In a few days’ time the United States has its presidential election. And this has been an election like no other, in a country in the middle of a pandemic, divided over issues of race and facing very grave economic outcomes. The candidates debates between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have been heated and personal, which many potential voters will certainly have found to be a turn off. Politics in the United States has hit a new low.
At the start of 2018, a year into the Trump Presidency I wrote a blog post claiming Trump was a genius. In this post I said the following:
When Trump first announced his candidacy for Presidency in 2015, he was largely written off as a joke. The political establishment were quick to pronounce “oh that will that will never happen.” 18 months later he’d beaten both the Bush’s and the Clintons, the families who’d won 5 out of the previous 8 elections. He was able to win rust belt states like Michigan that previously were considered ‘safe’ Democrat states. The reality is that Trump defied the odds, and he was able to harness the support of enough angry, alienated hope deprived American voters to install himself into the white house.Genius Trump, published Nick Kelly’s blog 20 January 2018
I stand by my assessment made nearly three years ago and further believe it still applies today. Currently Democratic challenger Joe Biden is ahead in US opinion polls and has been consistently since gaining the Democratic Party nomination. This would be reassuring news for those wishing to see Trump removed from office, were it not for the fact that in the 2016 race Hillary Clinton also was ahead (albeit by not as much) in polls. Winning US elections is not about winning the most votes nationally. Hillary won the popular vote in 2016 by roughly 3 million votes, yet she still lost. The presidency is decided by an antiquated and thoroughly undemocratic electoral college system whereby each state has a certain number of electoral college points, and the candidate who gains 270 or more points wins the presidency. For this reason, and this reason alone, a second term for Donald Trump still cannot be ruled out.
Trump has built a core base of support, espousing cynical politics of fear and hate. His achievements after four years as president are few, and his mistakes and political missteps are too many to count. Yet he has a base who believe in him and his message. Specifically, they believe that the media misrepresent everything that he says and does, or that when something goes wrong that it is everyone else’s fault but his. Most frighteningly, when he uses the language of hate, it resonates with a significant section of US society.
There are many who feel demoralised by the offerings in this election. Biden, who was Vice President under Obama has been both gaff prone and uninspiring throughout this campaign. For those who supported progressive candidate Bernie Sanders, Biden represents the Democratic Party old guard who will do little but maintain a broken status quo. For those on the right, who oppose Trumps racist, anti-science and socially conservative agenda, they struggle with having to support a Democrat even if the Republican candidate is repugnant. And for many millions of voters in the US, they see the political system as dysfunctional and not something they wish to take part in.
US politics operates in a binary system where you get a choice of two parties. In this race the choice is between two old white men who have considerable wealth. Many would argue that voting for Biden over Trump is merely supporting the lesser evil and ultimately achieves nothing. Whilst Biden maybe just the lessor evil I completely disagree that supporting or voting for him in 2020 achieves nothing.
Were I eligible to vote in the US election this year I would vote for Joe Biden and for Democratic party candidates in both houses. Further, I would actively encourage all eligible voters to do likewise. Why would I do this you ask?
Firstly, we are currently in the middle of a global pandemic. In the US, the most powerful nation on the planet, there is a President who has consistently ignored the science, who shamefully has defunded the World Health Organisation and whose actions have caused many preventable deaths both in the US and globally. Further he suggested that drinking bleach may help cure COVID-19. By contrast, Biden does listen to scientists and has not tried to appeal to “anti-maskers” or those who deny there is a global health crisis.
Secondly, one of the challenges we face as a species is that of climate change. Again, President Trump has consistently ignored all scientific advice regarding climate change and instead actively pursued a policy of supporting polluting industries and resisting any opportunity to change. Further, under the Trump Presidency, backed by Republicans in the Senate, the US has refused to sign up to international treaties that would reduce carbon emissions. The Democratic Party’s record on climate change is far from great, but they acknowledge it is a real problem and that action is needed. A victory for Biden would see the US take more action on climate change.
In June I posted a blog about the Black Lives Matter movement and the underlying racism that exists within the US and the English-speaking world generally. Trump has consistently attacked this movement and tried to frame the debate as a law and order one. Further, he refused to distance himself from the far-right Proud Boys group, reminiscent of his 2017 comments after the attacks on protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia where he infamously said there was fault on both sides. Trump has consistently pandered to racists for support throughout his presidency and before. Again, the Democratic Party’s record on race relations is far from exemplary (they were the Party of the slave owners during the Civil War), but when comparing Biden’s record to Trumps on race relations, Biden wins hands down.
Trump won in 2016 by appealing to voters in “rust belt” states where traditionally the Democratic Party had done well. Trump promised to create jobs and help those who had been left behind over the last few decades. The Clinton campaign ultimately lost because she and senior Democrats did not understand that the economic policies of both parties over the previous 30 years had left these communities behind. Trump offered them hope. Four years on it is clear that this hope was false. Trump’s presidency has primarily been to serve the wealthy and powerful, not least himself. Understandably many would argue that Biden does not offer significant economic change if he beats Trump, a criticism that is fair. But a second term of Trump rewards deceit and opportunism. Electing Biden gives the Democrats an opportunity to restore the trust and confidence of its former supporters by implementing policies that address economic inequality in the US.
Trumps presidency has been about “America first” isolationism, white supremacy and serving the powerful elites and ignoring science. It is simply unacceptable that the most powerful nation on the planet is ruled by a president like this. Not only should Trump and his Republican Party be defeated in the upcoming election, they should be defeated in a landslide. There needs to be a clear signal that this sort of cynical, deceptive and dangerous politics has no place in 21st century democracy.
However, whilst I would vote and campaign for Biden in the US presidential election, I do so with the understanding that the US political system is fundamentally flawed and in no way a good example of a functioning democracy.
As already mentioned, the electoral college voting system means the candidate who wins the most votes may not win the Presidency. This was the case in both the 2000 and 2016 presidential races. The reason is that the electoral college points are allocated by states and this tends to favour smaller and traditionally more conservative voting states. But the electoral college is not the only issue. The senate elections are also not proportional as each state is given two senators. Wyoming with a population of 586,107 has the same number of senators as California with a population of 39,114,818 (see Ranking of States by population here). And if you live in Washington DC then you do not get representation in either Congress or the Senate.
I have posted on this blog before about electoral systems, and specifically believe that the First Past the Post electoral system used in the UK and the US results in too many votes not counting and the final outcome not representing the will of the people. The electoral system used in the US strongly favours the two party system and makes it near impossible for other parties to be represented. It also means if you are a Republican voting in a safe Democrat state or vice versa your vote probably will not count.
The United States is further held back by a Constitution that is cumbersome and difficult to change. Trying to bring about any sort of serious change to allow Gun Control in the US, something that polls suggest a majority of Americans support, would require a change to Second Amendment of the US Constitution. How can the US Constitution be changed? It requires 2/3 support for a proposed constitutional amendment in both the Congress and Senate (see above about how these houses are NOT representative). On gaining this, it then needs to be approved by the legislature of 34 of the 50 US states then ratified by 38 of the 50 states (again the smaller conservative states get a much greater say than larger ones). A full explanation of this can be seen here.
Then there is the Supreme Court. Whilst this court has in the past made progressive rulings resulting in more liberal laws such as the 1973 Roe vs Wade decision on abortion or the 2013 United States vs Windsor decision on gay marriage, this court is politically stacked. In 2016 Republicans successfully blocked President Obama’s appointment to the Supreme Court, yet in 2020 Trump successfully appointed conservative Amy Coney to replace the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who was a progressive. That the country’s highest court is so clearly partisan, again a system protected by the constitution, means one can have little confidence in this country’s justice system.
Then there is wide-spread voter suppression in the US, something which may still decide the 2020 US Presidential election in many marginal states. As this Financial Times opinion piece outlines this practice involved measures such as strict voter ID rules, despite many from poorer and often black communities not having any form of ID. Deleting from registers the names of those who have not voted in years, rather grotesquely referred to as “list hygiene.” Then there is the practice of denying the vote to those who have been incarcerated or who have a criminal record.
In 2015 former US President Jimmy Carter said the US was now “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery”. Few can now doubt that US politics is dominated by big money, something that has always been a factor but in recent decades has become much more dominant. The US political system is a difficult one to reform or improve. It has also proved to be one that is easy for big business to control. Why does the US not have a free public health system like the UK, Canada or most other western democracies? Because private insurance firms spend big money campaigning against it, including funding political campaigns of candidates from both major parties.
Will electing Joe Biden president help change any of these fundamental flaws in the US system? Almost certainly not. Even if the Democrats win a 2/3 majority in both houses, and gain a majority in over 38 state legislatures, and have the courage to try and amend the second amendment, it is still unlikely that the amendment would succeed. Unless of course there is a groundswell of public opinion demanding change that can stand up to the well-funded gun lobby.
A Biden Presidency, with the numbers in both houses to pass legislative change, can take serious action to prevent the spread of COVID-19, on climate change and to tackle racism head on. It may even create an opportunity for some much-needed economic reform in an increasingly unequal and unbalanced society. But for more significant and positive change this will require not only the election of politicians willing to reform (something many Democrats lack both the will and the courage to do), but a political movement unlike anything ever seen before in the United States.
In a broken political system like that of the United States, voting for Joe Biden over Donald Trump is not selling out. And yes, a Biden/Harris presidency will likely do things that many of us find objectionable – especially in foreign policy. But at this juncture in history, it is important that the presidency of Donald Trump is defeated on Tuesday 3 November 2020, and soundly. For as much as Biden may not deliver in many policy areas, a second term of Trump will do untold harm not only to the United States but to politics globally.