Ramblings: Thoughts on the U.S. Election

Author’s Note: Forgive me, dear reader, for straying from the stated purpose of this blog with this particular post. However, given the gravity and the enormity of the events that transpired in the United States last night, and the effect they will have for all of us — in Canada and the rest of the world — I felt compelled to comment, or at least to get the thoughts swirling around in my head down on paper, such as it were. I promise not to delve into politics here too much, but I hope you’ll indulge me when I do.

Today, the sun rose again, which was a relief. When I went to bed last night, it felt like it might not, or at least when it did, it would shine its light over a drastically changed world. When I went to bed last night, Donald Trump held a lead in Electoral College votes, but hadn’t yet reached the 270 needed to win. When the sun rose this morning, Edmonton was not a barren nuclear wasteland, which was a good sign. But the race was over, and the headline on CNN.com simply proclaimed in bold, capital letters: PRESIDENT TRUMP.

Still stunned in silence, I put my headphones on and walked to work. Along the way, though, I wanted to go up to every woman wearing a hijab, every visible minority I saw along the way and give them a hug, commiserate with them, tell them it would be alright. As a straight white male, I almost felt obligated to do that. I felt obligated to take those headphones off and listen closely to what was going around me for racist or sexist language or signs of abuse, to stand up for these people against those who would be emboldened in their beliefs by Trump’s victory.

The one main question that swirled around in my head last night as I tried to fall asleep, and that continued to dog me along that walk to work, was: “How? How did this happen?” How did the American people get to this place? How did they ­– and, perhaps by extension, we as Canadians – get to a place where a failed businessman, a reality TV star, a lewd misogynist who spews racist rhetoric is now poised to become the leader of the free world? It makes so little sense to an outsider, but it does serve as a big cautionary red flag.

Was it the “victory party under the slide” mentality, like in that episode of The Simpsons when Bart runs for class president? Everyone is so preoccupied with celebrating Bart’s victory that no one actually votes, and Martin Prince winds up pulling off the upset. Did so many Democrats figure they had this thing all sewn up that they didn’t bother voting? I don’t think this is the case, given the number of American friends I had seen posting about voting (usually for Hillary Clinton) on Facebook, but it is a possibility.

Part of the reason I think this isn’t the case is the sheer number of Get Out the Vote campaigns that took place this year. It seemed like every talk show host and his/her dog was imploring people to actually get out and vote this year. And while they weren’t officially telling you who to vote for, it was implied that they were imploring you to vote for Clinton – or, at the very least, against Trump. But that could just be a byproduct of the media that I consume. And I imagine much the same was playing out on the other side, on conservative talk shows and websites that I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, reads Newton’s Third Law of Physics. Perhaps, in this case, the reaction from the right was just a little greater.

I also have to wonder how many of those people who were encouraged to get out and vote just held their noses and voted for Trump, either out of party loyalty, tradition, or a disbelief that it would actually matter. We saw it in the Brexit vote earlier this year: voters who wanted to remain in the European Union casting ballots for the Leave side, figuring Leave would never even come close to winning. Those people then had massive regrets later on when they found out their votes actually did matter. Were there some Republicans who were absolutely repulsed by Trump and his actions but still voted for him, thinking that Clinton would win by a landslide anyway? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem like that would be enough to put Trump over the top. Then again, in some of the swing states where the margins were razor-thin, maybe that would be enough.

Some will be quick to blame this on third-party candidates like Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. Leading up to the election, many people expressed their disdain for both major party candidates and openly mused about casting their vote for someone else. Others, like Dan Savage, didn’t mince words about their dislike for that strategy, telling anyone who would listen that a vote for one of those third parties was only going to put Trump one step closer to the White House. In a lot of states, the third parties turned out not to be factors. But in some swing states, they definitely were. Look at Florida, with its 29 Electoral College votes: Trump won by 1.4 per cent, but 2.9 per cent of the votes went to Johnson and Stein. In Wisconsin, Trump won by one per cent, but 4.7 per cent of votes went to third parties. In Arizona, Trump won by 4.2 per cent, and five per cent of votes went to third parties. Pennsylvania: Trump wins by 1.1 per cent; 3.2 per cent of votes to third parties. I don’t know if it’s fair to go so far as to say the third parties handed the presidency to Trump – were they not in play, there’s no guarantee those votes would have gone Clinton’s way or even been cast – but I think it’s plenty fair to say they were a factor in last night’s outcome.

It’s also fair to say, I think, that the United States’ method for choosing a president is screwed up six ways from Sunday. It looks like Clinton will actually win the popular vote, but it’s a decisive victory for Trump in the Electoral College. The whole Electoral College system is antiquated and should be torn to the ground and replaced with something more representative, but we all know that will never happen. People are too attached to power and to tradition to affect real change.

Trump’s win also points to a disturbing trend of anti-intellectualism that has reared its ugly head over the past few years. We saw it in the Brexit vote earlier this year, when Leave campaigner Michael Gove said on television that people “have had enough of experts.” Trump branded himself as someone who cared not for political correctness and as an outsider to the usual political establishment, a cowboy who would ride into Washington and clean up all the corruption and waste. And his supporters ate it up. They chose to put more stock in what they read on social media – regardless of its source or its veracity – than what they saw on traditional media, which Trump told them was controlled by liberal elites. I suspect, however, that when Trump finally does saddle up and ride into the White House, he’ll find that change is much harder to affect than he thought, that people and institutions are far too entrenched in their ways to change at the wave of a hand.

Speaking of change, though, pollsters really need to figure out a way to change their methodologies if they want to stay relevant. Right now, polls are dead. They’ve proven themselves extremely unreliable. National polls showed Clinton with a four-point lead as late as the weekend before election. In 2012, polls were predicting a Wildrose win in the Alberta provincial election, but the Progressive Conservatives swept back to power under Alison Redford and a commanding majority. Polls for the 2015 Canadian federal election weren’t predicting a Liberal win until pretty late in the game. It seems as though pollsters rely too heavily on old technology, resulting in skewed results. Until they can reliably figure out how to incorporate new technology and media into their work, it will be hard to rely on them.

But what truly troubled me on that walk to work along Jasper Avenue this morning was the realization that, were this a street in an American city, there’s a good chance that pretty much every second person who walked past me in the other direction would have cast a ballot for Donald Trump. It’s difficult to imagine that every second person with whom you cross paths in a crowded crosswalk voted for Trump’s isolationist policies. It’s difficult to imagine that there would be a 50 per cent chance the person in front of you in the lineup for your morning coffee voted directly for a man whose campaign had no clear direction and from whose mouth such racist and sexist vitriol has emerged. (EDIT: After seeing actual voter turnout was near 50 per cent, I guess that would mean that only one in every four people in the crosswalk voted for Trump, or there’s only a 25 per cent chance the person in front of you in line voted for him. But it’s also difficult to imagine there’s also a 50 per cent chance that person didn’t even cast a ballot.)

Today admittedly looks like a bleak day. But the sun will rise tomorrow – for all of us. It will be a new day, and a new chance to stand up for what we believe in. It will be a new chance for Democrats to analyze and regroup. It will be a new chance for us here in Canada to work hard to prevent such nasty, divisive vitriol from infecting our own political landscape. (Case in point: the two women, Sandra Jansen and Donna Kennedy-Glans, who, on the same day as the U.S. election, dropped out of the Alberta PC leadership race, with Jansen citing intimidation and harassment.) It will be a new chance to work hard at a local level, to make sure all people feel safe, secure and welcome in a nation that has prided itself on multiculturalism and inclusiveness.


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