Rebecca Coulson is a freelance writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
I’ve been in the States for almost a fortnight, so am hyper-aware that everything that could’ve be written about this week’s election already has. Rather than attempting to analyse or predict in any formal sense, therefore, here are a few stream-of-consciousness reflections:
Trump and Brexit
Some people here are keen to compare Trump’s potential election with the Brexit vote. While this seems — on my and their behalf — an unhelpful and cliched observation, it points up how little we appreciate nuance. Increasingly, we expect complete empirical answers to questions like ‘what will happen?’ and ‘why did it happen?’. The former takes us into an overdone (but endlessly interesting) conversation about the limits of polling. The latter — particularly when we’re considering mass binary votes — can seem impossible to resolve in any simplistic way.
Sure, we can pin our chosen big narrative on to the result of such votes — ‘I told you people were evil’, or, ‘It’s a working-class revolution’. Yet that seems not only exploitably hyperbolic in the case of a close result featuring differences within – as much as between – social groupings, but also silly if voters were asked just one specific technical question. Moreover, in the case of a collective nationwide vote, if a relatively small number of ‘deciding’ voters (indeed, a single voter could suffice) had voted the other way, would that’ve completely changed the entire country’s narrative? Will we think differently of America, as a whole, dependent on who wins the popular vote? Yes. Will we remember that the electoral college result (the one that matters) is not properly comparable with the EU referendum not least because it involves a set of 50 individuated elections? Probably not.
Sweeping comparisons hide important differences, too. Americans smile knowingly when you tell them the only thing most Britons say about Bernie Sanders is, ‘Oh, he’s their Jeremy Corbyn’. And, sure, Trump-fearers reference Brexit in the hope of persuading themselves there’s a country more messed up than theirs — but it also shows an understandable desire for solidarity on realising that other people find it acceptable to vote for something they themselves never could.
America is just so big
This isn’t insightful, but America’s vastness resounds. There’s the micro vastness (I always forget the width of its streets and cars), and the macro (that impressed incredulity that these 50 disparate states, with their unceasing counties and gerrymandered districts, have managed to stay tied together. Cynics add ‘so far’).
I started off in Virginia, where I didn’t know they made nice wine. The list in one DC bar had tiny elephants and donkeys next to certain bottles; I spent too long trying to work out the logic behind their apportioning (state’s standard allegiance? Likelihood to change? Party of the vineyard’s district’s congressperson? None worked). Turned out the owner just thought ‘it’d be fun’. Aside from the constant background noise of 24-hour advert-broken TV news, that felt a rare example of overt DC election fever, though the Franklin statue outside the Trump hotel looked unhappy. I walked past New York’s Trump Tower a couple of days later; that the ‘famous’ roof gardens were ‘closed due to construction’ seemed like a message — I wasn’t sure of what. But the restaurant is accredited by the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences, as ‘One of the Finest’…
A few days after that, I was in San Francisco, wandering through Chinatown, plastic boxes of goji berries, dried mushrooms, and strange little fish tipping out on to the streets. A Thai place — with the greatest dumplings — wheeled out TVs to catch the Cubs win the baseball world series for the first time in 100 years. And now I’m writing this from St Louis, Missouri, where those Cubs are the rival team. Their win was celebrated, across the border in Northern Illinois, with the seventh largest gathering in history. Five million people. More than the popular vote’s margin of difference in the top 30 or so closest presidential elections…
St Louis — the name both of Missouri’s most populous county and city — can be seen as a microcosm of the country. On the same day I heard an excellent rendition of Howells’ St Paul’s at evensong in a leafy suburb near gated private streets, I also saw a plaque marking the spot where Michael Brown died. Yet those areas — Clayton with its lovely red maple leaves and world-leading university, and Ferguson with its now world-famous drug-related gun crime — are endlessly varied in themselves. Again, this is not a line-down-the-middle, simple thing. We’re talking about millions of people, voting on a (to all intents) binary question for all kinds of reasons: national, local, partisan, family, individual.
I spoke with a guy who works in a factory here. He’s a smart Democrat, who thinks Trump is ridiculous — a sentiment unshared by the majority of his coworkers. But he likes and respects them, and understands that many of them feel as if they’ve been missing out, and that Trump represents ’something different’, sometimes regardless of what that is (like those Corbyn fans who say ‘at least he’s got views’…). This guy listens to them even when they tell him that if he votes for Hillary, he’ll be conscripted into the inevitable war with Russia within three weeks. Attempting to understand why someone would vote for something you think is stupid or worse — as a vehicle for frustrated change, or for its own value — isn’t appeasement. It’s necessary to be able to consider how we’ve come to the point at which people are being given, and embracing the option to do so.
St Louis is also a great reminder that the presidential vote is not Tuesday’s only significant event. The executive (of which the president is head) is just one third of America’s Cerberus-like governmental formation. As well, there’s the judiciary (of which we’ve heard much since the death of Antonin Scalia), and the legislature, which includes Congress. Congress’s power to make laws means it can do anything from waging war to approving the appointment of judges (of which we’ll hear more now that even the once-reasonable members of the Republican Party are openly eager to block any replacement for him, in order to use the Supreme Court in the same concrete way they’ve been using Congress).
So, without support from those other branches, the President’s job is tough (cf Obama). States like Missouri, therefore, where the Senate race hangs by a thread, are essential watching: it’s one of the closest of the nine ‘battlegrounds’ (34 Senate seats are up for grabs; the Republicans hold it 54 – 46). Suspense here is compounded by the fact that the race to be governor (the state’s executive director) is also on the knife-edge — between candidates offering a unusual brand of crossover by each having formerly supported each other’s party.
Third parties and democracy
Party loyalty is big as ever, however; this is still very much a bipartite country. That’s true whether you think Trump doesn’t represent what the Republicans stand for or want (the selection of such a candidate being what happens when you assume your party will ‘decide’ sensibly without your input), or whether you think he’s the result of what the party has promoted implicitly for years (surely a strong argument).
I spoke with a third-party presidential candidate last week, and while he hadn’t planned to make the endemic problems faced by such candidates into a campaign issue, he’d found he’d had to. Not only is running immensely expensive — you need hundreds of thousands of signatories just to get on the ballot papers, never mind win votes — but, apparently, the rule book is also so dense that he threw it away, after having “broke[n] five rules the first day”. The process is designed for the major two parties, with their lawyers, accountants, and professional money-making strategists — again, unhelpful in terms of winning back that nuance.
On realising that people will vote, sometimes unflinchingly, for something you abhor, or on seeing vulnerabilities in your country’s decision-making system, it’s easy to conclude that democracy is a bad idea. But democracy is valuable in itself, not for the decisions it brings. It’s a mechanism — the purpose of which is to allow us to choose between the choices we’re offered, not to be a giver of ‘correct’ solutions. Trump is not Brexit, and neither is he an excuse for the behaviour of the people who vote for him. They do so knowing exactly what he is, for whatever reasons they see fit. We must be careful in interpreting what that means.