Trump inauguration as the reductio-ad-absurdum for US democracy

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Democracy Index Map
Democracy Index Map

[CN: Trump] Today will be the US inauguration. Given the importance of the Electoral College for Trump’s victory it’s a great time to examine why self-identifying as a democratic country doesn’t mean shit.

Democracy has a pretty good brand so naturally countries want to identify as having democratic institutions. A lot of the time discussions about whether something’s a democracy devolve into bickering about technical definitions (eg. “democracy vs republic”). I think that’s a waste. We can establish common ground about what people might mean by democracy. For example: a country where all its people (to the maximum extent possible) can follow fair election processes to choose a representative government.

It’s not my original idea, but based on the above definition, the US wasn’t a democracy at its founding since only white landowners could follow an election process to choose a representative government. If disenfranchising most of the population isn’t a barrier to institutions being democratic I don’t know what is. A more accurate date for the US becoming a democracy might be when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.

This scrutiny could/should of course be applied to all countries. Australia was definitely not a democracy before 1965 when the last state (Queensland) removed its voting exclusion of indigenous Australians. Similarly even if you don’t buy the arguments for why we shouldn’t consider Israel a democracy even today, they’re pretty substantial.

I’ve seen talk that Clinton’s popular vote victory doesn’t matter, or that it’s worthless as a talking point against trumpism. This argument is probably people talking past each other. Yes the popular vote doesn’t matter to the actual fact of Trump becoming president. But the point is that it should matter. The 2016 election is the reductio ad absurdum for the Electoral College and the entire US democratic system. To me it’s not because the voting system is the Electoral College, it naturally produced this result. Rather it’s the converse: because the Electoral College system produced this result, it naturally shouldn’t be the voting system.

There are heaps of resources by now about how much the Electoral College sucks. Two good ones are this explanation by Vox and this NPR article about how it’s theoretically possible to win the presidency with just 27% of the popular vote.

These are discussions inside the US though — being an outsider I can afford to be more extremist. I think having the Electoral College should disqualify the US from being considered a fully-functioning democracy yet (at least for the presidential election). A process where your vote’s weight can vary by a factor of 3.5 depending on the state you live in can’t be called a “fair election processes”. Also if you’re comfortable saying the US wasn’t a democracy before the Voting Rights Act, you should reject it now as well — on similar grounds. Before the VRA, minorities weren’t prohibited from voting by explicit law; they were disenfranchised by indirect policies. But with the Electoral College, minorities also aren’t prohibited from voting by explicit law; they are disenfranchised by even more indirect policies.

The Electoral College functions now as essentially affirmative action for rural people as a protected class. This is not to bash affirmative action, but why should rural people be singled out as a protected class for the presidential election, given how many other groups could be protected classes that are just as (or more) valid? An impossible dream would be electoral votes given by national income brackets.

According to the Democracy Index, in 2015, the US was just on the border between “Full democracy” and “flawed democracy”:

Wikipedia table

For the index to be meaningful, the US has to at least drop down a category to “flawed democracy” when 2016 is taken into account. More frighteningly, that’s an average — some individual states would score much lower. The GOP pulled such shameful shit in North Carolina that the Electoral Integrity Project gave the state a score of 58/100, placing it alongside authoritarian states and pseudo-democracies like Cuba, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. It was “not only the worst state in the USA for unfair districting but the worst entity in the world ever analyzed by the Electoral Integrity Project”.

Speaking of which, how much of a representative democracy can you claim to be if your uhm representative congressional districts can be confused with fractals?

Congressional districts map

The point isn’t just to sound the alarm bell, although that would be good. What’s more important is to acknowledge that:

  • Many countries that self-identify as democratic in fact have very flawed and undemocratic processes.
  • The US is a perfect example (one of many).
  • This more objective fact than perspective — someone who prefers the US system should be arguing against representative democracy.
  • Trump’s election and today’s inauguration should make the above facts even more obvious to the outside world.
  • Trump’s election and today’s inauguration should severely diminish (and I think it has!) the international community’s opinion about how well US democratic institutions function.
  • For this purpose, the popular vote is very important and should be repeated ad nauseum until the problem is fixed or we die in a Trump-induced extinction event, whichever comes sooner.