After watching last week’s debate between Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump, Australians and citizens of other parliamentary democracies may feel puzzled by the spectacle of the 2016 American election. Here are some explanatory notes.
We Americans, though bred in English law and customs, cut our ties with England long before Australia was thought of it. As some wit once said, we are separated from the English by the same language. On BBC World News, I miss about 40 percent of the lady announcers speaking proper English.
Australia is a constitutional monarchy, often called a commonwealth. We once called ourselves a Republic, a Roman concept. We now prefer to call ourselves a “democracy”, a Greek word of rather shady political lineage. Aristotle thought a democracy was a bad regime in which tyrants often arose. Aristotle actually said some pretty wise things if you look at the reality and not just the words.
Americans have set up our own monarch. We call him “President”, a rather quaint name, for it has been a long time since we have had a president who merely presided. Chesterton called the American presidency the “last of the medieval monarchies”. It was the only office where, unlike the British, the power and the glory were retained in the same person who only had limited rule.
Absolute monarchs are modern, not medieval, inventions. The current US president, like some of his predecessors, is best described not as a limited monarch but practically as an Aristotelian unlimited one who rules mostly unchecked by legislature or courts or by any law divine, human, or Constitutional.
We have a presidential election every four years, whether we need it or not. We definitely need it this time around. House cleaning needs to be regular.
But here is the rub. Practically no one thinks that the two candidates are either worthy or competent. A parliamentary system looks pretty nifty by comparison in the way it can drum up an election in a few weeks. And in a parliamentary system, the people running the show get to decide when the election is to take place. With us Americans, it has already been decided: on the first Tuesday in November every four years, like it or not.
In the debates one of the main issues is usually the bias of the moderator, depending on who loses. Another is that the other candidate, if elected, will be a disaster. In the old days, we used to think things would work out no matter which one was elected.
TV moguls love these caucuses, primaries, debates, and speeches. They are about the only events that can rival autumn football games for ratings. This is why the candidates have to raise so much money to finance their campaigns. Mr Trump, for all his supposed billions, cannot compare with Mrs Clinton’s cash flow from foreign and domestic sources. Some think there is something fishy here, but we do not hear too much about it.
The average Australian must think that this money would be better spent on relieving poverty. But the election is designed primarily to tell us whose is the definition of the poor for whom we will spend tax money making them not poor.
Some people do not think that turning the poverty problem over to the government helps the poor. These people are chastised as pitiless “conservatives”, a very curious word in a world in which nothing much seems to be preserved.
Liberals, sometimes called “Democrats”, are eager to have the government help the poor, usually in exchange for votes. Even though government aid keeps poverty in business, it comforts many who do not know the facts. The yearly income of Americans in poverty is probably higher than that of two-thirds that of the countries in the rest of the world. Meanwhile, what might actually help the poor, like having stable families, never gets into the conversation.
In America today, “feelings” are very important. I can actually end up in jail by not “feeling” for the right things. “Feeling”, not reason, is a more proper description of what goes on in our universities also. This is due to what was once called free speech, which has become one of the features of our Constitutional system that is most ignored, if not downright rejected. It has practically disappeared from college campuses. It “hurts” too many “feelings”, as I said, to allow it to go on unchecked. Safe zones have cropped up all everywhere to protect those who cannot bear to hear anything but their own voices. I do not know whether you blokes in Australia have the same problem, but I would be surprised if you didn’t.
What else do you need to know about American elections?
We don’t just take the total number of votes cast and see who gets the most. Like Australia, we have a federal system, with representatives and senators elected locally. We have an “Electoral College” and despite its critics, it works pretty well in giving us a clear winner.
The three branches of government, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, are intended to balance each other. However, many scholars rightly say that it has been a long time since our Constitution has worked as it was designed to work. The legislature has grown weaker and weaker as the other two branches have grown more powerful. Some of our Supreme Court Justices, especially Mr. Kennedy, make far-reaching decisions in the light of a fuzzy metaphysics that would cause Aristotle to turn over in his grave.
We have basically two political parties. The Democrats have become the part of the Left on most issues. The Republicans are divided. This division is why newspapers, politicians, and others often claim that establishment Republicans are mostly a rubber stamp for the Democrats. With her well-known flaws, Mrs Clinton seems to have wanted Mr Trump as an opponent all the way along, as he would be the easiest for her to beat. Her campaign ads feature Republicans who promise to vote for her.
So the other Republicans want a complete change, including personnel. This mood seems to be Mr Trump’s ace in the hole. One of the big sports is arguing about whether polls showing Mrs Clinton far ahead can possibly be true. Many people refuse to talk with the pollsters because they do not trust them. So basically it’s a “mess” or a “crap shoot”, whichever metaphor suits best.
Most media coverage, ever since he emerged last year, has been devoted to Mr Trump. He is endlessly depicted by Democrats as deranged. He has many members of the Republican elite wringing their hands. Yet he fascinates. They cannot avoid featuring him, good or bad.
Neither candidate offers much hope. The industrial base of the country has largely been sent overseas; immigrants, legal and illegal, flood in. The birth rates of traditional citizens are way down, almost, as in Europe, a sign of civilizational despair. Race issues seem worse than ever under our first black president. With his Muslim background, he has seen the startling rise of Islam. But he has a difficult time explaining its link to terrorism. So we talk about it by not talking about it.
We seem to have more oil in the ground than anyone else, including the Arabs, but we have not done much to develop it. This has aided the Islamic states. As Australians know, North Korea has atom bombs, China looms, and India develops. The Philippines wants us out. And we have mind-boggling levels of debt. No one is prepared to tighten the belt.
Our military has become an experiment for social theories, and less and less a fighting machine. Our enemies are confident that we will not act due to the internal moral decline. Large blocs of the population see themselves as victims. The world owes us a living.
All this is something of an exaggeration. But if it helps Australians understand American elections, it is probably worth pondering.
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.