No Easy Way Out
They say that American elections really don’t start until the summer, and that may be particularly true this extraordinary year. Polls this week have suggested that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are neck and neck, but you would be foolish indeed to try to call this one with five months to go.
Donald Trump has the luxury of spending the next seven weeks touring the country unopposed (except perhaps from within his party), rabble-rousing and taunting the Democrats, whose choice is unexpectedly still not settled. The numbers and the system have Bernie Sanders in an almost impossible position, but if Sanders can come home strongly, there remains a small chance that something unusual can happen.
Of the remaining Democratic primaries and caucuses, only New Jersey and California (which Sanders yesterday called ‘the big enchilada’) are of true consequence. Clinton appears well up in Jersey, but the numbers in California are now officially too close to call – a situation that has proved a happy hunting ground for Sanders throughout the spring.
What would in most years be an interesting but ultimately fruitless pursuit from Bernie Sanders is made much more spicy by three things. Clinton is a historically disliked candidate (as is Trump – there has never been an election in which both candidates are so poorly rated), Bernie’s campaign elicits much more passion, and in all polls Sanders leads Donald Trump by a wide margin – he looks a much safer bet in many ways than the divisive Clinton.
If Bernie wins California on June 7th, it’s hard to know what will happen in the period through to the beginning of the Democratic convention on July 25th, but as the weather heats up, so will the streets. One thing I would bet on is that late July is going to see the kind of political civil unrest not seen in America since 1968.
Most Democratic and Republican conventions are nothing but glitzy coronations, long on rhetoric and style, very short on policy and debate. This year is different. The Republican convention in Cleveland from July 18-21 will see Mr Trump trying to unify a party that is fractured to the point of shattering, whilst outside protesters at his vile policies engage with his rabid supporters. It’s going to be a zoo. Just a few days later in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton will most probably try to claim the Democratic nomination, and bring on-side millions of disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters, many of whom have said they’ll vote for Trump if they can’t vote for Bernie. It is far from clear if Clinton can successfully provide this unification.
And then we’ll be into the battle. From August to the end of October, American politics will be on our television screens day and night, and voters will wake up to the notion that an unprecedented decision needs to be taken on 8th November.
History is filled with candidates who could not lose in July, but did so in November. The one that makes me saddest is Al Gore in 2000, and the story of his loss brings us to what I believe is the most risky part of this year’s election – the broken mechanics of American democracy.
You will recall that the 2000 election was the closest in American history, and ultimately decided by the disputed result in Florida (which Bush was declared to have won by just 537 votes) and the Supreme Court’s terrible decision to stop the recount, on the ludicrous grounds that it could not be completed in time for their own deadline.
An Aladdin’s cave of Floridian skullduggery lay behind this conclusion, including outright fraud and voter suppression, intimidation and disenfranchisement. Most of it was aimed at stopping minorities and the poor from voting, as these groups tend to vote much more for Democratic candidates. Pamphlets were distributed advertising fake locations and opening times for polling places. Rumours were spread that those with outstanding warrants would be arrested when they voted. White neighbourhoods had plentiful voting opportunities, black ones had huge queues. Florida’s Secretary of State Katherine Harris purged 57,700 people from the voting list, overwhelmingly poor and black, many falsely identified as felons.
There can be no doubt whatsoever here. These factors combined to change the result in Florida, change the 2000 US election, and changed the course of human history.
This story remains incredibly relevant today, because nothing systemic has changed. America’s poor and minorities are routinely excluded, intimidated and disenfranchised, skewing voting results towards demographics who vote Republican. America’s unprecedented mass incarceration of its citizens means that nearly 6-million convicted American felons are not allowed to vote at all.
Even the mechanics of voting are unreliable. America is the only major country in the world to have its election on a working day (a Tuesday). If you are poor and your boss is unkind, leaving work to go and stand in a queue for hours in order to vote can risk your job.
There is also much suspicion of the digital ballot machines now being used. In 2004, exit polls projected a win for John Kerry by five million votes, but the results showed a three million vote win for Bush. Exit polls are almost always reliable – no other election in US history has had anything like such a discrepancy. However, that election was the first truly digital ballot, and the three main companies involved (ES&S, Diebold and Sequoia) were all were tied to the Bush administration. All had significant investments from defense contractors, who benefited greatly from Bush’s War on Terror.
The stakes in 2016 could not be higher. The Republican party has barely survived the candidacy of Donald Trump intact, and may still fracture as some find themselves unable to hold their nose and say they fully support him. Party grandees are acutely aware that despite the dirty tricks and disenfranchisement, Republicans have won the popular vote only once in the last six elections. The changing demography of Texas (where minorities are rapidly ceasing to be in a minority) means that one day soon the Lone Star state will turn blue, and the two-generations-long tactic of appealing to angry white men (‘pale, male and frail’) will be a busted flush. This year it is win or die.
Which brings us back to Mr Trump. Does he strike you as the kind of man who will eschew the skullduggery and fraud of yesteryear? More dangerously, in the event of a close result, does he seem the kind of man who will accept a close loss, and magnanimously congratulate Senator Clinton on a hard-fought win? Or does Donald Trump more resemble the kind of man who will dispute the veracity of anything but a crushing loss to Hillary Clinton, a man who will take his legislative tendencies to the Supreme Court, and challenge any ruling they make that does not go in his favour.
Is it impossible to imagine a situation in which Trump tells his millions of supporters not to accept the result at all, and that they have been robbed? What might the most heavily armed nation on earth resemble if 49% of its voters refuse to even acknowledge Hillary Clinton as their President, and are whipped into an indignant frenzy by an agitated orange narcissist with a pathological personality. What happens then?
These are incredibly dangerous times for America, and for the rest of us.