We in the rest of the world are watching the run up to the Presidential elections in the USA in November. It has now been decided who the two main contenders will be, Hilary Clinton for the Democrats and Donald Trump for the Republicans. In the USA, there are no significant other parties, so it is very highly likely that the next President of the United States will be one of these two people.
An extraordinary fact is that many US citizens dislike both candidates, with one Republican commentator saying that people might be choosing the lesser of the two evils. Trump is seen as brash and unversed in politics and Clinton is seen as being untrustworthy.
So, how did the US voter get left with a choice between two unpopular candidates? The US has a candidate selection process which is complex and unwieldy. A special subset of voters vote on the candidates who present themselves, and the sequential nature of the selection process turns the selection into a horse race, with candidates vying to “collect” the delegates in each state and achieve a threshold which means that they cannot be beaten by other candidates.
Each state selects the candidates using a different method, and there are different numbers of “delegates” in different states. Of course a mining state may and often does prefer a different candidate to the candidate preferred by a farming state. Commentators try to out guess each other in predicting the results, state by state.
The wonder of the system is that it often throws up a candidate who has a reasonable amount of public support, in spite of the complexity of the process. This time however, it appears that the selection process has thrown up two candidates who don’t appear to appeal to the electorate. The voters do indeed have to select “the lesser of the two evils”.
In most democracies around the world things tend to be simpler. A candidate puts him or herself up for election, and he or she gets voted for or not as people choose. Of course, a candidate who aligns with a party needs to get the party’s approval, and cannot stand under the party banner without it.
However the above describes the process for electing a local representative. A presidential election raises extra problems. For instance, in the US the president is always a member of a political party. In countries where the president is preferred to be independent and outside of party politics issues arise in his/her selection.
If the president is elected directly by the populace the potential candidates will need to campaign countrywide when seeking election, and this will be expensive. The candidate therefore has to be very rich, sponsored by some organisation or be aligned with a party. The last two options work against the requirement for the president to be independent, and the first option restricts the field to those who have a large amount of money, which may be unacceptable or not achievable in a poor country.
Many countries, including India and the US have got around this by using an electoral college system, though few systems could be as convoluted as the US method of selecting a candidate to stand for election as president. Such a system uses the fact that the population has already elected individuals to government, and uses the already elected individuals to decide on the candidates for president or select the president directly.
While this means that the most powerful political parties select and maybe elect the president, the representatives are doing what they are elected for, which is to make decisions on behalf of their voters. The elected representatives often select someone who may not be the most preferred by the grass roots electorate, but generally the selected person is not too disliked.
In the case of the latest selection process for US president, the Democrats have selected Hilary Clinton as the most likely Democrat candidate to win, and while this is true, polls show that there is a lack of trust in her at the grass roots level. It is unlikely that this factor will weigh too heavily with the voter come the election, though.
The Republicans have selected Donald Trump, in spite of the belief early in the process that he stood no chance. The Republicans believe that he is the best choice of prevailing over Hilary Clinton, but many people dislike his brashness. On the other hand, many people like his approach to some of the issues that are hot topics in the US, such as immigration and the threat of terrorism. The real issue is whether or not his solutions to such topics are reasonable or will be effective.
While the people get to vote for the person that they want to be president, the process seems to me to not be overly democratic. The sheer number of people in the US and in most other countries means that direct election of a president is never going to be possible. There is always going to be a distance between the President and the populace and this dilutes democracy. As it is, voters can only vote for a few candidates in the election. They have little say in who gets selected to stand.
How much does this dilute democracy? Hmm, good question, Cliff! It depends. Given that “representative democracy” like in many country puts distance between the electorate and the elected, if people do not like the candidates very much, this could reduce voter turn out at the election as people decide not to vote for either of them. If, however, enough people on one side hate the opposition candidate strongly enough this may encourage them to turn out and vote. The president is likely to be elected by the vote of only a few of those allowed to vote.
It is likely that the apathy effect is going to override the hate effect, in my opinion, and voter numbers are likely to drop. If only a small number turn out to vote, then has either candidate got a real mandate? Not really, I suggest.
The US form of diluted democracy means that only a favoured few get to stand for president. Up until Obama, all previous presidents back to the early days have been rich white men. Standing in an election for president of the US costs billions of dollars and few people are able to afford the price.
So we have a rich businessman vying to become the most powerful man in the world, and making ridiculous promises, like a wall between the US and Mexico, and the wife of a previous president vying to become the first female president. While Hilary Clinton is not enormously rich, she is much richer than most of us, and she and Bill Clinton have powerful friends.