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Africa/Global: 10 Ways to Misunderstand the Trump Election, and Why They Still Matter

AfricaFocus Bulletin
July 18, 2018 (180718)
by AfricaFocus editor William Minter

Editor's Note

The weeks following the November 2016 election were rife with competing theories about how the unthinkable, in fact, happened. Pundits and analysts, not to mention ordinary people on social media, were quick to reduce the election results to some single factor that they insisted was to blame for handing the presidency to Trump. As the November 2018 midterm elections approach, the debate is both muted and more nuanced. But simplistic explanations still circulate and have their consequences. Deepening the analysis is as critical as ever, not for deciding whom to blame, but rather for debating the implications for action now.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains (1) an essay, with links to an accompanying database of sources of articles and books, analyzing 10 ways to misunderstand the Trump election, and (2) a short discussion of one of the explanations frequently mentioned but rarely examined in greater depth, namely the electoral college system which ensured that, as in the year 2000 with George W. Bush, a candidate who lost the popular vote ended up becoming the president of the United States.

An exception in containing little direct reference to Africa, this Bulletin is offered to AfricaFocus readers because of the impact of the Trump election not only on the United States but globally, and the wide interest in Africa as well as around the world in "how could this happen?" and "what can be done about it?"

Given the complexity of the subject matter, the Bulletin is also somewhat longer than usual. I hope readers will find it useful.

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

10 Ways to Misunderstand the Trump Election, and Why They Still Matter

The weeks following the November 2016 election were rife with competing theories about how the unthinkable, in fact, happened. Pundits and analysts, not to mention ordinary people on social media, were quick to reduce the election results to some single factor that they insisted was to blame for handing the presidency to Trump. As the November 2018 midterm elections approach, the debate is both muted and more nuanced. But simplistic explanations still circulate and have their consequences. Deepening the analysis is as critical as ever, not for deciding whom to blame, but rather for debating the implications for action now.

As David Leonhardt noted in a New York Times op-ed, "One of the sillier aspects of postelection analysis is the notion that any one factor determined the result." Yet commentator Joe Scarborough, in July 2018, argued exactly that, blaming Clinton’s loss solely on the weakness of her campaign:

Democrats must face the ugly truth that their cataclysmic losses in 2016 were not caused by Fox News, Susan Sarandon, Vladimir Putin, the New York Times’ email stories or the sudden spread of racism in Midwestern states carried twice by Barack Obama. Rather, their shellacking was the result of a lackluster presidential campaign that had no coherent message, ignored warnings from Democratic leaders and forgot to visit Wisconsin.

Such either-or thinking obscures the reality that this election outcome resulted from multiple causes that intersected to produce the outcome. Clearly, some of these causes are more important than others, and relevant in different ways for action to produce a different kind of result in the future. But we must reject simplistic mental shortcuts and acknowledge the complex intersectionality of political analysis and strategy.

The winner of the popular vote in the presidential election was Hillary Clinton, by almost 2.9 million votes, a margin of over 2% over Donald Trump. Due to the peculiar U.S. institution of the electoral college, however, the presidency went to Trump. Given the extremely small margin of votes responsible for Trump's electoral college victory (only 77,744 votes across the three states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania), there is, in my opinion, enough evidence to make a case that almost any one of many different factors would have been sufficient to tip the balance. Whether that is true can never be proved conclusively, but each factor is worth considering because each did have and continues to have significant impact. Each has implications for the legitimacy of the election outcome, for the assignment of responsibility, and for strategy going forward.

After the election, prompted by my frustration with single-factor explanations, I began developing a database of articles and books that together advance 21 distinct but interrelated explanations for the election outcome. As of July 2018, there are 426 articles in the database (all available online), as well as 46 books and monographs (some of which are available online).

A thorough review of all 21 factors is far beyond the scope of this short essay. My aim is rather to make the case against simplistic misunderstandings. These misunderstandings are consequential because they are often used as grounds to argue for a single advocacy strategy that excludes others. Such narrow approaches risk weakening progressive advocacy campaigns, whether around this year's midterm elections or seeking more profound changes in US society and politics.

This essay highlights 10 ways to misunderstand the Trump election, grouped into two kinds of false choices and eight kinds of misleading generalizations, each briefly discussed below. Readers are invited to visit the database of sources to explore each point in greater depth.

False Choices

The false choices can be within a causal chain of events ("it was Putin/it was Comey/it was Clinton") or within a set of structural factors ("it was racism/it was economic stress")

1. False dichotomies within a causal chain of events

If Clinton had won as expected, the external circumstances would probably have gained little attention, except from campaign insiders. Given the shock of the election results, however, an unprecedented level of attention and new media revelations focused on Russian covert actions, and, to a lesser extent, on the intervention of FBI director James Comey with his public actions in the Clinton email investigation.

As implied by Joe Scarborough (above) and many others, Clinton operatives and supporters may be guilty of laying too much blame on Putin and Comey, downplaying their own campaign’s multiple failures. But even if one accepts that the Clinton campaign was deeply deficient, it is absurd to argue that the well-documented Russian intervention through email hacks and social media campaigns did not also have a significant effect on the election outcome. The same applies to the two decisive interventions by Comey. In making apublic condemnation of Clinton in July for her improper use of a personal computer server, and in reopening that investigation only days before the election, Comey may have been trying to stave off potential attacks by Trump supporters in league with a faction within the FBI. But the effect was to throw accelerants on the right-wing furor about Hillary's emails and to reinforce doubts in many voters’ minds. Similarly and even more important, Russian actions intended to hurt Hillary Clinton were strategically targeted and timed for maximum impact on voters who might be tipped towards changing their vote or not voting at all.

Given the extremely slim margin of Clinton’s loss, in which just 0.56% of the total votes cast in the three states sufficed to throw the Electoral College to Trump, it seems plausible that the balance could have been tipped in the other direction if any of the three factors (Putin's intervention, Comey's actions, and Clinton's mistakes) had been absent. Whether or not that is the case, the roles of Russia, the Democratic Party, and the FBI are all virtually certain to affect future elections in significant ways.

For additional sources, see
http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/putin-intervention.php, http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/fbi-intervention.php, http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/clinton.php, and http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/democratic-party.php

2. False dichotomies within a set of structural factors

One of the false choices I see most often on Facebook and in articles compiled in my database focuses on the motives of Trump supporters, trying to parse whether they were driven more by economic stress and anxiety or by white racism. For example, one article in November 2016 was headlined "Donald Trump Is the Result of White Rage, Not Economic Anxiety". This well-reasoned article by Carol Anderson, author of the excellent book White Rage, published in May 2016 before the election, is much more nuanced than the headline. But the headline captures the simplistic false choice promoted by many media commentators.

For over 37 articles and 7 books and monographs exploring this theme, see http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/white-racism.php

Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez characterizes narratives that pit race against class as a “fundamental misunderstanding” of how our country works: “I can’t name a single issue with roots in race that doesn’t have economic implications, and I cannot think of a single economic issue that doesn’t have racial implications. The idea that we have to separate them out and choose one is a con.”

Even at the level of an individual voter, the relationship between racism and economic anxiety is complex and subject to change. When one considers structural racism and economic inequalities for the society as a whole, it is obvious that both are fundamental factors with complex interrelationships. Quantitative studies confirm that votes among white Americans vary both by their racial views and by class (whether defined by shorthand as equivalent to education levels or by other criteria). But studies showing comparative correlations, even with multiple regression analyses, are often misunderstood, leading to blanket generalizations about entire groups of people. "Rage" is often a product of multiple life frustrations, including, but not limited to, economic stress and anxiety. How much such anger is directed toward vulnerable groups seen as outsiders is a variable that can change over time. It depends not only on individual attitudes and beliefs, but also on political and media manipulation and the capacity of social movements and political organizers to build convincing alternative narratives.

For over 32 articles and 6 books exploring the theme of economic stress and anxiety, see http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/economic-stress.php

Oversimplified generalizations about institutions

3. A rigged voting system

Yes, the voting system was rigged. But that conclusion is consistent with many different analyses as to how and why, from the fantastic allegation by Trump and his supporters that millions of illegal aliens are voting to a focus on what happens on election day with such techniques as ballot stuffing or systematic errors in tallying the votes. In fact, the system was and continues to be rigged most strikingly through the constitutionally mandated electoral college and the decades-long voter suppression efforts by the Republican Party.

For a short discussion of the electoral college, and what can be done to change it, see below and on the web at http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/electoral-college.php

For over 27 articles and 3 books amply documenting voter suppression, see http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/voter-suppression.php

For a must-watch 4-minutesvideo by investigative reporter Greg Palast on Crosscheck, the most comprehensive Republican effort to purge voters of color, click here

Structurally, both the Republican and Democratic parties are much less internally cohesive than Western European political parties. The official party leadership exercises little authority over individual politicians, each of whom courts their own donors and base constituencies. Generalizations about "the Republican Party" or "the Democratic Party" are rarely good guides to analysis. Moreover, public opinion polls cited as showing "overwhelming" support among Republicans, or among Democrats, in a response to a particular poll often feature majorities of 70% or less, far short of 100%. Each party, moreover, is embedded in a wider ecosystem of think-tanks, media institutions, and other groups that may be just as influential as any of the official party structures.

As often noted by political analysts, however, the Republican Party and ecosystem are far more cohesive than their counterparts on the Democratic side. Although this is not a new phenomenon, its effect was particularly dramatic in the 2016 election and has become even more so as President Trump has consolidated his support within key Republican institutions.

4. The Republican Party

News coverage of the Trump election and presidency, understandably, has focused on Trump's tweets and personality, accompanied by speculation or outrage about how long his "base" can continue to support him. Quantitative analyses of the 2016 election results feature deep dives into the composition of Trump voters, including those who switched from voting for Obama in 2008 or 2012. But the Republican Party ecosystem which propelled Trump has strong roots in decades of Republican Party history, and features an extensive domestic network of institutions as well as links with foreign allies. Its triumph in the 2016 election was based on the cumulative effect of these forces, which fell in line despite rivalries during the primary season.

Thus there is a direct line from the "Southern strategy," which the Republican Party adopted in the 1960s to woo Southern whites defecting from the Democratic Party in the wake of civil rights movement victories, to the current love affair of Republicans with white nationalism and the "alt-right." Prominent right-wing donors and entrepreneurs have helped build think-tanks and media outlets. A host of right-wing organizations, such as the powerful National Rifle Association, anti-abortion groups, the Federalist Society, and conservative Protestant evangelical organizations, bolster the new Republican orthodoxy.

Republican international alliances are probably better understood in this context, rather than the misleading classic Cold War context or even standard realist geopolitical rivalries. The Trump election is one indicator of an international lineup based on a mix of unfettered kleptocracy, white nationalism, and authoritarianism, with key nodes in the United States, Europe, Russia, Israel and the Arab Gulf states.

For a path-breaking book tracing the links between extreme-right economic ideology, white racism, and key donors such as the Koch brothers, see Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America.

For additional sources, see particularly http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/republican-party.php http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/right-wing-ideology.php http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/putin-intervention.php

5. The Democratic Party

Compared to the Republican Party, the Democratic Party is much more fractured, in part because of its diverse constituencies, but also because it lacks a robust structure of think-tanks, media outlets, and civil society institutions that are deeply involved in party debates. And it is particularly divided between the party establishment, which is predominantly centrist or conservative on economic policy, and a voter base that is generally more liberal, although not united in any coherent alternative vision. The left-centrist New Deal coalition, with strong roots in the labor movement, has eroded, and was largely replaced beginning in the 1990s by allies of the Democratic Leadership Council, which reached its height of influence under President Clinton. Left critics of the Democratic establishment, however, have been further divided between those who favor challenging it within the party and those opting for third-party options or rejecting party politics entirely in favor of mobilization outside the electoral system, focused on specific issues.

In the 2016 election, the presidential outcome was significantly tipped not only by Clinton's campaign errors, but also by voter abstention and by votes for Jill Stein of the Green Party. Significantly, the shock of the Trump administration's postelection actions has led activists, on women's rights, immigration, climate change, racial justice, and other issues, to stress that direct action and electoral politics must be seen as complementary rather than mutually exclusive alternatives. Within Democratic Party leadership, the strategic debate is still deeply split between the pursuit of swing voters and giving priority to mobilizing non-voters with more progressive stands on issues. But increasingly many on both sides of that debate are willing to acknowledge that this is not necessarily a mutually exclusive choice.

For additional sources, see particularly http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/democratic-party.php http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/clinton.php http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/third-parties.php

6. "The media"

Trump's success in dominating the news cycle is undoubtedly one of the key factors which propelled him to the presidency. But analyzing this requires much more than complaining about "the media." Even what "the media" means varies depending on what particular slice of media each of us is most familiar with, and the implications for action vary as well. Distinct channels such as print media, broadcast media, and social media both function differently and reach different constituencies.

In particular, the dynamics of "mainstream media" and their relationship with Trump pose complex issues of how to avoid reinforcing his message even while criticizing it and exposing his lies. The role of right-wing media, including Breitbart News, Fox News, and Sinclair Broadcasting serves to maintain if not to expand Trump's base. And social media, heralded as opening up democratic potential through access to publishing by anyone, has also been most skillfully used in recent years by Republicans, by the Trump campaign, and by the Russian government, with professional and well-funded manipulation efforts.

For additional sources, see particularly http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/mainstream-media.php http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/right-wing-media.php http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/social-media.php

Oversimplified generalizations about structural divisions

7. White racism and anti-immigrant attitudes

White racism, with its kindred if not identical reality of anti-immigrant attitudes, is most pervasive and undeniable explanation for the Trump election victory, as well as his continued support from the minority of the American people who constitute his base. But too often this is understood in simplistic terms of individual racist attitudes of Trump supporters rather than as structural phenomena. The result is fruitless debates about just how racist they are as individuals, and whether or how one can change their minds individually. This ignores the abundantly documented fact that people's minds are molded by the social and political environments they are exposed to, and that their behavior can be shaped by racially defined institutions even when they are personally open to other alternatives.

Two essential 2016 books, White Rage by Carol Anderson, and Post-Racial or Most-Racial, by Michael Tesler, analyze both the historical depth of racism and the backlash during the Obama years. Also particularly helpful for historical perspective is The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America, by Philip Klinkner and Rogers Smith, published in 1999, which retraces the white backlash after each advance for racial equality, from the Revolution through the civil rights movement.

A study with particularly relevant findings is the 2016 Gallup study by Jonathan Rothwell, Explaining Nationalist Political Views: The Case of Donald Trump. Based on data from 125,000 respondents, in the period from July 2015 through October 2016, Rothwell notes, among other findings, that support for Trump was greatest in geographical areas with less racial diversity and less exposure to immigrants.

For additional sources, see particularly http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/white-racism.php
http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/anti-immigrant.php

8. Economic stress

The most common and consequential oversimplification about the impact of economic stress on the 2016 election is to focus only on the individual level, parsing the characteristics of an individual white voter for the best predictor of voting for Trump. This is often compounded by defining the "white working class" as synonymous with "not college-educated" or with low income levels, instead of paying attention to the structural position of voters within the economy or their class identification.

But even the most careful analysis of a voter's current status as an individual ignores two other fundamental aspects: (1) the level of expectations for the future (of the individual or the family) and how they have changed over time, and (2) the social context of the community which serves as the voter's frame of reference for thinking about the world. Thus the Rothwell study cited above shows that:

His supporters are less educated and more likely to work in blue collar occupations, but they earn relatively high household incomes ... On the other hand, living in racially isolated communities with worse health outcomes, lower social mobility, less social capital, greater reliance on social security income and less reliance on capital income predicts higher levels of Trump support.

Although the threat felt by Trump supporters (and their counterparts in Western European countries) is clearly linked to resentment based on racial and cultural identity, it also corresponds to very real structural trends in the global economy reflecting rising or falling prospects for economically defined groups. As strikingly illustrated in the "elephant curve" laid out by global inequality researcher Branko Milanovic, still-privileged Western "middle classes" have been losing out to rising middle classes in developing countries while a global elite of ultra-rich have gained the lion's share of income gains over the period 1998-2008.

For additional sources, see
http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/economic-stress.php
http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/right-wing-populism.php

9. Geographical divisions

Geography is an easy shorthand for predicting the Trump vote, distinguishing "Red states" from "Blue states" and urban areas from small town and rural areas. But if taken as stereotypes for labeling entire groups of people or for deciding where to focus organizing efforts, it is a recipe for reinforcing and consolidating support among potential Trump voters, rather than for changing the balance of power. In fact even the reddest town or rural area is less uniform, in either ethnic composition or political allegiance, than is often presumed. And writing off entire areas has been a key failure of Democratic Party strategy for more than a generation.

Yet a genre of news reporting featuring the prototypical Trump supporter in a smalltown diner has become numbingly repetitive. People who should know better scornfully generalize from a distance about the residents of "fly-over country" or repeat persistent stereotypes about Appalachia or "the South." Yet both history and the current wave of teacher strikes in states such as West Virginia and Oklahoma should remind both analysts and party strategists that geography is not necessarily destiny.

For an incisive refutation of the "Hillbilly Elegy" narrative reinforcing such myths, see the essay by Elizabeth Catte on "The Mythical Whiteness of Trump Country", as well as her book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.

For additional sources, see http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/rural.php

10. "Toxic mix"

The easy temptation of stereotyping the typical Trump supporters lies in assuming that all the deplorable traits found in Donald Trump himself apply in equal measure to all his followers. In addition to the racism and hostility to immigrants already discussed, one can find evidence that there are correlations with Trump support for such characteristics as misogyny and disrespect for women, authoritarianism, religious bigotry, ignorance, and more traits to be deplored, as Hillary Clinton implied in an easily exploited off-the-cuff remark during the campaign.

Such correlations, however, should not be seen as implying that such traits are unique to Trump supporters or that they should be analyzed as one syndrome rather than explored in greater depth. Disrespect for women, for example, played out not only among Trump and his supporters but among many other opponents of Hillary Clinton. Anti-Islamic views and hysteria about "Islamic terrorism" were not limited to those inspired by extreme-right religious beliefs. And many evangelical Christians and Catholics personally opposed to abortion also opposed Trump, giving priority to their convictions on other issues that took priority.

These factors are less fully explored in the database of sources, but for a start, see the following
http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/gender.php http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/values.php http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/religious-identity.php http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/islamophobia.php

Interim Implications

This essay offers no easy conclusions on the full impact, relative importance, or future significance of any of the factors discussed above. But I hope I have convinced most readers of the folly of simply dismissing one factor in favor of another or joining one of the endless debates about which is more important. It should also be clear, however, that simply avoiding the discussion because "we will never know for sure" is also a mistake. Different explanations have different implications for the legitimacy of the Trump presidency and for progressive strategies in both the medium and longer term.

Which is most important to pay attention to this year or over the longer term is obviously up for discussion. But hopefully those debates can proceed with the understanding that while any one individual or organization must make choices, a successful social movement for significant change must be able to work on many different fronts simultaneously. Such a movement will be stronger if it is capable of combining real debate about the best ways forward with recognition of the complementarity of different strategies.

In this AfricaFocus Bulletin, I include a short reflection on the surprisingly little-discussed potential for changing the Electoral College system. Over the coming months, I hope to add similar reflections on many of the other factors discussed here, which will appear on the web at http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/trump-win-reasons.php, and be announced in future AfricaFocus Bulletins when available.


The Electoral College: How the System is Rigged and How to Change It

The most direct explanation for the US presidential election outcome in 2016 is the Electoral College. Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes, or 2.1 percent of the total. Republican Donald Trump, however, won the Electoral College, taking 306 of the 538 electoral votes. He did so by winning three key battleground states – Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – by a tiny margin of 77,744 votes, or just over one-twentieth of one percent of the total votes cast nationwide.

If the United States chose presidents by popular vote rather than the Electoral College, and if the popular vote had fallen along the lines that it did in the 2016 election, Trump would not be president. The phenomenon of a president elected by a minority of voters, as George W. Bush also was in 2000, would have been ruled out.

It is not certain that the outcome would have been different if the Electoral College did not exist, since campaign strategists on both sides would have taken that into account and fewer resources would have been allocated to battleground states. But it is now widely recognized that the Electoral College system systematically advantages Republicans because of its disproportionate weighting of rural states with fewer voters and smaller non-white populations.

The Electoral College, made up of electors chosen by the states in proportion to their representation in Congress, is based on the Constitution. It reflects a compromise in which the framers, in 1787, gave more electoral power to the Southern slaveholding states than those states would have had in a system of direct popular elections (see a clear short video explanation here). By counting the total population of states to allocate representation in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College, with each slave counted as 3/5 of a person, the system gave greater representation to the Southern states, which had fewer voters but more people.

The addition of more states, demographic changes, the abolition of slavery in 1863, and several amendments have changed the way Electoral College votes are apportioned, but the basic institution has remained in place. Although the District of Columbia does not have voting representation in Congress, it was also granted 3 Electoral College votes in 1961 by the 23rd amendment, the same number as seven states having only one member in the House of Representatives due to their small populations.

Amending the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College is generally dismissed as impractical. But there is a way to make the body irrelevant, because the Constitution grants states full authority to determine how they allocate their electoral votes. The proposed National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (https://www.nationalpopularvote.com/) would take advantage of that state prerogative to achieve the same outcome as a direct, popular election. This proposal has already gained the support of states with 172 electoral votes and can go into effect when states with 98 more electoral votes approve.

A skewed system: How does it work now?

How can the US presidency be captured by a minority? The answer lies partly in the structural bias of the Electoral College, and the US political system more broadly. The US Congress has two chambers, the Senate and the House. Each state’s delegation to the House is based on that state’s population. But each state, large or small, has the same number of senators: two. Wyoming’s 580,000 residents get two senators, and California’s 40 million residents also get two senators. This means that the balance of power in the Senate disproportionately favors states with small populations.

This disproportion is mirrored in the Electoral College, the body that actually elects the president. Each of the 50 states gets two electors for its two senators, plus additional electors based on its number of House representatives. All states except two allocate their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. So the winner of the popular vote in a state gets all of that state’s electoral votes, even if the vote was very close. Because it’s based in part on Senate representation, the Electoral College gives more voice to voters from small-population states, just as the Senate does. Thus Wyoming, a rural, sparsely populated state, has three Electoral College votes – one for every 82,000 or so voters in the state. By comparison, California, with its big cities and huge population, has 55 Electoral College votes – one for every 218,000 voters. So a Wyoming voter has almost three times as much clout in the Electoral College as a California voter.

Over the past half century, many rural states in the South, Midwest, and West, whose voters are predominantly white, have become heavily Republican (“red” states). States that are more urban and diverse, mostly located on the coasts, tend to vote Democratic (“blue” states). This pattern dates back to the 1960s, when the Republican Party rolled out its “Southern strategy” aimed at attracting white voters through racial appeals. It has become even more marked in recent years.

What does all this mean for US politics?

  • In presidential elections, the outcome is decided in a few states. In a handful of competitive “swing” states or “battleground” states, the race could go either way. Candidates visit these states frequently and spend millions in advertising to reach their voters. But most states are not battlegrounds: they are considered reliably red or blue, with the outcome of their vote a foregone conclusion. Presidential campaigns largely ignore voters in those states.

  • Republican states have more weight in presidential elections. The rural, small- population states with greater weight in the Electoral College mainly vote Republican. This gives the Republican Party a built-in advantage when the Electoral College chooses a president.

  • Republicans control the Senate. In the elections that determined the current Senate (2012, 2014, and 2016), 15 million more votes were cast for Democrats than for Republicans. But because of the systemic bias, conservative Republicans have kept control of the Senate and use their power to thwart laws and policies that a majority of the country favors. The Senate confirms the president’s cabinet appointments and – crucially – his nominees to sit on the Supreme Court. The Republican-controlled Senate refused even to consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016, and it is poised to confirm President Trump’s nominee in 2018.

  • Republican control of statehouses helps entrench the system’s bias. As of mid-2018, Republicans control 32 of the 50 state legislatures. In states they control, Republican officials have used voter suppression laws and practices to prevent African Americans and Latinos from voting (since these groups tend to mainly vote Democratic). This has been central to Republican electoral strategy ever since the civil rights movement victories of the 1960s. State legislatures also draw the lines that determine how a state chooses its delegation to the US House. Republican state officials have used redistricting, or gerrymandering, to configure their House districts in such a way as to ensure continued Republican control.

What can be done?

Amending the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College is generally dismissed as impractical. But there is a way to make the body irrelevant, because the Constitution grants states full authority to determine how they allocate their electoral votes. The proposed National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (https://www.nationalpopularvote.com/) would take advantage of that state prerogative to achieve the same outcome as a direct, popular election.

The plan works like this. Individual states pass legislation to allocate all their electoral votes on the basis of the national popular vote, with the proviso that the legislation will take effect once enough states have approved this option to provide at least 270 electoral votes. As of 2018, 11 states plus the District of Columbia have passed such laws (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington). They have a total of 172 electoral votes, so their laws will take effect when states with 98 more electoral votes have passed equivalent laws.

For a short video explanation of this proposal, see here on Facebook. The New York Times editorial board, which has advocated reform of the Electoral College since 1936, also now supports theNational Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

In the past, polls have shown strong support among Americans for selecting a president by national popular vote. Unsurprisingly, however, support has dropped sharply among Republicans since the 2016 election . In the most recent polls, there is a narrow majority for a national popular vote of 49% against 47% who support the Electoral College. Support among Republicans for a national popular vote has dropped to only 19%, in contrast to 81% among Democrats.

The key to implementing the national popular vote option is, of course, the state governments, and this highlights the importance of state legislative races in 2018. This “building from the ground up” strategy is the focus of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (http://www.dlcc.org/), as well as a host of progressive organizations that see the states as key to victories at the national level, including in the 2020 presidential election.


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

AfricaFocus Bulletin can be reached at africafocus@igc.org. Please write to this address to suggest material for inclusion. For more information about reposted material, please contact directly the original source mentioned. For a full archive and other resources, see http://www.africafocus.org


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