Last Friday Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States. Across the world this weekend millions, mostly women, have marched to protest the event. It is already said to be the largest protest march in the history of the U.S. The attitude of the Briton on the High Street is simple: it’s preposterous. Not that it can’t happen here – after all, we have Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn. Each is or has been leader of a political party, but neither of them had the remotest chance of becoming Prime Minister. That’s no thanks to them, but to the relative good sense of the British electorate. Of course, the UK electorate wobbles from time to time, but even the least educated Brit voter seems, at a minimum, able to judge what policies and candidates are in his own interests. My fellow Americans (I’m entitled to vote in both countries) seem unable to discern this in some respects – a lot of women and, apparently, some unemployed people, were Trumpistas, despite his blood-curdling misogyny and his billionaire-ish contempt for “losers.”
“Surely you’re not calling the American voters ‘preposterous’ as well?” you’ll say. Well, no, it’s the preposterous rules that govern US presidential elections that resulted in President Preposterous. The voters had the good sense and taste to prefer Hillary Clinton by a margin of nearly three million, we’ve been told – but the elegantly mad 18th century procedures by which we elect the president sometimes make the popular vote count for very little.
This will outrage more people than my insulting the Donald, I know, as even thoughtful fellow Americans worship their Constitution (almost as much as the unthinking ones revere the flag). But this religion is almost as wicked, and certainly as silly, as the evangelical fundamentalism to which so many of the flag-idolators cleave.
The political philosopher, Alan Ryan, has long castigated Constitution worship, and occasionally we read a piece by other sensible thinkers, who also point out that the sacred document has other flaws (such as the article that allows so many of us to carry the guns with which they slay so many others of us). However, it’s rare (and not really a good rhetorical move) to point out that it was written by men, great men, powerful thinkers, some of them, but who wore powdered wigs and kept slaves. Their mores were not ours, and we no longer have many of the problems the Constitution was designed to solve. Our problems are probably worse, certainly more dangerous for the other inhabitants of this planet, but they do not, on the whole, require the same structures and devices for their solution.
Indeed, despite a reference to the Marquis de Condorcet and the conclusion that “after 224 years, perhaps it is time to change the rules of the game,” the Nobel Economics laureates, Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen, don’t mention the 18th century in their analysis of the remedies available for the lunatic procedures and customs for choosing the American president. Obviously rational people would simply abolish the Electoral College and elect the president by the popular vote. But, in this respect, the American polity is not rational, and it won’t happen. There is a superior system, Maskin and Sen argue in their superb piece in the New York Review, and it’s called majority rule (c.f. Condorcet), eliminating victory by plurality. The simplest change of all would require no Constitutional amendment, but only a change in the political party rulebooks – “to replace plurality rule by majority rule in state primaries.” Incidentally, on their calculations, had this election been based on majority rule, it is possible that last Friday would have seen the inauguration of President Bloomberg.