Political science geekery ahead… if you want actionable stuff about the game, though, we have that too… but politics is also a form of game theory, like the game itself.
The U.S. looks insane to the rest of the world because of some apparently minor political structures that over-power rural states and under-power urban ones. If you read The Federalist Papers (don’t worry, you won’t), you’ll see the concern about balancing powers among states expressed repeatedly. A quick history lesson: the American Revolutionary War (or “The war of the ungrateful colonists” depending on where you are) lasted from 1775 – 1783, and at the end of if the U.S. states created a joint and ineffective government guided by a document called the Articles of Confederation, which didn’t allow for sufficient coordination among the states; that ineffective document led to the creation of a Constitutional Convention in 1787, and the ensuing document was eventually ratified by the states in 1789.
Way back then, smaller states were worried about being bullied by larger states, and, to prevent that from happening, and to prevent the usurpation of the presidency by a tyrant, the U.S. Senate was designed to give each state two senators, irrespective of the state’s size, and the Electoral College was created to put a barrier between the possibly tyrannous will of the people and the power of the presidency.
The world had very little experience with democracy back then, and the states’s representatives were more like start-up founders than CEOs implementing a mature business process. They had no idea what the f**k they were doing and did the best they could with the limited experience they had at the time. Those features may have seemed good in the agrarian period when they were created, but since then the Electoral College has shifted from “stop tyrants if necessary” to “vote according to the vote of the people of a given state.” In modern presidential elections, that means only a handful of states matter, and the votes in those states count for far more than the votes of other states. At the same time, the ratio of the population of the smallest states and largest states has grown enormously. Montana has just a million people in it, and Idaho has just 1.7 million, while California has 40 million. Yet Idaho and Montana between them have double the Senate representation California does. A fairer, alternate Senate system might have two senators per state, and distribute those senators by state lines whenever possible, but also attempt to use a non-partisan commission to distribute senators. In a system like that, Idaho and Montana might have two senators, but California, Texas, and New York might have 3 – 4 senators (getting us closer to the “one person, one vote” ideal).
Instead, we have a system in which some rural votes are far more valuable than other rural votes. It’s also proven to be internationally true that, the more urban an area is, the more it votes towards the left. But the U.S. has a peculiar system that disproportionately empowers rural areas, and that’s had big international consequences over the last 20 years.
Imagine that the U.S. had a simple presidential system in which the winner of the most votes wins the presidency. In that alternate universe, Al Gore would have won in 2000, as the winner of the popular vote. There would be no Iraq War and the U.S. would be $1 trillion wealthier. In 2016, Clinton would have won as well (although if you have Gore win as a hypothetical in 2000, the world would have evolved in a different direction and perhaps many other things would be different too). And if you imagine that the U.S. had a fairer Senate system, the last ten years in particular would look very different, because a purely oppositional minority party would have had far less power. That minority party would have had to moderate its positions.
In a world closer to one-person, one-vote, the U.S. political outcomes would look much more like Canada’s, Australia’s, or the UK’s. The U.S. system disproportionately empowers a small number of minority rural states to set and sway the political agenda. Backwards rural states’s power leads to many of the undesirable outcomes we’ve seen over the last twenty years. The structure of the country allows a relatively unpopular rump party to set the country’s agenda. Once you realize this, you’ll realize that the U.S. is slightly less nuts than it seems, politically speaking.
The U.S. right doesn’t have the moderating influences that a parliamentary system would impose, and the U.S. right has been able to drift away from reality because it’s protected from the will of voters as a mass. If not for the Senate and Electoral College, we’d have a right wing closer to something like an Australian, UK, or European right wing. We don’t, though, so we don’t. Historically, this hasn’t been a big problem, because parties were less ideological than they are today.
Some combination of the end of the Soviet Union (big external enemy), the end of formal segregation, and the rise of social media seems to have created or grown political problems in the U.S. We’re likely to have a crisis that will likely lead to government breakdown and, hopefully, a peaceful transition to a parliamentary system. To understand why this will likely happen, remember that elections are mandated every two years. It’s possible for one party to hold the Senate and another party to hold the presidency and/or the House of Representatives. If different parties hold the presidency and one of the houses of congress, it’s possible for the president or for a house of congress to simply say “no” to everything. In other words, to impose total stasis. This situation might be okay absent a crisis or crises, but the longer it goes on, the stronger the pressure to do something, particularly if/when a crisis erupts. In 2008 and 2009, we still had enough bipartisanship left to respond to the financial crisis, and that could easily have turned into a bank run and a second Great Depression. (Relatively) fast federal action saved the country’s banks, albeit at great political cost to the left. If the next big financial crisis leads to bank runs and bank failure due to Senate inaction, we’ll have the conditions for total government breakdown.
In addition to the structural points above, remember that most people follow the leader… they aren’t stirred by abstract principle so much as they are by a particular person. People don’t tend to think for themselves, they tend to follow whoever the leaders are. You can tell the people who believed in anything resembling conservative principles, because they announced themselves as “Never Trumpers” in 2015 and 2016. They joined Project Lincoln. If they didn’t want to vote for the left, they voted for Libertarians, or not at all. They’ve been consistently against Trump since he appeared (there are zero of them in the U.S. Senate, by the way). The vast majority of the people on the right, slavish follow their leader (and the same is true on the left, but the left hasn’t produced any leaders with the level of competence or mendacity Trump does, so they’ve not been a defining problem). Very few people have stable independent views… their views are swayed by whoever’s on TV today.
Everyone forgets other incompetents boosted by politics, like Sarah Palin, who is now at best the butt of jokes, if she’s remembered at all. Memories are short. Today’s hero is tomorrow’s manure… something that’s also widely forgotten, by the partisans who are hyped up about today’s contest. No one watches old sports contests on TV, and no one cares about yesterday’s politicos, except weirdos interested in history. Tomorrow it will be some new hotness… something that the hottest tweeters forget. The tweeters also don’t realize we could use ten percent less democracy.
Last time an unpopular minority got disproportionate power in the U.S., in the 19th Century, said power was used to protect and promote slavery. Today’s rump party is not using its power to promote slavery, but it is possible for a minority set of views to hold the rest of the United States hostage, and, unless you understand the peculiarities of the U.S. system, it will be hard to comprehend the last 20 years of U.S. political history. It’s not the majority; it’s the minority. The U.S. is less crazy than we look, we just have a crazy legacy system. Most Americans don’t understand the ins and outs of this system, and most people in other countries understand it even less, and leading to the headlines about how crazy the U.S. is. The losses that would cause a party in a better system to moderate aren’t occurring in the U.S. system. Blame the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
One thought on “U.S. politics is defined by the structure of the American constitution:”
I see a lot of problems and flaws with the Democratic Party, and with the Left generally, but it pales in comparison to the dysfunction of the Right.
Republicans have become, with a few notable exceptions, a party which is incapable of governing. If Trump had merely responded to COVID in some sort of middling way–say promoting masks and making testing more available and putting some semblance of contact tracing in place, he would have been easily re-elected, despite whatever other flaws he has.
Instead, he pretended the virus didn’t matter, politicized masks, and convinced his followers it was either a hoax or some elaborate conspiracy concocted by the Left. And of course, that’s part of the problem: conservatives and Republicans have become so immune to lies and obvious mendacity and hypocrisy so long as it benefits Republicans, that the Right Wing in this country is rife with people who believe all manner of ridiculous conspiracy theories, and would seem to prefer just making shit up as opposed to acknowledging reality. As RQ points out, this is enabled by the Constitutional System we have in place which–along with gerrymandering (yes, both sides do it, but the fact is simply that Republicans have been far more aggressive and effective in this regard than Dems)–protects Republican politicians from facing the will of the People.
To be honest, I’d prefer to cast a vote for a moderate Republican–at the very least I’d like to see a more moderate, centrist version of the party that could more effectively curb the excesses and absurdities we see now popping up on the left (wokeness, gender has no biological basis/trans BS, abolish the police and BLM).
Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen, because that would mean: 1) accepting that we need to tax very wealthy people and corporations more than we do now, particularly billionaires and the multi-nationals, 2) expanding the social safety net somewhat along the lines of either a jobs guarantee, UBI, and/or single payer/universal healthcare, and 3) acknowledging the reality of climate change and shifting resources and tax policy toward enabling renewable energy (including nuclear) and away from fossil fuels. All of this would actually have great economic benefit as well as decreasing inequality–which is something that if we don’t get a handle on soon will start to cripple our economy and destabilize society generally.
But even as I write that, I know with almost 100% certainty it won’t happen. Why? Because these policies would be slandered as “socialism” and be therefore made toxic, not just to rank and file Republicans who can be largely controlled by throwing around scary labels and demonizing personalities (like Pelosi, Obama) and activating a victim mentality (Trump is a great example of this–everyone’s against him and it’s not fair), but also to limosine liberals who are happy to put black squares up on IG, say “BLM!”, and read “How to be an anti-racist” as opposed to doing anything that would actually help black people, like improving education, developing more affordable housing, ending the war on drugs, and increasing access to healthcare.
More importantly, the Republican Party’s only true policy agenda, basically since I’ve been alive, has been to funnel money into the hands of very rich people and large corporations, especially the fossil fuel industry. That and to stay in power so they can accomplish this goal. If they want to start winning the popular vote in presidential elections ever again–something they haven’t done in 7 of the last 8–they need to develop some sort of agenda that benefits ordinary Americans rather than the rich and well connected.
At the same time, the Democratic Party is a feminine party drunk on victimhood and identity politics, more concerned with sanctimony and political correctness than advancing policies that either help the economy or fix our democracy.
The consequence is bad–for everyone. And this is what people need to start to wrap their heads around. We’re essentially all involved in a big game of monopoly, and we’re nearing the end of the game, when it’s quite clear who’s going to win and it’s only a matter of time before everyone else has to declare bankruptcy. What we should want to do is figure out ways to disrupt that inevitability, to keep the game going. Because when the game ends all bets are off.
In the short (and long) run, to bring this back to game, what a player should want is a stable society with relative economic freedom and prosperity, but also a safety net that means there isn’t widespread poverty. Because as we’ve seen with COVID, when things get unstable, chicks go K-selected and stop fucking around nearly as much. So realistically, whoever can best accomplish that goal is who you should vote for, which is why I didn’t vote for Trump. Because Trump, even the best possible interpretation of him as a person and his behavior, is disruptive and destabilizing. Even when things were pretty normal for most of his presidency, the fact he was in office and the way he acted gave the appearance of chaos. The final tipping point was COVID, which he utterly failed at dealing with–we should all want a president, regardless of their policy agenda, who is capable of running the country competently…something Trump was not prepared to do.
The thing I’ll never understand is the degree to which Trump engendered a kind of worship–a devotion among his followers that was both slavish and puerile. Really bizarre to see, especially among Americans who tend to be pretty independent and aren’t prone to hero worship. Like, I would never defend an immoral act by any politician I supported–I might still support them, but I wouldn’t defend someone for say, not paying taxes, engaging in blatant nepotism, or betraying American interests and cozying up to dictators. But then, I’m sure many of the people who have bothered to read this and support Trump think I’m some sort of terrible person for not supporting him…
And really, that’s the true problem: we have to get back to a place where we can disagree on policy agenda without alleging that the other side is evil or immoral for having a contrary opinion. Both sides engage in a sort of brinksmanship that is both unreasonable and unhealthy. Voting for Trump does not make one a racist, just as voting for Biden does not mean you’re a socialist. It is possible to support a politician or party for any number of reasons, and that’s not nefarious. It’s American.
Guess we’ll see what happens here in the future, but until we become a less partisan, tribal country soon, the road ahead does not look great.