Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Trump verdict in New York on May 30 does not seem to have had a significant effect on the polls – when it comes to changing anyone’s mind. On balance, it probably moved some undecideds and third-party supporters toward Biden, but their number is not large enough to significantly change the situation. With the trials on Trump’s more serious crimes unlikely to take place early enough to affect the presidential vote, we are now effectively in a horserace whose stakes could not be higher.

The Democrats will win the national popular vote for president, as they pretty much always do – but given the absurdity of the Electoral College system, it makes no difference. The only elections that matter are in the swing states – Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – and the polls at this stage make them impossible to predict. Moreover, the 10 to 15 per cent of voters telling pollsters that they intend to support one of the third-party candidates create another level of uncertainty. From experience, we know that many will, in the end, make their vote count by choosing the major-party candidate they consider the lesser of evils.

Negative feelings about the economy and Biden’s handling of it mean that the Democrats will have to do a better job than they have been doing in disseminating knowledge of the actual situation. As the opinion page headline in the Washington Post on May 28 read, “Nearly everything Americans believe about the economy is wrong.” A Harris poll highlighted Americans’ misconceptions about their economy, including:

  • 55 per cent believe the economy is shrinking, and 56 per cent think the United States is experiencing a recession;
  • 49 per cent believe the stock market index is down (the S&P 500 index went up about 24 per cent in 2023 and is up more than 12 per cent this year);
  • 49 per cent believe that unemployment is at a 50-year high (the rate has been under 4 per cent, a near 50-year low);
  • 72 per cent believe inflation is increasing (the rate of inflation has fallen sharply to under 4 per cent from its post-COVID peak of 9.1 per cent).

This ignorance helps to explain high Trump support among less educated White male Americans, the voters of primary concern in the battleground industrial states. The numbers, in part, reflect the comparatively low civic literacy of Americans,1 and also the fact that this group in particular gets its information, such as it is, almost exclusively from right-wing media.

The scary prospect of a Trump presidency

Make no mistake about it: Trump getting elected is a frightening prospect. He told Time magazine that he would be willing to build migrant detention camps and deploy the U.S. military, both at the border and inland. He would let red states monitor women’s pregnancies and prosecute those who violate abortion bans. He would be willing to fire a U.S. attorney who doesn’t carry out his order to prosecute someone. He is weighing pardons for every one of his supporters accused of attacking the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, more than 800 of whom have pleaded guilty or been convicted by a jury. He might not come to the aid of an attacked ally in Europe or Asia if he felt that the country involved wasn’t paying enough for its own defence. He would gut the U.S. civil service, deploy the National Guard to American cities as he sees fit, and staff his administration with acolytes who back his false assertion that the 2020 election was stolen.

The damage he continues to inflict on American political culture is perhaps even worse. He has made lying acceptable: 30,000 mistruths – 21 a day – during his presidency, not including unverifiable outlandish claims.

The morning after his conviction, I watched a standard Trump performance before followers. At 35 minutes it was much shorter than usual, but it had enough of the standard stuff to provide an insight into the man.

It is nothing like a speech. No beginning, middle or end. Rather, a bunch of lines to hold the audience’s attention, like those of an unfunny standup comedian, are interspersed with a combination of repeated exaggerations, lies and insults designed to evoke hatred for his adversaries. It feels stream-of-consciousness more than anything else, with the only thing that changes between performances being the order in which the same phrases come out.

It is full of superlatives, of “everybody knows”, “all the experts say” and so-called facts that cannot possibly be backed up. Consider his frequent description of his adversary as the worst president ever. Surely everyone in his audiences, if they thought about it for a moment, would know that Trump cannot possibly have the information to make such a claim.

The scary question is whether Trump himself knows this. Apart from all the other reasons he should not be allowed near any position of authority, let alone the presidency of the United States, this to my mind is the scariest. It may very well be that he actually believes things that are self-evidently false to be true just because they serve his interests. That certainly applies to election results. Good luck to us all if he is not – soundly – defeated in November.

The very fact that the Republicans will nominate and try to elect this liar – and possibly succeed – is a truly sad reflection on how low American politics has sunk. Apparently our own politicians and policies drive many thousands of Canadians southward to low-tax, winter-free places like Texas. We might have to prepare for the possibility of an equal number of Trump refugees coming northward across the border starting in November.

Monopoly politics

With the United States, and indeed the world, concentrating on the presidential election, I suggest we give some attention to the legislative elections that will take place at the same time. Unlike the presidency, when it comes to the legislative branch there is much we already know – because of the very nature of the system by which Americans elect their representatives and the rampant polarization that has emerged in recent decades.

Steven Hill, whose thoughtful reflections on the effect of digital technologies on political speech and election campaigns in the United States we publish elsewhere in this issue, recently contributed a very useful analysis of the failure of America’s geographically based winner-take-all system to the DemocracySOS blog. Here I draw liberally from Steven’s exposition.

The American system features single-seat district elections, including for all congressional seats, the great majority of state legislative seats and most city council seats in major cities. In the United States, unlike elsewhere, winner-take-all is a proxy for a two-party system, since smaller parties almost never reach the high percentage of votes typically needed to win that single seat. The vast majority of legislative seats, at both federal and state levels, are won by lopsided majorities. Whether it’s the Red (Republican) or Blue (Democratic) candidate who wins by a landslide depends on the state or region. In each election, experts reliably predict winners in about 90 per cent of the 435 U.S. House seats, and even the margin of victory.

State legislative races are even less competitive. In 2020, 27 per cent of the 7,383 state seats were uncontested, including 75 per cent in Massachusetts, 61 per cent in Wyoming, 58 per cent in Rhode Island, 57 per cent in Arkansas and 51 per cent in Georgia. With districts as safe strongholds for one party, it’s a waste of time and resources for the other party to bother with a campaign. Though not quite as apparent, the same applies to most states when it comes to electing senators and determining the electoral college vote for president. Americans have settled more and more into definable and balkanized partisan residential patterns: liberals and progressives populate urban areas, conservatives populate rural areas and small towns.

Under U.S. winner-take-all’s two-choice menu, the operative principle becomes: if we drive voters away from their candidate, the only choice left is our candidate. In those districts and states where there is actually a real contest, the stakes are incredibly high since they can mean the difference between power and – especially in the House of Representatives – impotence. Hence the large amounts of money lavished every two years on a small number of districts.

Winner-take-all politics now means that millions of voters effectively end up with no representation. In the 2020 election for the House of Representatives, representation in 19 states was exclusively from one party (11 Republican and 8 Democratic), and 11 more states were only one representative shy of monopoly representation. Tens of millions of “orphaned voters” live in the wrong districts and states, voting for losing candidates election after election. Rather than a two-party system, most voters effectively vote in a one-party system, their “choice” consisting of ratifying the candidate of the party that dominates their district or state. In such political monocultures real debate has virtually ceased.

This of course acts as a significant drag on voter turnout, as orphaned voters with so little real choice unsurprisingly stop voting. In legislative elections during nonpresidential years, the United States falls between Armenia and Bulgaria in its turnout level.

Given the few up-for-grabs districts, the campaigns target the small number of “undecided” voters (estimated at about 10 to 12 per cent of voters overall), the almighty swing voters, in these “purple” districts. Research shows that these tend to be the opposite of what one might expect. Rather than deliberating before choosing between the policies and records of the candidates, they tend to be the least informed and interested in politics. Yet policy overtures are primarily directed to them; campaign messages are fashioned for them. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on focus groups and opinion polls to determine their opinions – or, more often, their feelings and fears – which are then appealed to in slick TV and social media ads.

There is a second category of voters that can have undue negative influence on politics: extremists who turn out in support of a single cause, or of a candidate who expresses their disdain for a democracy they see as having failed them. This reality too is a byproduct of the winner-take-all system. In a close race a small number of motivated voters can determine which candidates “win all.” The duopoly, when combined with modern campaign technologies and digital media platforms, allow the targeting of ever-smaller slices of voters.

In the U.S. pure two-party system, winner-take-all elections thus hinge on small slices of the most uninformed and uninterested portion of the electorate, or of the most fanatical portion, or both. This dynamic is especially prominent in party primaries, which typically have extremely low turnout (often 25 to 30 per cent), allowing a relatively small core of passionate voters to have overwhelming influence in nominating party candidates. And with most legislative districts lopsided for one party or the other, the winner of the majority party’s primary is virtually guaranteed to win the general election. Reflecting these dynamics, one report from Unite America found that only 10 per cent of voters nationwide in U.S. House races cast ballots in primaries that effectively decided 83 per cent of those races.2

In this American election cycle, we will again see how extreme predictability and low turnout combined with a lack of competition in the great majority of races enables, and indeed leads, parties to precisely target resources, messaging and campaigns to the handful of battleground House districts and battleground states for president and Senate, ignoring the vast majority of races. The wider implications are that the system frustrates voters, candidates and legislators at every turn.

In the campaign, the media are concentrating on Biden’s and Trump’s age and on issues ranging from abortion to NATO, on the assumption that their viewers and listeners are the ones who, based on what they hear and see, will then make the choices that will affect the outcomes. But, in fact, especially when it comes to Fox and MSNBC, few of those viewers and listeners are undecideds. And far fewer are undecideds who live in purple districts or states, whose vote could make a difference.

I am not saying that this election, with so many already decided, is not important. Quite the contrary. If the Trumpites end up controlling the presidency and/or Congress, its effect on democracy not only in the United States but worldwide could be immense. Unfortunately, given their country’s political institutions and polarized pure two-party system, few Americans – despite what they are told – will have any say on these fundamental matters. And those who will have a say, and whom the campaigns will address, are hardly the best suited to make the choices.

Notes

1 See my book Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2002).

2 See Nick Troiano, The Primary Solution: Rescuing our Democracy from the Fringes (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2024).