If what is happening in the United States were taking place in another country, the American foreign policy and media establishment would now be denouncing the behaviour of President Donald Trump as that of a tyrant.
As is well known, Trump appears to be doing better than the polls had suggested he would in yesterday’s U.S. presidential election. As a result, he is now proclaiming himself to be the winner on flimsy evidence and demanding that something like 100 million ballots legally cast before election day be left uncounted.
This is, of course, because Trump understands most of those ballots were likely cast by Democrats unprepared to chance voting on Tuesday in the country’s shambolic, inconsistent and often intentionally chaotic presidential electoral system, which is run by the states.
A clear victory last night for the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, would have avoided this crisis, but as a witty friend of mine observed this morning, the founding fathers of the United States actually managed to come up with a voting system that is worse than first-past-the-post.
Keep that in mind when Canadian conservative pests like Preston Manning offer up the U.S. system as a model to fix the flaws in Canada’s democracy.
Arguably, for the people of the United States and for the rest of us on this rapidly heating planet, what has happened is the worst possible outcome the deeply flawed U.S. electoral system could produce, bringing in this troubled year the real possibility of political violence, uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 across the Canadian border, and the world’s largest nuclear power teetering on the edge of becoming a failed state.
There is no need to wonder how the United States would react if this were happening in another country. We have just seen it in Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko captured more than 80 per cent of the vote in a presidential election on August 9.
His opponents cried foul, and international monitors allowed by the Belarusian government declared the election to be unfair. Maybe so, although 80 per cent is a lead commanding enough to suggest Lukashenko could have handily won in an honest election too.
American officials cranked up the pressure on Lukashenko and Belarus’s next-door neighbour, which has been accused of interfering in other countries’ elections from time to time. There were threats, as usual, of more sanctions.
Meanwhile, back at the American ranch, where there are no international election monitors and the state-run presidential electoral system is widely understood to be at least manipulated and often openly corrupt in many Republican states, Trump is declaring himself the winner after capturing about (at the time of writing) 48 per cent of the popular vote — compared to Biden’s 50 per cent. That doesn’t include, remember, whatever is on those millions of uncounted ballots.
How is this not the behaviour of an American Lukashenko, with a considerably weaker argument than the real President Lukashenko? Sanctions, anyone?
Then there is the matter of the public opinion polls. We keep scratching our heads and asking how the pollsters keep getting it so wrong. Various explanation are advanced: the weighting is off, young people don’t have landline phones any more, conservative voters are “shy” when a pollster calls.
But has it occurred to anyone that the polls may be getting it right more often than not and that the explanation for this phenomenon is that the American electoral system is now subject to so much institutionalized vote suppression, open gerrymandering, vote rigging, voter interference, outright corruption and threatened political violence?
At least 28 million advance ballots are said to have gone “missing” in the last four U.S. presidential elections. God only knows how many will be lost or left uncounted in the ongoing gong show.
One could argue that this is the simplest explanation for the failure of the polls and, according to the principle of Occam’s razor, therefore the explanation that is most likely to be right.
There may be evidence of this emerging in the behaviour of the Electoral College, which operates rather like Canada’s oft-complained-of first-past-the-post electoral system.
Since 1824, when Americans started counting the popular vote, the Electoral College has chosen a president who had fewer votes than his or her opponent five times. Three were in the 19th century, followed by a gap of 112 years. Two have been more recent — in 2000 and 2016.
While this sample is too small to reach a firm conclusion, if this happens again this year, the narrowing time frame suggests the possibility that the Electoral College handing victories to the loser is becoming institutionalized in the face of demographic change and popular sentiment to ensure a Republican is always elected.
If that is the case, U.S. democracy is resting on a very rickety foundation indeed.
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.