In the last 24 years, there have been seven presidential elections. Of those seven, only once has the Republican candidate beaten the Democrat in the popular vote: President Bush’s re-election in 2004. This six-out-of-seven run is an unprecedented record of success for a political party in the popular vote, the nearest competitor being the Republicans winning five-out-of-six from 1860 to 1880, and additionally holding the White House in all six elections.
Yet despite the Democratic Party’s unparalleled winning streak with the voting public, it’s extremely difficult for American Liberals to feel optimistic. This is because twice now in this century, a candidate has been sent to the Oval Office despite more Americans favouring their competitor: first with George W. Bush in 2000, in what then seemed like an unlikely to be repeated aberration, and now in 2016 with Donald J. Trump. I’m not going to outline here why so many people consider Mr Trump to be a singularly terrifying and unacceptable President-in-waiting, you can find that information readily at so many other places. Instead, I’m simply going to say that the past 16 years have proven shaky for the success of the popular will in a country that sees democracy as so vital to its civic identity.
One of the most important aspects of Trump’s appeal and one of the main messages of his campaign has been the promise of the triumph of the majority over the establishment, the élite minority. He’s often compared the possibility of his electoral success with British voters’ surprise decision to leave the European Union in June of this year (“They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!”, the then-candidate tweeted in August). On election night, former New York City Mayor and Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani compared Trump’s success to President Andrew Jackson, the populist political outsider who founded the modern Democratic Party, and is mainly remembered today for signing the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that led to the Trail of Tears. At his rallies, people brandish signs declaring “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump”; in his victory speech, the President-elect promised to stand up for “the forgotten men and women of our country.”
The comparisons hold true insofar as there has certainly been a triumph over the establishment. Traditional media, pollsters, and countless politicians all failed to predict Trump’s win. Many are appalled, all are shocked. But these comparisons don’t hold up in terms of demonstrating the majority will. While there are arguments to be made against ever holding an EU membership referendum, 52% of Britons nonetheless voted to leave, at a higher turn-out than the previous general election. In the 1824 election, Andrew Jackson beat his nearest competitor by eleven percentage points in the popular vote, before winning outright majorities (and by extension, the Presidency) in 1828 and 1832. Trump not only failed to win a majority, at present counting Hillary Clinton has 574,000 votes over him. Her percentage margin in the popular vote — 0.5% — is almost double that of John F. Kennedy’s over Richard Nixon in 1960. The real forgotten men and women are not just Trump’s voters; they are the coalition of women, minorities, LGBTQ+ people, young voters, progressives and more who worked together, outnumbered Trump’s support, and now fail to have their voices represented.
This is not to deny the legal legitimacy of Trump’s win, of course. He has still won the election, in accordance with the current system under which the United States operates. Hillary Clinton has conceded gracefully, and President Obama has called for unity now among Americans. However, while Trump’s victory may be legal, this is the not the same thing as being just or fair.
During the long course of his campaign, Trump regularly made a habit of denouncing the American political system as ‘rigged’. There may be more truth to that statement than he intended. He is now poised to ascend to the presidency against the votes of most Americans, saved instead by the Electoral College, a system designed to act as a check on the same popular will he has so often claimed to champion. It is an outdated and unwieldly system, designed by long-dead slave-holders and members of the colonial upper class, who envisioned a system of government in which leaders were chosen from among the patrician élite by select classes of land-owning white males.
Trump has spoken regularly about the need to break with business-as-usual politics, to “drain the swamp” in Washington. He’s proposed populist measures targeted at establishment politics, most notably his proposal for a constitutional amendment to place term limits on members of Congress.
But, if Trump truly wishes to live up to his promises to champion ordinary people and to speak for the silent majority, the single most important thing he can do as President is work to abolish the outdated and undemocratic election system that won him the Presidency to begin with.
– Taran Molloy, Capital HardTalk.