It’s been my ambition for some time now to dedicate a series to explaining American politics to our substantial audience of non-Americans. While this blog is comprised 50% of Canadians (our frosty neighbors north of the wall), the simple fact of the matter is that the land-the-free has long been the front line of culture war. What happens here affects the rest of the globe.
With the already hotly contested primaries underway and prospects for the 2016 election being widely debated, what better time could there be than now to explain just why it is that we the people are fundamentally screwed.
Let me break it down here.
I. The Person Who Wins Isn’t Always The Person Who Gets Elected
In spite of our praise for democracy, the American republic does not have a one-man-one-vote policy. Every four years, there’s a decent chance that the candidate with the most votes will still lose to his opponent.
See, we have something called the “electoral college”- a staggeringly complex system that not even this succinct TED video can completely cover. At its simplest, the system boils down to states having “points” assigned to them on the basis of their populations and number of congressmen and senators.
This system means that a political candidate doesn’t necessarily have to get a massive number of people to vote for him- just a majority. So long as he or she gets that majority, no matter how slim, they still takes away as many “points” as if they had won a landslide.
What that means is that a person can get elected president in spite of his or her opponent getting more actual votes. Just look at this image below:
While the majority of votes cast in this example are blue, red still wins by virtue of this system. While supposedly protecting states with smaller populations (preventing them from being drowned out by heavily populated states), the result is that a person’s vote can very well be rendered utterly pointless. Plenty of folks simply don’t even bother voting, especially in states dominated by one party. Alternatively, states with greater electoral power (more points, that is) and a habit of swinging between parties (Ohio and Florida, most famously) get disproportionate amounts of attention.
In spite of being viciously despised by folks on both sides of the political spectrum, there’s really very little hope for any reform on this point. While part of that can be blamed on tradition, plenty of it also boils down to a little thing called-
You know how I explained that states, rather than people, elect the president? Well, it gets worse.
Within states, the exact same process goes on- usually at a county or congressional district level. As with the electoral college, most states (there are a couple rare exceptions) will decide who they’re giving their points to based on the majority of districts won inside a state.
The point is that not only does a popular vote not elect a president, but a popular vote inside a state doesn’t decide who the state will wind up voting for. It’s the reason you’ll see the newscasters on election night “calling a state for so-and-so” before the state’s even finished voting. The battle’s already lost and won if the majority of people inside certain key areas vote one way or another.
Now politicians on both sides of the aisle know this, and have engaged in a ferocious battle for “redistricting”- strategically carving up a state in order to secure both local and national victories. Because of this practice (commonly called “gerrymandering”), we have districts as crazy as this:
That’s Illinois’ notorious 4th Congressional district- two chunks of the city, spuriously connected by a highway, to ensure Democrat domination. While the 4th district is a textbook example, it’s one of many, many shameless attempts by both parties to eliminate any possibility of competition.
III. Citizens United
Passed in 2010, the infamous “Citizens United” ruling struck down a long-standing regulation on limits for campaign donations. Prior to the decision, donations to politicians were strictly regulated, in terms of dollar amounts, the time of the donation, and which groups could provide funding. The principle idea was that candidates should generally be provided with equal access to the public, without dominating airtime or ad space with election ads. While certainly not enforced perfectly, it did allow for a certain degree of balance.
Then along comes a cabal of businesses and lobbyists, declaring that since money talks, these election regulations were an attack on their free speech. After a bitter battle, the ironically named Citizens United ruling was made, striking the old regulations down and allowing pretty much unlimited donations to political candidates- who were only too happy to sell themselves out to the highest bidder.
IV. Super PACS and Foreign Interference
Worse yet, the wealthy managed to discover a way to funnel all of this money to their favored candidates under the blanket of anonymity, through “Political Action Committees” or “PACs”. These committees can provide massive donations to a candidate while protecting the anonymity of their donors. The end effect is that a politician can be bought, but never reveal who’s pulling his or her strings. And here’s where things can get really sticky.
Companies and corporations- especially larger ones- often have a wide number of owners and stockholders from all over the world. Beyond the obvious issues of corruption, there’s the problem of foreign influence.
Say we have a multimillion dollar company. The company itself is American run and owned, but has a high number of Chinese stockholders. As major investors, these Chinese stockholders can exert influence on the company, and yes, that includes decided which candidate to back. The end result is that a candidate can receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from non-American investors in exchange for legislating in their interests, rather than the interests of his countrymen.
And yes, that is the plot of the second season of House of Cards.
V. It’s Do Or Die
Perhaps worse than anything, however, is that this has all become a savage catch-22. The optimist will tell you that if you don’t like the way things are, get out there and vote, but as we’ve already seen, your vote probably won’t even count. Or even if it does, it won’t count as much as the piles of cash a corporation can throw around. Heck, a tycoon can live out in Athens, Georgia or Athens, Greece and still probably exercise more influence over your senator’s decisions than you can. And even for the candidates running on reform platforms, there’s precious little hope. Running an election, even on a local level, can be ridiculously expensive, and even otherwise reasonable candidates found themselves taking
bribes donations just to be able to compete.
Now that’s not to say that nothing can be done whatsoever. Victories have been won, and there’s always room for surprises. But international readers, please understand: if the coming months produce some spectacularly awful political decisions…
…then we’re most likely just as ticked off as you are.