Sunday, November 13, 2016

It's their country

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 11.)

Well, at least Hillary Clinton didn’t get elected. You have to take whatever positives you can get out of the US election result.

Many of Clinton’s supporters seemed to think she deserved to win the contest just because it would make her the first woman president. Sorry, but that’s hardly justification for putting her in the White House.

There will be other female candidates, ideally with fewer skeletons in their closets.

Having said that, I probably would have held my nose and voted for Clinton if I were an American citizen, simply because she seemed marginally the less ghastly of the two options.

But now we’re stuck with President Trump, and the most we can hope for is that somehow, the American polity will find a way of turning him into someone worthy of the most powerful office in the world.

It will be a challenge, but don’t rule it out.

America’s weirdness and excess tend to dominate our perceptions of the country, but we should have faith in the basic decency of its people. As Winston Churchill said, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else”.

I also believe that Americans are fundamentally resilient and optimistic. That’s one of the keys to their economic success.

My wife and I travelled widely in the US during and after the global financial crisis, which knocked the stuffing out of the US economy, and saw no sign that Americans were paralysed or demoralised. They just got on with things.

Similarly, although many Americans might be temporarily stunned by Trump’s election, they will get back on their feet and carry on. That’s what they do.

And who knows? Maybe Trump will undergo a transformation once the mantle of the presidency settles on his shoulders.

The immense responsibility that goes with the office, the weight of history behind it and the great legacy of presidents such as Abe Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, may prevail over his vulgar, hucksterish impulses.

People are capable of rising to the occasion, after all. It’s the reverse of the Peter Principle, which states that people rise to their level of incompetence.

Already, a more moderate, conciliatory Trump has emerged. He felt magnanimous enough in victory to speak kindly of Clinton, although one suspects it would have been a very different story had he lost.

President Obama, similarly, changed gear overnight from attack dog to statesman, extending an olive branch to Trump and offering to do whatever he could to ensure a seamless handover of power.

Perhaps both men understood that the presidency, and the need to maintain stability for the benefit of their fellow Americans, was bigger than either of them.

Perhaps too, as has been suggested, Trump deliberately presented himself as an unreconstructed bogan on the campaign trail just to exploit voter resentment against the political elites, and that he always meant to tone things down if he won. We shall see.

In the meantime, we’re left to scratch our heads over the perversity of the American political system.
This manifested itself in two ways. The first mystery is how a country as enormously rich in human capital could throw up (double meaning intended) two such deeply flawed candidates.

The US is due for a serious national conversation on the shortcomings of the selection process. Some suggest that the reason good people don’t put themselves forward is that the price they would have to pay – the relentless media scrutiny, the character assassination, the viciousness of social media – is just too high.

While they’re about it, perhaps the Americans should also be asking hard questions about the increasing isolation of the professional political class from ordinary working stiffs, just as people are doing in other countries.

The second issue is that the candidate who wins the most votes – in this case, Clinton – can still finish second.

No electoral system delivers results that perfectly mirror the popular vote, but America’s electoral colleges produce more distorted outcomes than most.

Trump got fewer votes than Clinton, yet won 279 of the crucial electoral college seats to her 228. You can imagine the fury of the Trumpeteers if it were the other way around.

One final thought. It seems that virtually every New Zealander has a firm opinion on American politics.  I include myself.

As I wrote in my recent book A Road Tour of American Song Titles, it’s remarkable that so many non-Americans know what’s best for America. But ultimately it’s their country, and their right to conduct their affairs in their own way.


macdoctor said...

The fact that Clinton won the popular vote (just) is not relevant, of course. Both were playing for electoral college votes, because that's what counts. Had Trump been playing in a straight contest for the people's vote, he would have certainly spent much more time in the big cities (where the highest number of votes are). Had he done this, it is possible (may be even probable) that he would have won the popular vote as well.

Karl du Fresne said...

It's true that candidates blitz the states that deliver the crucial electoral college votes rather than those (like New York and California)with the biggest populations. But there's no way of knowing whether Trump would have won a straight-out numbers game, as you suggest.

JC said...

But it also stands to reason that Trump's projected persona was designed to appeal to places that had the electoral votes he wanted. He didn't have to give a damn about his unfavourables because they were irrelevant given the electoral system he was working with.

Incidentally, did you notice how close he was to Springsteens 1984 album Born in the USA, Glory Days and My Home Town? And how ironically far from it The Boss now is by cosying up to the Clinton machine.


Max Ritchie said...

There are still 7 million votes to be counted, most (4 mil) of them in California and another 900,000 in Washington State. Most will go to Mrs Clinton. But that and the rest of the popular vote comments are irrelevant. Republican presidential candidates do not campaign in California, for example, and Mrs Clinton would not have spent a lot of time or money in Texas. 48 states are winner take all; only 2 (Nebraska and Maine) allocate their electoral college votes proportionally. The popular vote is meaningless.