What We Must Do Now

We must fight Trump. But we must also fight the two-party system that delivered him to power.

As we went to press with our weekly print edition on early Tuesday evening, it was still unclear who the next president of the United States would be. We here at Seattle Weekly have stated our preference, and we believed that a majority of voters felt the same and that by night’s end we would be following the lead of many other modern democracies and finally electing a woman as our leader.

As is abundantly clear now, after a long and disappointing election night, we underestimated the appeal of the Republican candidate and the willingness of even moderate Republicans to hitch their fortunes to a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, bigotted con-artist. Just after midnight, the man widely considered the most unfit candidate for president ever to top a major party’s ticket claimed victory.

And so now, first and foremost, we must all dig deep and find the resolve and compassion to support the women, immigrants, disabled people, people of color and others whom Donald Trump has openly mocked, misrepresented, and threatened. These people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and afforded the same path toward prosperity that has been granted white men since the founding of this country. Let there be no mistake; under a Trump presidency, their fortunes diminish—to say the very least. It is indeed a dark day for America.

We have a tremendous amount of work to do, especially the white men of this country—a demographic that voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and one that makes up a majority of this editorial board. We will need to listen to our neighbors with open minds. And we will need to defend those neighbors from injustice. And we will need to educate others like us, those who for whatever reason voted for this demagogue, in the fact that there is a better way forward. Under a Trump presidency, it is our job. This is what we must do.

It was with confidence in a Clinton victory that we put forth another must for the future of this country in that print edition. The resulting essay is now distributed across the city. In some ways, it feels incomplete, for the realities of a Trump presidency will demand immediate action that isn’t addressed here. But in other ways it feels all the more relevant. The forces that made Trump possible, after all, are myriad. There is a great amount of work to be done to rectify them all and revive our democracy. This is just a single suggestion to add to an overwhelming list—a list that will be well-covered by this paper in the coming years.

Some have said that this is the most important election of our lifetime. Pundits say that every four or eight years, but in this case it does appear to be true. But if that was the most important election, then the period that begins right now is the most important post-election period of our lifetime as well. It will require of us Americans a resolve to act, as well as a kind of clever thinking that goes beyond opposing the impending Trump presidency. For the forces that threaten our democracy are bigger than a single man.

This election season has been like no other of recent memory. Led by that bigoted braggart on the Republican side, he with few policy positions and a scant knowledge of the history and the workings of our federal government, the debate has been a grudge match. Clinton was the vastly more appropriate, educated, and prepared candidate, with a deep working knowledge of Washington, D.C., and innumerable policy positions and plans to bring those policies to fruition. But even she was not above the fray, her sales pitch to voters in the closing weeks playing on the electorate’s fears and consisting largely of tearing Trump down.

This was a degrading election based on personal attacks at a time when our country needed to have a real debate on a number of issues: trade, climate change, LGBT rights, poverty, guns, deficits, drugs, institutional racism, and infrastructure in particular. And yet so little was said about these things. In fact, a report from media watchdog Andrew Tyndall indicated that, as of October 25, the evening newscasts of the three major broadcast networks devoted a total of 32 minutes to issues coverage this year—most of that pertaining to terrorism. In 2012, that number was 112. In 2008, 220. That the media is complicit in this erosion is not in doubt. Yet we believe a larger mechanism is at play here, one that we the people must combat.

It is no secret that the two people who took the stage for the first presidential debate on September 26 were the two most unpopular candidates in our lifetimes. According to a recent ABC/Post poll, 60 percent of respondents viewed Donald Trump unfavorably, while 56 percent viewed Clinton unfavorably.

A significant amount of Clinton’s troubles with the populace can be traced back to a set of “scandals” manufactured by congressional Republicans who have been campaigning against Clinton for the past four years—if not the past 25. Surely another dose of unpopularity comes from the fact that she’s a woman in a country where gender still determines how much you are valued in the workplace. Trump’s unpopularity was more honestly won. At a fundamental level, his campaign was built on binaries: us vs. Mexicans, us vs. Muslims, us vs. the cucks. Naturally, such othering is going to appeal only to a segment of our shrinking white populace while disgusting and frightening the rest of us.

Yet the displeasure with these candidates goes beyond them as individuals and can be traced back to recent history. The fact is that in 2008, two events caused rifts within our electorate—at first seemingly fleeting, but since proven undeniable.

One was the election of the first black president, a collective act that we here at Seattle Weekly celebrated and still view as a great credit to our country. But for a significant portion of the population, Barack Obama’s election was viewed as a threat, at first described as encroaching socialism by the emergent Tea Party and coded as a thinly veiled racism that cast the president as something un-American—a racism given its greatest endorsement by Donald Trump, who essentially launched his presidential bid as the standard-bearer of the Birther movement. Trump’s candidacy, unvarnished by decency, has pulled the veil away and led to a newly emboldened white-nationalist movement.

The other event was the sub-prime mortgage crisis, which sent the economy into a tailspin in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration. President Obama righted the ship and set the American economy on the long road to incremental recovery that has us now on firmer footing. But the gains have not been equally distributed; the gap between rich and poor is as large as it has been since the Great Depression, and the bankers responsible for the collapse were never penalized for their careless, greedy actions. The result was the Occupy movement of 2011, which emerged at the same time as the Tea Party was gaining political power.

Both these nascent movements found a new maturity in the race for the White House that began in earnest in 2015. On the right, the new nationalists found a hero in Trump and pushed him to an improbable victory in the Republican primary. On the left, it was Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who captured the populist passions of progressives who viewed Clinton as a continuation of the less appealing aspects of the Obama and Bill Clinton presidencies, her hawkish foreign-policy stances and coziness with Wall Street at odds with their ideals. Unlike Trump, Sanders was unable to surmount the machinery of his chosen party and, with the help of superdelegates and favoritism from party leadership, Clinton prevailed.

So it was that in the general election, Republican leadership put some distance between themselves and Trump’s bigotry, the bravest among them speaking out against the candidate and, in some cases, endorsing Clinton. The cowards gave lip service to decency while pulling the lever for the know-nothing bigot. Progressive voters protested Clinton’s candidacy in the general, even as she reshaped her policy positions to adhere more closely to Sanders’ platform. Calls to keep the Sanders movement going were hectored by those who viewed a Trump presidency as a threat to the vast majority of our fellow citizens, including Sanders himself. Indeed, once the conventions were over, few on the left dared criticize Clinton for fear of empowering Trump. There were other options on many state ballots—the libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein—but the risk was too great.

Now that the voting is over, it is time to get real. No matter the outcome—even if Trump would have lost by a landslide and crawled back into the gilded rathole from which he came—what this election laid bare is the disservice the two-party system does to all of us. Just as many liberals were holding their tongues against Hillary, many Republicans who had once vowed never to support Trump got in league with unapologetic racists and misogynists for fear that Clinton would be president. Of course, voters always have to make some calculation in the ballot box; no candidate can be the perfect choice for everyone. Yet the fact remains that 2016 proved we need more viable options.

This election presents an opportunity—and, frankly, an obligation—to tweak the great democratic experiment that began so many years ago. We must adjust the current system and find ways to makes third- (and fourth- and fifth-) party politics possible and not just a disruptive sideshow. We need to present a way for conservatives who did not identify with Trump’s extremist views, but felt compelled to vote for him anyway for lack of a better option, a party of their own. We need a party for Sanders supporters that is more robust than “Not Trump.” Under such a system, Clinton could have been a more trustworthy candidate, because she would have been free to argue for the centrist Democratic government she represents, without all the awkward appendages slapped on to appease her party’s far left. Many Americans remain believers in free trade. Why shouldn’t they have a proven supporter of such policies at the podium making the case?

A common argument against plurality democracy is that among the multitudes of parties, some espouse extreme nationalist rhetoric—such as we are seeing in nearly every European democracy today. Yet our two-party system let Trump through. It allowed Trump to become president. Whatever bulwark against such a xenophobic and sexist demagogue we thought we had is not working. In such an environment, it would be preferable to have a white-nationalist party in America that could provide an exit ramp to the deplorables—we said it!—who are supporting Trump as an explicit expression of white supremacy. With only two parties to choose from, the most hateful, bigoted parts of the voting populace get folded into either one or the other. There is nowhere else for them to go. And when an outspoken brute like Trump comes along, the whole party is tarred with the same brush. When they feel they have no other option, as cowardly as that stance may be, they might even elect him.

And, even supposing Clinton had won, what would have happened to Trump’s supporters? Is it better that the Republican party squash them with a mechanism like the Democrats’ superdelegates so they feel they have no political recourse? Without such recourse, violence becomes a more likely option. A third party would allow a release valve for racism and hatred that cannot be ignored and threatens to explode if contained.

The bottom line is this: Whoever wins this presidential election, the majority of Americans—those who voted for the loser combined with those who reluctantly voted for the victor—will not be satisfied with their new president. And we call this democracy?

There are many reasons we have never been able to break out of this system, but the main one has been that the national conversation about third parties largely stops after each presidential election. Which is why we are raising the point now. Yes we must attempt to avert disaster in the immediate term, and later to regain what was lost, but we also must establish ways to make sure it never happens again.

Parties, as Madison tells us in The Federalist Papers, are inevitable in a democracy. Coalitions are advantageous, and so naturally form. But the two-party system is very much a result of specific choices we’ve made as a society. Some of this stems from the arbitrary barriers states erect to limit third-party access to the ballot. Washington has rightly begun to break these down, both through the low threshold for signatures required for candidates to appear on the presidential ballots and the top-two primary system for all other offices that saps power from the two major parties. And yet these measures hardly fix the systemic issues at hand.

Most political scientists agree that the reason the United States is locked into a two-party system is that the vast majority of our elections are winner-take-all: As long as you get more votes than the next person, you get 100 percent of the spoils. This makes a third-party candidacy almost certainly a non-starter, since any third-party candidate will inevitably leach more votes from one major-party candidate than the other, creating a situation in which voting for your ideals (Nader) helps elect the antithesis to your ideals (Bush). In a winner-take-all system, it is inevitable that two factions will arise, since getting 50.1 percent of the vote is the surest way to victory.

A number of electoral systems have been designed to avoid this conundrum.

One is a system called “ranked-choice voting,” in which voters rank their preference for candidates. Whichever candidate gets the least number of top rankings is eliminated, and voters who named them their first choice see their votes assigned to their second choice; the process repeats until a candidate gets 50 percent of the vote. It’s still winner-take-all, but it reduces the penalty voters pay for voting for third-party candidates. Also, it might allow parties to more easily reach the thresholds for inclusion in public financing and debates. This alone would be a great service to the country, as it would allow a broader spectrum of ideas into the national conversation. A more drastic step would be to convert the federal government to a parliamentary system in which parties are assigned government power based on the proportion of the vote they get. Yet that would require a constitutional overhaul that, even in this conversation of drastic change, may prove too drastic in the near term.

In most states, ranked voting would require approval by legislatures that are controlled by members of the parties who derive great power from the status quo. Then again, voters in Maine this year are deciding on a referendum to create this very system; that measure appears to have passed. In Washington state, as noted above, we have already proven willing to experiment with the way we choose our candidates. We should double down on that spirit now and adopt ranked voting—as a start. This will not immediately solve our problems, but by setting an early example, Washington state could help begin the march toward a more representative democracy.

The daunting nature of the challenge should not be a deterrent. Ask yourselves: How many more elections like this year’s can our country endure? We are a nation of coal miners choosing between the party that would close the mine and the party that aids and abets executives who literally put the workers’ lives at risk through lax safety regulations; gay business owners choosing between a party that would increase regulations on their enterprise and a party that derives power from denigrating the way they feel love; pacifists choosing between a candidate who’s had a hand in every American armed conflict for the past 20 years and a candidate who would do away with nuclear nonproliferation; Occupiers deciding between a New York millionaire and a New York billionaire (or so he says).

We have convinced ourselves that this is normal, that there is no other way. We have convinced ourselves this is representative democracy. So why don’t we feel represented?