Nothing, absolutely nothing, gets professional political trainspotters going like a US Presidential election. From LBJ and JFK through to The West Wing many British politicians and journalists are infantilised and befuddled by their obsession with a fairy tale version of American politics that has only ever existed in dreams and Hollywood sets. Few show any real understanding of the country or of its politics. What we are currently hearing, as we await for the votes to be counted and the results to be declared, is that democracy is in crisis or at the least under threat. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Jeremy Hunt, the former Foreign Secretary, and Lionel Barber, the former editor of the Financial Times, are but two who have tweeted to that effect. They both should know better and take a firm grip on themselves. Sensibly, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, and Dominic Raab, the current Foreign Secretary, have wisely refrained from making public comment.
Over the course of history Presidential elections have certainly had their fair share of corruption. As that legendary Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once famously said: “How else would Jack have ever gotten to the White House if his dad hadn’t spread money about in West Virginia?” The notion of machine politics and the practices of Tammany Hall were borne out of the American political system.
The Electoral College is an alien concept to the British eye. The person who wins the most votes wins the White House right? No. Not necessarily. It’s there to ensure that all the States’ voices are heard in fair measure. So you can become President without winning the most votes? Yes, and it happens more often than you might think too. It’s the states which vote for the President.
And hold on a moment, this business of a party winning an election but winning fewer votes can and does happen here too in Britain. We have a different system to our American cousins but we do not operate a direct democracy either. We vote in Members of Parliament, who then support a party and a leader in the House of Commons. We do not elect an individual to be Prime Minister but a party into government. These are not obscure pedantic nit-picking esoteric points, they are key to understanding what is currently going on.
In the US the courts, the House of Representatives and the Senate all provide a nuanced system of checks and balances. Whatever President Trump says if he loses the electoral college vote, he will stop being the President at noon on 20th January. Even if he bricks himself into the Oval Office and takes the telephone off the hook he will not be the President. If Joe Biden wins the Electoral College vote he will become the President at noon on 20th January, even if he has to run the country from a tent pitched in Lafayette Square. Term limits have their uses. The power of the Presidency will transfer from one to another.
American politics is the roughest and most brutal of any democracy in the world. It isn’t elegant. It’s often contested. But the extraordinarily high turnout of voters – 67% at the last count – also shows that American democracy is alive and thriving. Every vote counts, and every voter knew it. What we are witnessing in this election, which still has a way to go, is the big, bold, beautiful process of electing the American President. American democracy is alive and well and it’s a glorious sight.