The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy — everything.
George Orwell, 1984
Recently I’ve turned my attention again to the question of the connection between games and what we often refer to, in all seriousness, as real life, more specifically, to the potential for games to intervene in reality and transform it in some way, hopefully for the better. The is the concept of Alternate Reality Gaming (ARG) popularized by Jane McGonigal (although not originating with her) which is distinct from the co-opted cluelessness of “gamification” (whose only purpose is to sell you stuff). It is also different from the concept of Augmented Reality Games where reality serves as a platform for the game, but the purpose is more traditionally one of entertainment and diversion only (think–gah–of Pokemon Go).
The reason I’ve been thinking about this is, not surprisingly, as a response to the horror of the current US presidential election season, which feels as if it has been going on since about three weeks after the last election was decided. Many conservatives and liberals in the US, who can’t even agree on what to put on their toast in the mornings, seem united in their belief that the current election season has not simply plumbed new depths but has in fact powered up a giant drilling rig (drill, baby, drill!) and is boring straight for the center of the planet.
Before we can talk about how games might improve the US electoral process in a couple of small but significant ways, however, we have to look squarely at the nature of the problem.
Americans are angry, the punditterati tell us, as part of their endless pundittification. The electorate is angry. The middle class is angry. The working class are angry. The underclass are angry. The 1% are. . .well, certainly not angry, but possibly starting to sweat just a little as they peer nervously at the security monitors covering the wrought iron gates of their walled compounds. Or so we are told.
Those who aren’t angry are worried. Very worried. There’s a palpable sense of horror mixed with confusion, a feeling that we are witnessing something that we haven’t seen before. US elections have traditionally been festivals where insanity alternates with inanity. But this? We have candidates that lots of people aren’t enthused about, supposedly, and yet the level of blind partisanship in favor of “our” candidate, and the level of raging hatred directed at the “your” candidate has been unprecedented. And many people are simply not sure how the choice came down to this: 319 million people in the US and this is the best we could come up with? Small wonder that polls have started to show that the US people are losing faith in democracy.
However, let us be very clear what that “losing faith in democracy” really means. It means we are losing faith in ourselves. Because if our democratic process is on life support, it isn’t because of big business, or corrupt politicians, or megalomaniacs, or lobbyists. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that a nation gets the government system it deserves, it certainly gets the government system that it is prepared to tolerate. We as citizens have allowed this system to degenerate and we have done so because it serves us well to have let it decay.
The circus rolls into town
It is hard to convey to people outside the US, and even within the US if it comes to that, just how fundamentally broken the US electoral system really is. And I’m not even talking about all the big-ticket broken elements that everyone knows are broken but about which they spend all their time hoping that if you keep saying “look! Over There! A Unicorn!” people will stop noticing. The prevalence of tortuously gerrymandered electoral boundaries to create “safe” districts where, in effect, one party can never, ever lose; the obscene amounts of cash being poured into the system from all sides, courtesy of our Supreme Court. Or the fact that both these factors, coupled with the “genius” of the electoral college system is ensuring that the 5 billion likely to be spent on this election (and that is a mid-range estimate) is being spent to influence the minds of a tiny minority of voters living in regions and states where the result could still go either way. Think about the good that 5 billion could do in the world. Now think what that 5 billion is actually inflicting upon the world.
On the international stage the US makes a great show of advocating the importance of “free and fair” elections as the cornerstone of democracy. Back on its own turf, however, the US goes out of its way to make it as difficult for people to vote as possible. US citizens are expected to shoehorn their democratic responsibilities into a regular workday; as municipalities have cut back on money available to fund polling places this often means long lines as people try to vote before or after work. Small wonder that people are turning toward absentee ballots and advanced voting mechanisms in ever greater numbers. The US could, of course, follow the lead of other advanced democracies and hold elections on a weekend or–God forbid–make election day a national holiday. You would think, wouldn’t you, that the cornerstone of the democratic process would deserve a holiday more than, say, Christopher Columbus. But no. Because–and this explains a lot that is wrong with the electoral process–here in the US we care more about making money than we do about democratic participation.
The US condemns in the strongest possible terms anyone from another nation that tries to thwart “free and fair” elections. . .while at the same time being one of the few advanced democracies where people are allowed, even encouraged, to spend time and money figuring out ways to stop people from voting. Rather than try to figure out how we could make it easier for people to vote, and how we could encourage more people to vote, we actively figure out ways to reduce the number of people voting. Because, you know, nothing says “democratic legitimacy” like a situation where fewer and fewer people participate. And when I say “we” what I really mean is Republicans. The last few years have seen a concerted effort by Republican state governments to construct restrictive “Voter ID” laws that overwhelmingly discriminate against the poor and people of color. Ostensibly, these efforts have been to counter an “epidemic” of voter fraud. Unfortunately, no one has proven that there is any such epidemic. Or indeed a minor outbreak. Or indeed someone with a mild sniffle. Researchers have certainly gone looking for such a problem, because if you could find evidence then it would be a major research coup. Unfortunately, they have come up empty-handed. There is evidence of electoral fraud, but it tends to be of the kind practiced by corrupt officials trying to rig elections, hiding the odd ballot box, etc. Voter fraud, where it does exist, happens so rarely, on such an almost infinitesimal scale compared with the number of people actually voting, that it has zero effect on any electoral outcome.
Of course, most Republicans are masters of the Trump school of reasoning: mere evidence is not evidence. Instead, repeat the lie often enough until people believe it. Preserving the integrity of the electoral system was however never the goal of such laws and as the courts have begun to invalidate many of these laws as unconstitutional, they have in some cases subpoenaed documents that have clearly demonstrated the deliberate disenfranchising intent. Because Republicans have faced a growing problem in recent electoral contests and it boils down to this: when more people vote, Republicans lose. It tells you everything you need to know about the modern day Republican party that rather than learn the obvious lesson here–perhaps we might need to change our policies in order to be more in tune with the electorate–they instead attempt to create a false electorate that is more likely to agree with them. Republicans I’m sure would glibly try to slither away from such charges by claiming that “this is just the way the game is played; every side does it.” That, demonstrably, is not true. Democrats are not spending huge amounts of time and treasure trying to figure out how to disenfranchise curmudgeonly white fundamentalist arseholes, for example.
Falling at the First Hurdle
However, before we the people even get to the point of participating in a broken national election system we have to endure a broken primary system which offers an object lesson in Federalism run amok. Theoretically this is where American democracy is at its finest. We the people get to choose our candidates for the most powerful elected office in the world! Huzzah! For any kind of representative democratic process, however, there is one basic requirement that has to be met: my potential to influence the outcome should in theory be exactly the same as yours. The way in which we end up exercising (or not) that potential influence may be very different. You may be sick on day of your state’s primary, I may simply decide that I don’t give a crap when my primary rolls around. Theoretically, however, if we both showed up and voted, our votes would have the same kind of influence on the outcome in our respective states.
But in reality. . .
There is no consistency at all in the various mechanisms by which individual states elect delegates to their nominating conventions; each individual system disadvantages one group or another and as a result individual contests do not even provide a solid indicator of the support for particular candidates in a national election.
Some states have caucuses, where people are required to show up in a specific location in the evening and debate the merits of their preferred candidate in order to persuade others. Sounds like the democratic ideal, right? Except that such an arrangement overwhelmingly favors people who are retired and have scads of time at their disposal; it disadvantages shift workers, people who don’t have access to transportation, single parents who don’t have access to childcare. . .
Some states have primaries, that function more like a regular election, with people showing up at polls and casting a vote. Except that some states have open primaries (where anyone can vote) and some have closed primaries (where only members of that party can vote). In some primaries and caucuses delegates are appointed proportionally, while in other states it is a winner-take-all system. And then there is the bizarre Democratic party system of “super-delegates,” a large pool of unelected delegates that candidates typically seek to lock up in advance by a variety of backroom deals and promises. Even then, however, “your” super-delegates can choose to desert you at some point if it looks like the electoral winds are not blowing in your favor!
Furthermore, in most election years the preferred nominee of each party becomes pretty obvious early on, which means that those states who hold their primaries or caucuses later in the process are, effectively, irrelevant. It isn’t simply the case that their vote may count differently as with the plethora of different systems I mentioned above: their votes don’t count at all.
If you set out to design the shittiest, most unrepresentative delegate system possible you couldn’t do much worse. In fact, if the US were to be subjected to the kind of election monitoring it often imposes on other countries, they would have a tough time certifying this process as even remotely fair. So why do we have this clusterfuck of a system? Three main reasons:
- States’ rights. The federal government long ago abandoned all electoral responsibilities and placed them in the hands of states, who get to run their elections pretty much how they see fit. I have absolutely no problem with this when electing state officials. Hell, if your particular state wants to force everyone to consult a Ouija board to elect the local dog-catcher, I am fine with that. But the president is a national office. The president’s responsibilities transcend those of the narrow local interests of any one state. So having a nationally consistent system, including that for choosing delegates, to elect the highest national office in the land should be nothing more than common sense.
- A state’s rights. The entire primary season is constructed so that the nation is forced to pay attention to states whose populations and ideologies make them completely unrepresentative of the rest of the US. Everyone knows that New Hampshire and Iowa don’t represent the rest of the US. And yet, every election cycle, everyone pretends that the results from these contests mean something. An impressive quantity of bloviation is expended talking about the predictive nature of these early primaries, as if any predictive trends aren’t primarily the result of the fact that these two are usually the first circus acts in the ring. If it were Rhode Island and South Dakota instead of NH and IA then we would be talking about their track record in picking “winners.”
- Tradition. The entire system of individual primary contests to choose delegates is a legacy system. It was a system that had a marginal utility in a world before widespread telecommunications and modern transportation networks. As a candidate you had to go state to state to build awareness. In the age of digital networks and multiple TVs in every home, there is no need for a drawn out primary season.
The US has proven that it can (usually) organize a (mostly) competent national election. There is, therefore, absolutely no reason that instead of the drawn out horror of primary season we couldn’t just have a single national Primary Day where people in every state would vote for the delegates to go to national party conventions. Pick one system for all states, so that everyone is similarly advantaged and disadvantaged (because you will never please everyone). People show up one day in March, or April, or whenever, and they chose from among the slate of candidates for their party who have been pontificating and televised debating and internet memeing etc. for the last few months. Sure, there will be the inevitable whining by NH and IA about being put in their place but by this point there are probably enough other states whose voters have been rendered irrelevant by the current system that those two states will probably be slapped down sharply.
There are all kinds of counter-arguments to this, many of which involve variations of two ideas: that smaller states would be disadvantaged by such a system and that candidates without a lot of financial resources would be disadvantaged. Comparatively impoverished candidates are already at a heavy disadvantage; arguably a system where they didn’t have to maintain a “ground game” in a large number of states but could concentrate on getting their message out via media might actually advantage them. Similarly, if you have a nomination being contested by a number of candidates then it is likely that the role of small states could become even more central. The other major objection is that if you had this type of system it might result in a convention where there was no clear winner at the start. Oh no! What a fucking calamity! In other words, you might actually have party conventions which would function less like a tightly scripted advertorial and more like a, you know, democratic institution, where people would have to debate and persuade others. Delegates would actually have to do something rather than simply show up to wave a sign and wear a stupid hat. Policy concessions would have to be made, platform compromises hammered out rather than simply accepting a “platform” handed down by your party’s overlords.
There is a growing body of research evidence that this current system benefits almost nobody. It disadvantages states, candidates, and voters. Moreover, it produces as candidates a surprisingly large number of people who should not be let anywhere near power of any kind, with this year simply offering the best (which is to say the worst) examples.
So why do we still have this system? It must benefit someone, surely?
It does. The news media. The long, long, long, election season is something that news media organizations can milk for all it is worth. In fact, you can detect a palpable whiff of panic in the air whenever someone dares to raise the prospect of changing the way elections work. If you took all this away, if you just had one single National Primary Day, for example, what would the news media do instead?
Perhaps their jobs? Because the thing that makes the election cycle so corrosive–and the longer the cycle, the more corrosive it becomes–of the values of the fourth estate is that it is easy news. It is news that comes to you. And as has been repeatedly demonstrated this election cycle, it allows news organizations to get away with what they are most comfortable doing: pontificating and interviewing one another. This is not journalism, it is punditry, and it is the natural outgrowth of a system where news industries are struggling to make ends meet: punditry is cheap (in several senses). Journalism has always been reluctant to train its practitioners to be specialists in any one area, clinging to the fantasy that a “generalist” can cover anything well. But with punditry, now you don’t even need someone who has journalistic expertise. They just have to be good at asking questions (although not necessarily at listening to the answers; fake journalist Matt Lauer is the poster child for this).
Obviously there is a helluva lot of stuff going on in the US and the rest of the world; lots of things that need to be covered, lots of areas that the mainstream media still, after all these years, doesn’t do a great job covering (the recent native American pipeline protests have revealed gaping holes in many news organizations). But news organizations are so dependent now on months of free and easy news provided by electoral campaigns that they are unlikely to let their dealer go without a struggle.
The Trumpet Shall Sound. . .And the Dead Shall be Raised!
The big, cheetoh-colored elephant in the room is, of course, Donald Trump, and there has been a lot of handwringing trying to account for the rise of a man who once appeared so blatantly unqualified to be president. And you know what? He is still blatantly unqualified to be president. He is a man with virtually no coherent policies, and the policies he does have are either, impossible, illegal, or entirely impractical. He seems to understand the US as a nation where the Constitution provides only a couple of vague suggestions to help us make the rest up as we go along, and which can in any case be disregarded at a whim. He has no real sense of how government works, at any level, of the complexities of international relations. . . .you’ve heard all this. Even some of his supporters would, in a quiet moment, if their primary concern wasn’t to stop someone else from being elected, probably admit all this.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Because this isn’t about the Trumpet being president. It is about him winning an election.
Each of the theories concerning the rise of the Trumpet (or the fall of America, take your pick) seemed compelling at the time, but I’ve gradually come to realize that most of them are beside the point. A major one, and a narrative that the Trumpet built into his campaign, is that he is reaching out to a whole new group of disenfranchised, economically disadvantaged voters. He sold this idea brilliantly. Like many of his deals, however, it rests on a questionable base. I spend a lot of my time biking in the mid-Atlantic and sure, there are some Trump signs in exactly the places you would expect to find them: outside run-down shacks flying the Confederate flag, or on the lawns right next to the black lawn jockey (I am not making that up). But I have seen no shortage of Trump signs out the front of well-maintained dairy farms. I’ve seen them in the driveways of massive, immaculate rolling horse farms, I’ve seen them on the bumpers of BMWs in villages packed with high-end Antique places where the pampered and privileged come to play.
Are there places out there which are shitholes of poverty where the Trumpet is popular? Sure, there has never been any shortage of poor parts of the country which have been voting Republican for decades and will vote for anything that isn’t a donkey (of course, if you live in an impoverished shithole and you’ve been voting Republican for years, you might, just possibly, want to think there might be a causal relationship there rather than a symptomatic one). But Trump’s support base is largely the same as it has always been for most Republican candidates: grumpy white men (mostly) and women pissed off about all them uppity immigrants and blacks and lesbofemonazis. And they love the Trumpet because unlike all those other mealy-mouthed Republicans he “says what he thinks” which allows them to do the same, and has made openly expressed religious, racial, and sexual prejudice cool again.
But this too is all beside the point.
Everyone keeps forgetting that this is not the first bite at the electoral cherry for the Trumpet. Whatever the man’s numerous character failings (so many that it almost doesn’t make sense to talk about him having a character at all; he is rather an assemblage of reflexes), my sense is that if he genuinely feels he made a mistake, he won’t make that same mistake twice. Of course, the problem is that he almost never feels that he did make a mistake; everyone else just reacted inappropriately. But I’m guessing he learned a few things from his first time on the electoral booty call.
And this is the real reason why the Trumpet is such a major existential threat to US democracy. It has got nothing to do with his policies; I don’t think we know what those are, and I’m not sure he does either. But policies are beside the point. And that is the point. The Trumpet’s campaign is based on a total, all-consuming cynicism about the US voting public and the entire electoral process. I am still not sure whether he is crazy like a fox or simply crazy enough to have pushed through the other side to genius. The Trumpet seems to understand, perhaps better than any other US presidential candidate in recent history, how the electoral process really works and he is gaming it like a boss. In doing so he is laying bare the real nature of the US democratic process, but so massive is his cynicism that he believes that even if his campaign provides abundant, daily evidence of what really drives the system, it won’t matter.
Trump may not win (although I have a very nasty feeling that a win is not off the table; there are still an awful lot of Bernie Bros and Babes still sulking about their lovable, fluffy Saint Bernard not having received the Democratic nod) but the next candidate to adopt the Trumpet’s strategy with only slightly more discipline and organization will almost certainly win. Because in his gaming of the US electorate, in his griefing of America, the Trumpet understands us better than we understand ourselves.
Coming up Next. . .Playing the Trump Card
A truly excellent and thoughtful piece – as always.
As a Brit I hate to say this but the shenanigans of this US Presidential Election campaign have seriously damaged the reputation of America in the eyes of the world. As you say, what are people supposed to conclude – not only about the US, but about The West and democracy if these are the best two people available to run the country?
Great to hear from you again! Glad you enjoyed the piece; wait until part 2. But yeah, it has been a pretty dire lookout over here. And it isn’t going to end after next week either. That said, it isn’t as if you guys haven’t produced your fair share of head scratchers for the rest of the world. There’s that whole Brexit thing, for example. But more to the point, think of the antics of Boris Johnson during that campaign (a man Trump publicly admired and vice versa). What that says, however, is that what we are witnessing is a world-wide phenomenon, a wave of authoritarian leaders and totalitarian movements. Trump and Cruz here in the US, Johnson and his ilk in the UK, Putin in Russia, the rise of fascist parties in France, Germany, and Austria, the insane antics of president Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. I and a few friends have talked about this and it feels as if we are living in the 1930s.
Oh, we certainly have produced a few ‘head scratchers’ since the WWII – I don’t deny it. But when the chips were down we produced Churchill! Since then it hasn’t mattered much. As regards the Brexit referendum, IIRC, a Chinese president, when asked in the 1960s what he thought of the French Revolution, replied, ‘It’s too early to tell’. Leaving the European Union may turn out to be a disaster, or it may turn out to be the rebirth of the United Kingdom. In twenty years time we may be able to make the first tentative judgements.