot designate the views of one particular person regardless of what the others want.

Axiom 3: if the members of the group are unanimous in their preference for something, then the rule must deem the group to have that preference.

These 3 axioms are expressions of the principle of representative government.

Axiom 4: If, under a given definition of ‘the preferences of the group’, the rule deems that the group has a particular preference, this remains the group’s preference if some members who previously disagreed with that preference now agree with it.

Axiom 5: If the group has some preference, and then some members change their minds about another matter, then the rule must continue to assign the original preference to the group.

These all seem like unproblematic axioms, but Arrow was able to prove that they were inconsistent, and this turns out to be problematic for social-choice theory in general, not just the apportionment issue. According to Deutsch at least, it reveals the mythical nature of ‘the will of the people’.

Canto: Did we really need to be told that? There is no ‘people’ in that sense. And I’m not talking about the Thatcherite claim that there’s no society, only individuals. I’m talking more literally, that there’s no such thing as an indivisible national entity, ‘the people’, which has made its preference known at an election.

Jacinta: Agreed, but that rhetoric is so ingrained it’s hard for people to let it go. I recall one of our prime ministerial aspirants, after losing the federal election, saying ‘graciously’ that he would bow to the ‘will of the people’ and, what’s more, ‘the people always get it right’. It was essentially meaningless, but no doubt it won him some plaudits.

Canto: In fact, voting doesn’t even reveal the will of a single person, let alone the ‘people’. A person might register a vote for person x mistakenly, or with indifference, or with great passion, or under duress etc. Multiply that by the number of voters, and you’ll learn nothing about the soi-disant will of the people.

Jacinta: Okay, we’ve talked about the problems of apportionment under the US multi-state system. Next time we’ll look at the different electoral systems, such as proportional-representation systems and plurality or ‘first past the post’ voting. Is any system more fair than another, and what exactly does ‘fair’ mean? Good government is what we want, but can this be described objectively, and can this be delivered by democracies?

Canto: Well, here’s a clue to that good government question, I think. I walk into my class and I’m faced with twenty students. If I’m asked ‘who’s the tallest person in the class?’ I can come up with an answer soon enough, even if I have to make a measurement. But if I’m asked ‘who’s the best person in the class (not the best student), I’m very likely to be lost for an answer, even if I’ve taught the class all year….

Jacinta: Interesting point, but we’re not talking about the best government. There might be a variety of good governments, and you might be able to point out a variety of students/persons in the class who’ve positively impressed you, for a variety of reasons. Good government is not one.

References

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

The Institutional Design of Congress

Written by stewart henderson

May 26, 2020 at 10:08 pm

Represent Us and ‘US democracy’ part 3

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So I previously looked at the model act, the American Ant-Corruption Act (AACA), which was first crafted by the chair of the Federal Election Commission, Trevor Potter, in 2011. How to get Congress to support an act which is contrary to the vested interests of its members? Silver, Lawrence and co argue that the best strategy is to bypass Congress and focus on state and city legislatures. By passing forms of anti-corruption laws state by state and city by city, a momentum for change will be caused, as has occurred in the past with other legislation. Apparently states have control over how any election, including federal elections, are run in each state, presumably including financial contributions to candidates. They cite a 2015 Bloomberg News study which shows that passing these kinds of local laws does lead to a victory in the federal sphere. This has apparently occurred with women’s suffrage, interracial marriage, and same-sex marriage. Once a certain number of states have come on board, federal passage becomes inevitable.

So that’s the argument. Now I want to look more closely at those examples. The Bloomberg News study ‘looked at six big issues—interracial marriage, prohibition, women’s suffrage, abortion, same-sex marriage, and recreational marijuana’. The legislation results are shown in the graph below.

The video looked at three of these.

In the case of women’s suffrage, Wyoming was the pioneer, granting full voting rights to women when it entered the union in 1890. The National Woman Suffrage Movement began to organise over the next couple of decades, and Wyoming’s neighbour, Colorado was the next to ‘fall’, followed by Utah and Idaho (also new states, presumably). After the Great War, the numbers increased rapidly, leading to the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920.

Interracial marriage had a longer and more troubled history due to the north-south civil war divide. Many states had no ban at all, but such marriages were generally frowned upon in the decades following Reconstruction (1865-77), especially in the south. California pioneered major change in 1948 when its Supreme Court, in a tight decision, ruled that its ban on interracial marriage was unconstitutional. Thirteen states followed in the next few years, and in 1967 the federal Supreme Court ruled against all state prohibitions.

The first change to US prohibition of same-sex marriage came in 2004 when the Massachusetts Supreme Court found the ban unconstitutional. Connecticut followed in 2008, and other progressive states followed. In 2013, ‘the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government must recognise same-sex marriages performed in states where it is legal’. This led to number of state courts lifting bans. The federal Supreme Court made its final ruling in favour of same-sex marriage in mid-2015.

So, the strategy of focusing on state legislature seems a sound one, in the long-term. The question is, how long might this take, and have there been any, or is there likely to be any, initial successes? The strategy is to create grassroots, cross-party campaigns, and the video claims, but without any links to evidence, or any detail, that it has chalked up 85 ‘wins’, with the hope that there will be many more in the future.

Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) provides probably the most comprehensive overview of corruption issues and anti-corruption legislation on a state-by-state basis in the USA. A read-through of a couple of state analyses (Alabama and Florida) highlights, for me, the complexity of the problem. In spite of many reforms, statutes, codes of ethics and monitoring bodies, both these states are plagued with financial corruption problems. It would seem that, for federal success, a co-ordinated program of similar or near-identical anti-corruption and finance-limiting laws relating to elections and public office need to be enacted. Represent Us, with its American Anti-Corruption Act, appears to be aiming at just this. It would also make the federal Supreme Court’s job a lot easier if the appropriate laws are already written, requiring little adjustment to suit the federal level.

Finally, Represent Us has a comprehensive website advertising and providing details of its above-mentioned wins. Many of these seem to be at the city or council level, and I’m not familiar enough with the fine detail of US politics to measure their significance, but clearly it all adds up. This is undoubtedly a vital movement to get the USA out from under this overwhelming weight of money in politics. Another movement, I think, should be seeking to alleviate the poverty and disadvantage in large swathes of the country, to provide those currently suffering under this disadvantage a sense that their vote can make a difference, that they are welcomed contributors to an American community.


Written by stewart henderson

April 3, 2020 at 2:55 pm

the real story of American exceptionalism

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Sorry, God, I haven’t read your book but I’m sure you agree, haha

Canto: So while listening to the commentariat buzzing about the latest Trumpian debacle (you can take your pick), I’ve noticed the term ‘American exceptionalism’ being tossed about, whether in jest or earnest I’m not sure. What do you think it means?

Jacinta: Well we’ve already highlighted American jingoism, which is an across-the-spectrum problem, though more common among those who haven’t travelled much. It worries me more when I hear it from pundits who should know better, because people who think they’re exceptional tend not to be too self-critical. And Americans need to be more critical than ever, of their political system, which has brought them to this pass.

Canto: Yes, we’ve talked about this before but I recall a pundit saying, a few months ago, that America’s founding as a nation was in response to a tyrant – whom he named as the British monarch, George III – so why were they apparently descending into a tyranny now? But this wasn’t quite the story was it?

Jacinta: That’s right. The Brits had executed one of their monarchs a century and a half before the formation of the American state, precisely for being overly intransigent and tyrannical. Then a half-century later they threw out another one for similar reasons. George III was a constitutional monarch, and it was parliament that was making decisions about the American colony. Of course Britain wasn’t a fully representative democracy at the time, but then neither was the new American state – only 6% of the population was allowed to vote in their first Presidential election. It has taken centuries for western countries, including the US, to arrive at full adult suffrage. There are no exceptions in this.

Canto: There’s an article here by a presumably American professor of international relations at Harvard which punctures the American exceptionalism myth, and it says much that we already know, that powerful nations, regardless of their internal politics, are always keen to maintain and expand their sphere of power and influence, and that tends to be the basis of their foreign policy. That explains Britain’s behaviour in the ‘new world’ as much as it explains US behaviour in the Philippines and the Pacific, and in Vietnam and Iraq. The US has been expansionist since the get-go, and it shouldn’t take that much self-critical analysis to understand why so many regions of the world despise the very term “American’. This doesn’t make Americans exceptionally bad, but we should surely have reached a point in our progressive development to realise that foreign lives matter as much as those of our own nation.

Jacinta: Yet again and again, amongst even the liberal commentariat, we get comments like ‘leader of the free world’, ‘the checks and balances that make us stand apart from other nations’, ‘the nation that others look to’, ‘the world’s greatest democracy’ and other thought-free shibboleths. And now more than ever, as their nation has been brought down through allowing a clearly unqualified and inadequate boy-king to become their head of state, with powers far beyond his capacities, Americans need to take a good hard look at themselves and their political system rather than simply moaning about the boy-king and hoping that the system can withstand him. A better system would have dealt with him long before he ever got to this position.

Canto: But really, can you prove this? Can you give examples?

Jacinta: Well no system is perfect but let’s look at the recent meeting of Trump and Putin. Of course it would be silly to compare Australia with the USA in this regard – Putin would have no interest in a meeting with our PM – but any country under the Westminster system – say the UK – would have much the same checks and balances. And this is the thing – a Prime Minister under that system would see her role in very different terms, generally, from the President under the US system. She is first and foremost the leader of her party in Parliament, and is present in Parliament every day that it sits, leading the arguments and being informed, whether she likes it or not, of the dissension and divisions within her own party as well as the contrary views of the opposition. So a meeting with a major and adversarial head of state would inevitably be a matter thrashed out in Parliament, with the PM taking part in the debate. And of course, being closeted together in Parliament House with the Foreign Minister and other relevant ministers is a very different situation for the national leader than being completely separated from Congress and surrounded by mostly hand-picked underlings who are simply paid to do her (or I should now say, his) bidding. A recipe for disaster, if not dictatorship. Not to mention, as I already have elsewhere, the host of privileges and responsibilities vested in the ‘commander-in-chief’ and accorded to no other national leader in a democratic country. The fact that this sort of system is seen, by far too many Americans, as a shining example to all nations is surely proof that the US is exceptional only in its jingoism and its hubris.

Canto: Well that’s pretty strong stuff, and I’m not sure I entirely agree with you, and I’m not sure you answered my question. What’s to prevent a Trump-like figure becoming Prime Minister of Australia?

Jacinta:  I thought I’d explained. Our national elections are not fought out between Mr Conservative and Ms Liberal, one or other to be head of state. They’re fought on a mixture of local and national interests, essentially in the manner of the US mid-terms. We’re voting, essentially, for the party we want in power, as well as a local member we like (for those few who keenly follow politics) and we give due consideration to the leader of that party, always knowing that if that leader underperforms or is found to be corrupt or whatever, there are other elected representatives that can replace him, as quite often happens…

Canto: But even in Australia a situation could occur that a, shall we say unconventional, but very popular figure emerges, with a populist false-promises agenda that appeals to the masses (in a manner largely incomprehensible, if not reprehensible, to the elites), so the party – and surely it would be the Right – might batten on to her as its principle means of gaining and holding onto power – a Faustian bargain and all that – and vote her into the PM position…

Jacinta: Well everything’s possible in the worst of all possible worlds, but it’s far more unlikely. When Trump first started his bid, his candidacy was hugely unpopular within the Republican Party, so he took his message, such as it was, to the people. That’s to say, he worked out as he went along what his people lapped up most voraciously and he fed it to them. As many pundits over there are saying, he’s transformed most of the Republican party, and even more of the voters, into his lapdogs and willing enablers – ‘the party of Lincoln!’ as the Republican never-Trumpers moan. There’s really no opportunity for that to happen within the Westminster system. We have elections between two established parties, in the main, and they often have two established leaders, who owe their positions to party discipline. They’re not in a position to go rogue like Trump has done. And if one of the parties has a shiny new leader she’ll be more likely to toe the party line because she’s not yet established and because she knows the election is about far more than just her. We don’t have any simple person v person elections, except in small by-elections, and hopefully never will.

Canto: Well, I think you’re right, but it’s notable that, in all the noise from the free press from over there, there’s precious little soul-searching about the political system that has permitted someone so obviously inappropriate to hold an office that gives him so much power. Everyone knows that great power should come with great responsibility. Every sensible person in the USA is raging about Trump’s irresponsibility, but virtually nobody is raging about a political system that enables someone of his type to gain this enormous power without sufficient checking, and nobody seems to have anticipated how he could find means, in his blustering way, to extend a power that is already massive to an almost ridiculous degree.

Jacinta: So yes, that’s the real exceptionalism. The US bangs on about being the greatest democracy, but democracy by itself isn’t enough. Most people who vote – no matter what country they’re in – know precious little about how their government works, about foreign relations and trade, about history, about developments in science and technology, even about systems that protect their own welfare, so they’re susceptible to false-promising demagogues, especially if they feel they’re struggling more than they should. Concerns about democracy and demagoguery have been voiced loudly since the days of Plato and Aristotle. The US seems to have been exceptionally deaf about them. The bulwarks against demagoguery are not, as pundits keeps saying, institutions of democracy, they’re institutions of an open society. The free press is a meritocracy, owing its duty to the facts and the evidence, not to ‘the people’. The same goes for the judiciary, which owe its duty to the law and its judicious interpretation according to precedent and the given facts and evidence. The science and technology sector should be at arm’s length from the government, owing its credibility to the independent interpretation of data and confirmation of hypotheses, always subject to peer review. Now, to some extent, I’m talking about an ideal here – I’m sure no government is perfectly open in this way. But Trump has, in his blunderingly self-serving style, corrupted the free press and the judiciary in the minds of ‘his’ people, turned his nation’s formidable foes into his nation’s friends and vice versa, and made America a kind of monstrous laughing-stock worldwide. And there’s another problem – he will not give up his Presidency. He will not. And it will certainly get worse. So that’s a problem for their country’s responsible adults to deal with. I wish them well.

Written by stewart henderson

July 21, 2018 at 9:46 am