More than 14 months after the election is hardly the definition of timely, and it’ll be a few years before the next one, but I suddenly remembered that I meant to look at the poll-by-poll results for my electoral district, Pontiac, and see how much the vote in my particular sector — the Pontiac MRC (municipalité régionale de comté, roughly equivalent to a county) — differed from the electoral district as a whole.
The Gish Gallop, named after creationist Duane Gish, is a rhetorical strategy of “drowning your opponent in a flood of individually weak arguments in order to prevent rebuttal of the whole argument collection without great effort.” Donald Trump’s variant of the Gish Gallop substitutes weak arguments with scandals and outrage, any one of which would normally be a political career-ender. But because Trump generates as many outrages in a day as most politicians do in a year, his political career stays alive. How? Because he presents too many targets for his opponents to get any purchase against a single one, and they exhaust themselves.
In Trump’s hands, this strategy — wearing out and outlasting any opposition by giving it too many targets — has been extremely effective. He’s been deploying it throughout the campaign and now the transition, and there’s no doubt his presidency will be the same.
So what can be done? I’m a historian, not an activist, but it seems to me that opposition to the Trump administration will need to be more focused and targeted if it is to have any chance of success. As Andrew MacDougall remarked, in a slightly different context: “One thing is certain: To howl indiscriminately is to play Trump’s game.” But I see too many people too invested in the howl.
Since his surprise election, the American Left has been going for desperate, Hail-Mary, silver bullet tactics: recounting and auditing the vote, petitioning the Electoral College. Each has been a species of denial, a prayer that we will all wake up from this imminent and oncoming nightmare. None have worked. And to be honest, none could have.
It’s not time for some game theory, it’s time for some Gene Sharp. He has literally written the book on nonviolent resistance to authoritarian regimes. Several books and pamphlets, actually: they’re available for download from his organization, the Albert Einstein Institution. You should read them. Not only are they full of methods for opposing an authoritarian regime, but they collectively hammer away at a single point. You have to have a strategy.
In opposing Trump, what are you trying to accomplish. Because “opposing Trump” is not an end in itself. Oppose Trump how; oppose Trump with what goal?
If, for example, your goal is to get Trump out of the presidency, you will have to come to terms with two facts:
- That because of the line of succession,
everyone eligible to replace him is a Republican; and
- That the only people who can help you accomplish your goal are Republicans in Congress.
Disabuse yourself of any thoughts to the contrary. Don’t, for example, expect Democrats to sweep into power in the 2018 midterms under current conditions. Even in the event they retake the House, they will need 67 senators to remove a president from office, and there aren’t enough incumbent Republicans defending seats in 2018 to defeat in order to make up the difference. You need Republicans to stop Trump. (And don’t for a moment think he doesn’t know that. More on that in a moment.)
“But,” you might say, “Mike Pence is just as bad! Impeaching Trump and replacing him with Pence doesn’t solve anything — and in many ways Pence is worse than Trump!”
My response would be to gently and politely advise you to pull your head out of your ass. Pence is a socially conservative Republican who on several fronts could do far more damage than Trump because he’s more closely aligned with congressional Republicans — plus, he shows signs of having an attention span — but please get a grip. He’s not that good a politician, and would be far easier to defeat in 2020. Also, and here I’m speaking for the rest of the planet, he’s not as likely to get us all killed.
You will have to get comfortable with the idea of Pence (or another Republican) taking Trump’s place, or you’re really not that invested in getting rid of Trump.
Besides, if the idea of relying on congressional Republicans to defeat Trump doesn’t sound like much fun, I assure you, being a congressional Republican will be even less fun over the next few years.
Jeet Heer observes that Democrats’ main political task will be to exploit the uncomfortable tensions between various GOP factions. Not only will this enable such few victories as will come, largely in the form of Republican swing votes in the Senate, but it’ll cause Trump to lose his shit in the general direction of congressional Republicans, which will be fun to watch and exacerbate those tensions and divisions even more. (Remember, disloyalty infuriates him: he’s always been nastier toward Republicans than Democrats.) There’s a force-multiplier effect to be had, here.
But those victories will be fewer than we’d like, because for the most part it will be difficult to pry congressional Republicans away from Trump because they’re terrified of the consequences of opposing him. They’ve been scared of their own base for years, having seen their colleagues primaried by the Tea Party for being insufficiently nuts; now they’re scared that Trump will use Twitter to unleash the flying monkeys.
At some point, I suspect he’ll have unleashed the flying monkeys often enough that his targets will have grown numb to it or are resigned to it, and they won’t be afraid of it any more. That too will be fun to watch.
Meanwhile, if congressional Republicans have reason to be afraid, so too does Trump, who will be guilty of impeachable offenses as soon as he’s sworn in. Congressional Republicans could remove him at any time they choose, stopped only by the political blowback they would face from their and Trump’s supporters.
Heer believes that Trump and the congressional Republicans will try to work out a modus vivendi to give each other’s worst tendencies political cover. But that modus vivendi will not long survive if Trump’s worst tendencies manifest themselves in congressional Republicans’ direction, as I fully expect them to (see flying monkeys, above).
So any opposition should have as its goal making that modus vivendi absolutely impossible. Make supporting the congressional Republican agenda politically unsustainable for Trump, and vice versa. Find every opportunity to divide the two sides. Make sure Trump never misses an opportunity to blast perfidious congressional Republicans.
This does not necessarily mean giving up the fight when congressional Republicans and Trump are in alignment. But don’t expect to win them. Recognize that some fights are strategic and long-term — you will lose them now, and those losses will hurt, but it’s vitally important that you (and the Republic) live to fight another day. In the meantime, be tactical: focus on dividing those Republicans and making their unholy alliance with Trump as difficult as possible.
At some point, the people who supported Trump are going to get thoroughly sick and tired of him. When that finally happens among the Republican base, when the deplorables and the economically anxious turn on him, when people start craving a normal presidency again, Republicans will have the political cover to turf him.
And then you can get back to the normal political work of defeating a Pence administration that, while no doubt far too conservative for those opposed to Trump, will be far less likely to get us all killed.
At the moment, Canadians living outside the country for more than five years are no longer able to vote in Canadian elections. (This is actually a fairly common practice: plenty of countries have limits on expatriates voting — except, notably, the Americans, who also have to file tax returns from abroad.) The Hufffington Post is reporting that the federal government plans to change this, giving every Canadian abroad the right to vote by special ballot regardless of time spent outside the country.
Dale Smith is skeptical, pointing out that Canadians vote for members of Parliament, not governments: “[A]s an expat who has been out of the country — and in particular that riding — for more than five years, does it really make sense for you to continue to cast a ballot in said riding if you don’t actually live there?” Dale’s got a point. If we decide that Canadians should retain the right to vote no matter how long they spend outside the country, it doesn’t make sense that their votes should be applied to a constituency they might not have set foot in for decades.
There’s a solution to that, though I’m not sure Canada would go for it: overseas constituencies. More than a dozen countries, including France, Italy and Portugal, set aside a small number of constituencies for their overseas citizens. In practice they can be problematic: voter turnout for said seats is often tiny. Now there are 2.8 million Canadians abroad, more than live in the Atlantic provinces: what fraction of them will actually vote, and to what extent should that determine how many seats they get? (Do we want two dozen seats elected by a few hundred or few thousand voters each, for example?) The details would be messy. But I suspect that this is the only logical outcome for perpetual absentee voting rights.
Shortly after the 2004 Canadian federal election, in which Paul Martin’s Liberals won a minority government after a negative campaign on all sides, I observed that negative campaigning was insufficient to win an election:
I’m of the opinion that negative campaigning does in fact work, but you can’t win an election on negativity alone. This was the mistake that both the Liberals and Conservatives made: they spent all their time explaining how terrible it would be to elect the other guys, without making the case for themselves. In a nutshell, they both ran terrible campaigns — the minority result is, I think, proof that neither side was persuasive on their own behalf.
Governments tend to get elected on positive messages — Chrétien in 1993 with da liddle red book, Clinton in 1992 — even if they’re combined with a strong negative message. “We can do better than that crap, and here’s how” is much better than “This is crap, and they’re all assholes” — which may well be true, but it doesn’t necessarily make the case why someone should vote for you.
Earlier this year I suddenly remembered that I once wrote that, and worried that the Clinton campaign was about to make the same mistake. Yes, she had a detailed platform, and it was there for anyone who cared to look at it, but the key thrust of her campaign was that Trump was an awful human being who should not be president. You’d think that would be enough. They did. It should have been. But it isn’t, and it wasn’t. Remember: according to the exit polls, 12.6 percent of voters believed that Trump was untrustworthy and temperamentally unfit to be president, and still voted for him.
Paradoxically, for all the narcissistic rage and race-baiting and intolerance and thuggish behaviour, Trump at least made specific, clear promises that, while horrible or impossible, were easy to understand. His campaign was at least for something; ordinary people could point to him and say “at least he’s going to do something about all this.” Clinton was for a lot of things too. But her platform got lost in the weeds for a number of reasons, one of them being that it wasn’t simple or clear enough to cut through the other side’s Gish gallop. Her campaign didn’t keep it simple; Trump’s did. I can’t help but wonder whether that was a factor.
This is the third in a series of posts tracking statements made by or about Kellie Leitch, a member of Parliament and candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. Leitch has advocated testing immigrants and refugees for “anti-Canadian values” and has welcomed Donald Trump’s victory against the “elites” as “an exciting message and one we need delivered in Canada as well.” I’m writing these posts because (a) this kind of extremism needs to be opposed at every stage and defeated at the earliest possible opportunity and (b) sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Over the weekend Kellie Leitch bristled at criticism from fellow leadership candidate Michael Chong during a broadcast of CTV’s Question Period, saying “I am not a racist. I am not a person who’s out groping other individuals.” Well, all right then. As LBJ could tell you, having to issue that kind of denial is not good for your political career: most politicians don’t have to say that they’re not racists or gropers. Dale Smith cites this as an example of Leitch playing the victim card. Another example is the bizarre report of a break-in at her home — which turned out not to be an actual break-in, but an alarm going off. Regardless of whether the incident was real or serious, her campaign certainly seems to be torquing it.
Meanwhile, Chris Alexander, who joined Leitch in announcing the barbaric cultural practices hotline during the 2015 election and is now also a CPC leadership candidate, is slamming Leitch’s attempts to bring Trump-style politics north of the border. And Leitch’s policy is costing her some high-profile supporters: she’s lost retired senator Hugh Segal, Graham Fox (Joe Clark’s former chief of staff) and former Newfoundland and Labrador deputy premier Steve Kent, all of whom had previously endorsed her.
Leitch says she’s not concerned about racists supporting her campaign. (“It’s not for me to speak about other individuals.”) Wrong answer. The correct answer is “I don’t want their votes.” When bafflegab and obfuscation appear in the place of clear and unequivocal denunciation, it’s … very telling.
The Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom warns that the forces that brought Trump and other right-wing populists to power need to be understood, and that we can’t assume that it can’t happen here in Canada. But is Leitch capable of becoming a Trump-like figure?
Not, it would seem, an authentic one. The CBC’s Robyn Urback notes that the former cabinet minister and surgeon “is the embodiment of everything she purports to run against” and is running “a completely inauthentic, deliberately provocative campaign.” And in the National Post, John Ivison notes that, no matter how much she tries to pick and choose from the Donald Trump playbook, “[t]he problem for Leitch is that she’s no Donald Trump. […] she lacks Trump’s populism, narcissism and conceit.”
To follow up on my earlier post on Trump-wannabe Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch, because I’m keeping track, damn it:
She’s been condemned by fellow leadership candidates Michael Chong and Deepak Obhrai; Obhrai also reports he’s getting angry emails telling him to leave the country thanks to his opposition to Leitch’s immigration policies.
At the Conservatives’ leadership debate last Wednesday, Leitch cited Points of Entry, a book by McMaster sociology professor Victor Satzewich that looks at decision-making by visa officers, as evidence that Canada’s immigration standards are weak. Trouble is, Satzewich disagrees with Leitch, and would rather not have his work used to make her argument. Buzzfeed, iPolitics.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that despite her anti-elite rhetoric, Leitch is holding a $500-a-plate fundraiser in Toronto next Monday. It’s possible that Leitch, a paediatric surgeon and university professor, may need an explanation of what “elite” means. Now you can run a campaign strictly on small donations (many politicians have, and have made a hair-shirt point of it) but it’s unlikely she’d have raised the $450,000 she has as of September 30 if she had. You kind of need the elites for that kind of dosh. In the July-September quarter, for example, she raised $215,635.97 from 811 donors, an average of $265.89 per donor. Not exactly small donations from lots of grassroots supporters.1
Brian Alkerton is joining the Conservative Party just to vote against her, and suggests the rest of us do the same. The trouble with candidates like her is that sometimes they win despite everything, as we’ve seen elsewhere, and we can’t assume that she’ll be defeated later if she wins now. The world is full of black swans lately.
Thinking ahead to the next election. Simcoe–Grey, Leitch’s constituency, is normally considered a safe Conservative seat, but it’s not an impossible one. The Liberals held it in the 1990s, losing it narrowly to Helena Guergis in 2004 by only 100 votes. In 2011 Leitch won the seat; she was re-elected in 2015 with 46.6 percent of the vote vs. the Liberal candidate’s 38.6 percent — a margin of 5,260 votes. Difficult but not impossible, for a decent candidate with a well-funded campaign. Hint, hint.
(Much of the above via Dale Smith.)
- Maxime Bernier and Michael Chong have raised $428K and $209K, respectively, to the end of September. In the July-September quarter, Bernier raised $307,605.89 from 1,838 donors during that quarter — an average of $167.36 per donor. Michael Chong raised $124,224.34 from 243 donors — an average of $511.21 per donor.
With respect to the U.S. presidential election results, most of my social circle is still at the anger and denial stages of grief. Me, I’m a historian by training, so I tend to bury myself in trying to understand how and why it happened.
It’s familiar ground for me: I have considerable background in the rise of extreme right-wing movements in mid-20th-century Europe; understanding why and how the extreme right came to power is an important area of study in my former field.
I appreciate that activists on the ground right now won’t have much patience for that sort of analysis — they’re not interested in understanding the motives of people who voted for a racist, misogynist bigot — but I think that’s a mistake. If you want to fix the problem, and, you know, prevent it from happening again, you have to understand it first.
Let’s begin with the surprising and inexplicable fact that Trump performed far better among constituencies that he had absolutely no business doing so well in.
According to the exit polls — the New York Times has a marvellous infographic here — Trump held on to 42 percent of the women’s vote, only one point down from Romney in 2012. He actually won 53 percent of the white women’s vote (white women with a college education supported Clinton 51 to 45 percent). How the hell did that happen?
It gets weirder. Trump got 29 percent of the Latino vote — that’s up eight points from Romney in 2012. (Though Latino Decisions questions that number, pointing out that a large portion of the Latino electorate voted before Election Day.) He also got 8 percent of the African American vote (up 7) and 29 percent of the Asian American vote (up 11).
If the exit polls are accurate — and I don’t know how big an if that is — then Trump held his own among women voters despite repeated allegations of sexual assault and harassment (plus, you know, the pussy-grabbing), and improved his standing with Latino voters despite the build-the-wall rhetoric and calling Mexicans rapists.
This is, on its face, insane.
And if you think that’s crazy, dig this: a substantial number of Trump’s voters didn’t think very much of him.
Trustworthiness was a wash: about equal numbers said Clinton and Trump were untrustworthy (61 and 63 percent), and of those voters, about one in five voted for them anyway. We’re used to not trusting our politicians very much. But 63 percent of respondents also said that Trump didn’t have the temperament to serve effectively as president, and one in five of those respondents — 20 percent — voted for him anyway.1
One gets the impression that the Clinton campaign strategy to portray him — quite correctly, in my view — as temperamentally unfit for the presidency didn’t work very well. Not if 12.6 percent of the entire electorate agreed with their
That 12.6 percent was roughly six times what Clinton would have needed to win.
Many commentators point to racism, or at least the lack of discomfort in voting for a racist candidate. They’re almost certainly right. But that’s at least partially problematized by Trump’s small-but-not-insignificant minority support, plus the fact that the regions that swung to Trump this time had no trouble voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Glenn Greenwald points to economic anxiety, which he describes as “inextricably linked” with racism, sexism and xenophobia:
[O]ne must confront the fact that not only was Barack Obama elected twice, but he is poised to leave office as a highly popular president: now viewed more positively than Reagan. America wasn’t any less racist and xenophobic in 2008 and 2012 than it is now. Even stalwart Democrats fond of casually branding their opponents as bigots are acknowledging that a far more complicated analysis is required to understand last night’s results. As the New York Times’s Nate Cohn put it: “Clinton suffered her biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters. It’s not a simple racism story.” Matt Yglesias acknowledged
that Obama’s high approval rating is inconsistent with depictions of the U.S. as a country “besotted with racism.”
People often talk about “racism/sexism/xenophobia” vs. “economic suffering” as if they are totally distinct dichotomies. Of course there are substantial elements of both in Trump’s voting base, but the two categories are inextricably linked: The more economic suffering people endure, the angrier and more bitter they get, the easier it is to direct their anger to scapegoats. Economic suffering often fuels ugly bigotry. It is true that many Trump voters are relatively well-off and many of the nation’s poorest voted for Clinton, but, as Michael Moore quite presciently warned, those portions of the country that have been most ravaged by free trade orgies and globalism — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa — were filled with rage and “see [Trump] as a chance to be the human Molotov cocktail that they’d like to throw into the system to blow it up.” Those are the places that were decisive in Trump’s victory.
Countering the economic argument (and in support of the racism argument), people point to exit poll data that show Clinton winning voters making less than $50,000 per year. (It’s actually pretty close above $50K — Trump never does better than 50 percent.)
But that’s not how economic anxiety works. Economic anxiety is greatest among the people who are doing better than that — a bit better, but they think they’re not doing better enough, and they’re worried that they could lose what they have. It’s not a paradox for people making a bit more money to be afraid for their economic circumstances.
And indeed, we find that among respondents who say that their family financial situation is worse today than it was four years ago (27 percent of respondents), Trump won bigly — 78 to 19 percent. Among respondents who thought that the next generation of Americans would have it worse than today (34 percent of respondents), Trump won 63 to 31 percent. If you were doing well, better off than you were four years ago, or thought things would get better in the future, you almost certainly voted for Clinton. Trump won the pessimist vote.
Small wonder then that of the 39 percent of respondents who said that the most important candidate quality was that they “can bring needed change,” 83 percent voted for Trump.
So. Economic anxiety facilitates bigotry and makes a Trump victory possible.
Some voters — just enough voters to make the difference — made the decision to accept the bigotry and vote their economic anxiety.
This is not to excuse or explain away the bigotry. But if you think the rise of the Nazis had nothing to do with economic anxiety, you don’t know your history.
John Scalzi makes the analogy of subscribing to a cable package: you really want HBO, but you also get Cinemax. Regardless of whether you really only wanted HBO, you’re still a Cinemax subscriber. In voting their economic anxiety, they also voted for racism, sexism, homophobia, and harassment.
That’s not the sort of thing that makes Clinton supporters feel very favourably toward them at the moment.
That’s understandable in the moment, but a mistake in the long run, because some of these voters — some — are voters the Democrats had before, and could get back. And they’ll need them back, if they want to regain the White House. You can’t get the racist vote. You don’t want the racist vote. But you only need a few percentage points — the gettable voters who broke for Trump in the end.
(I’m leaving aside the question of depressed voter turnout and minority voter suppression, mostly because it’s not something exit poll data can deal with.)
Writing in Slate, Helaine Olen argues that Clinton blew the campaign in precisely the same way her husband did not in 1992: by making the campaign about Trump’s character and not the economy — whose improved fortunes are not evenly distributed. What may have done her in was not her email server, but her private speeches and Wall Street ties.
Trump, on the other hand, was incredibly canny. He said four words that I suspect resonated with this part of the electorate — “The system is rigged” — and four more words that neutralized his billionaire status and, incredibly, suggested he empathized with them: “Believe me, I know.”
And that’s one way of explaining how we got here. How the pussy-grabber and the wall-builder managed to get support from women and minority voters. Because this campaign was more about the economy than the Clinton campaign realized, to its — and our — chagrin.
- Forty-three percent said the same thing about Clinton; only five percent of those voted for her anyway.
Last night Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch sent out a message to her supporters that described Donald Trump’s victory against the “elites” as “an exciting message and one we need delivered in Canada as well.”
This is the same Kellie Leitch who announced the “barbaric cultural practices” hotline during the last federal election campaign. The same Kellie Leitch who wants to test immigrants and refugees for “anti-Canadian values” — whatever they are. (Love to know who determines what is and isn’t a barbaric cultural practice or an anti-Canadian value.)
It is, shall we say, of a piece.
I get what Leitch is trying to do. There are more than a dozen candidates for the Conservative party leadership, and she needs to stand out. Cosplaying Ilse Koch
But here’s the thing. Aping Trump’s strategy to stand out from the pack is a short-term strategy at best. The next federal election will be in 2019. If Leitch manages to win — and if the Earth has not yet been turned into a smouldering cinder by then — by 2019 we will be in the third year of the Trump presidency. At that point I expect Trump’s popularity in Canada, such as it is, to be at its utter nadir. Leitch’s faux-populist, xenophobic message will be long past its sell-by date.
I don’t intend to let things go on that long, though. This rhetoric must be opposed, forcefully and continuously. If this isn’t an anti-Canadian value or a barbaric cultural practice, then nothing is.
Last night’s election result is unquestionably bad news. Trying to get a handle on how bad, and in what ways, is next to impossible and has kept me up most of the night doing the threat assessment thing, and trying to come up with some initial thoughts that are at least semi-coherent.
There are many ways in which America is already a messed up and dangerous place. The carceral state, the civil asset forfeiture, the security theatre, the heavily armed hair-trigger police, the pervasive fear that leads so many to double down on gun ownership despite the repeated social costs — these are things that make me feel unsafe every time I visit the United States, and I’m a straight white male.
I don’t expect I’ll be able to travel to the United States again at this point. It doesn’t seem to be a safe place for foreigners right now, even straight white male foreigners.
And as a straight white male I don’t have to deal with the systemic racism and sexism that pervades every aspect of law and justice, that seems ready, even joyful, to come pouring through any breach and that affects nearly every aspect of public and private policy.
These problems continued to exist — did not cease to exist — when Obama was elected. His presence in the White House may have lulled us into thinking they were solved. Were past. But they’ve persisted for decades.
Trump is a symptom of a problem far larger, and far more pathological, something that has been festering for decades, if not the entire history of the nation.
America presents two faces to itself and the world: one is sublime, generous, inspirational, cosmopolitan; the other venal, suspicious, distrustful, parochial. The incongruity exists at once: America can swing from World War II to McCarthyism in the space of a few years, simultaneously engage in the Apollo Program and the Vietnam War — and vote for Trump after electing Obama twice.
America is a contradiction, a paradox. It contains multitudes. And no matter what your politics, it will always, always break your heart in the end.
Last night represented a complete failure of the political class — politicians,
It’s hard to maintain faith under circumstances such as these. I shudder to think how Trump and a Republican Congress will respond to — will use for their own purposes — the next terrorist incident.
But when I’m feeling optimistic, I think that it’s more likely for Trump to be Berlusconi than Mussolini. A narcissist with no agenda other than self-promotion is not likely to be focused or dedicated enough to do damage on his own — he simply doesn’t have the attention span. He’ll get bored with the minutiae of government quickly enough. No, the problem will be the people around him, full of passionate intensity and given a free hand so long as they pay sufficient obeisance to the boss. There will be drama aplenty as they jockey for position in the Trump White House — a situation perfectly suited to someone who lives to dominate, be in control, and be the centre of attention.
In the end drama, rather than achievement, will be the order of the day, particularly if President Trump continues to indulge in getting revenge for every slight against him. Those of us familiar with the mayoralty of Rob Ford or the governorship of Paul LePage will have some idea of what to expect. If that prevents the Trump administration from getting very much done, that’s probably a blessing, in the sense of mitigated damage. But things that need doing will get botched — there will always be another Hurricane Katrina on the horizon, another opportunity to do a heckuva job.
The impact on the rest of the world is more complicated. Does the election of Trump represents an inward turn, a return to American isolationism? I can think of a few cases where U.S. withdrawal and indifference wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But I’d rather that NATO wasn’t one of them, particularly during an Article 5 event (such as a Russian move into the Baltic states). And while I don’t think Trump is going to blow up the world, I honestly don’t want to think too much about what happens when his tendency to lash out is combined with first-strike capabilities.
Many of my American friends are terrified this morning. I don’t know what comfort I can be to them. For one thing, I’m kind of scared myself. For another, I really don’t understand the American experience. My country has different institutions and cultural and political norms — I can’t reassure someone who lives in a country that already freaks me out on several levels. The whole world seems to be on a rightward, authoritarian, xenophobic turn: central Europe’s done so, Erdoğan’s shown his colours, Britain’s gone brexit, and Le Pen just might win the next French election. And now Trump. I’m not entirely sure how Canada has dodged that particular bullet. I hope no one else notices that we have.
In the end, though, I honestly don’t know what comes next. Whatever happens, let’s do our best to survive it. That’s our first order of business.
In a piece discussing four upcoming by-elections, iPolitics’s Susan Delacourt mentioned in passing that “unless electoral reform happens really quickly, those seats will be filled the old-fashioned way — no preferential ballots, winner take all.”
Which made me wonder: how exactly would electoral reform deal with vacancies in Parliament? By-elections, after all, only work if MPs are elected from individual constituencies; you can’t run a campaign across an entire province or country just to fill one or two seats out of more than three hundred.
I could speculate, but instead I had a look at the website of Fair Vote Canada, a group advocating for proportional representation in Canada, to see what their solution would be. In their submission to the Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform, FVC proposed three options, one of which was mixed-member proportional representation, in which regional seats, elected from party lists, are added to MPs directly elected by their constitutencies. In that option, regional seat vacancies would be filled from party lists.
In case of a resignation or death of a regional MP during a term, the party’s runner-up moves up into the seat. No working MMP model has by-elections for regional MPs. As the Jenkins Commission pointed out, if a region-wide contest were to take place “it would almost by definition result in the victory of the predominant party in the area, thus negating the essential purpose of the Top-up seats.”
I have to say, this isn’t something that makes me more likely to support proportional representation.
In my post on electoral reform and the preferential ballot, I remarked that changing the rules benefits some players more than others. This is true of any change, and I suspect it’s one reason why electoral reform has been so difficult: the sense that the rules are being tweaked for someone else’s benefit.
As the centrist party, the Liberals would probably benefit from ranked or preferential ballots (and modelling appears to bear that out), and, funnily enough, ranked or preferential ballots happen to be Prime Minister Trudeau’s preferred option. So it’s easy to complain that the Liberals are rigging the game in their own favour.
But it’s important to keep in mind that, despite the lofty rhetoric about a “fairer” electoral system in which “every vote counts,” proportional representation also benefits some players more than others. The question is, which players?
Former Manitoba MP and lieutenant governor John Harvard died Saturday at the age of 77 (CBC News, Winnipeg Free Press). A longtime broadcaster, first with CJOB and then with CBC Manitoba, he made the jump to politics in 1988, when he won the riding of Winnipeg St. James, a longtime Conservative stronghold, for the Liberals. Re-elected in 1993, 1997 and 2000, he remained a backbencher, twice acting as parliamentary secretary, before being appointed Manitoba’s 23rd lieutenant governor in 2004.
I worked on John Harvard’s first election campaign in 1988; we got to know each other quite well.
Of the electoral reform proposals on offer, the one I’m most in favour of is the
It’s a bit more complicated than marking an X, and counting (and calculating!) the votes will almost certainly take longer, but a preferential ballot has a couple of things going for it. For one, it ensures that any member of Parliament will eventually be elected by 50 percent of the vote, once second- and third-place preferences are redistributed—we won’t have close three- or four-way races where the winner ends up with only a handful of votes more than the others, and less than 40 percent support.
Now that the election is over, many disappointed Canadians are talking about proportional representation, and how much fairer it would have been than our first-past-the-post electoral system.
I have never been a fan of proportional representation, partly because I think its supporters are mostly unhappy with the results of the most recent election and want to re-run it under different rules that they think are more favourable to their side, and partly because I’m a big fan of holding members of Parliament accountable to a constituency. But also because I’ve seen how PR systems operate in other countries. Not in the intricate, technical, here’s-how-it-works terms that PR advocates like geeking over — the real-world effects. And some of those real-world effects are precisely the opposite of what PR advocates want.