Watching the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and catching glimpses of their other races when I tune in to a U.S. station whose signal hasn’t been replaced by a Canadian channel showing the same program, I am forced to confront the question often asked about the Holocaust: “could it happen here?”
While the results aren’t even being reported as I write this, most Canadians reportedly fear a Trump presidency as much as I do. Even if the election turns out to be a historic rout, it will still be too close for comfort.
The current U.S. elections highlight everything that is wrong with winner-take-all elections. The most obvious is the way that voters are forced into one of two camps. Choosing to vote for a third party is the same as not voting at all.
Analysis of why people support Trump for President shows that a very large share of his support comes from people who simply refuse to vote Democrat. Lifelong Republicans choose to vote for a candidate they loath over a party they despise. That explains why the race is as close as it is. Hitler, who was a far more disciplined and effective leader than Trump, never attracted more than about 1/3 of the votes because German voters had more choices than American voters.
Holding your nose while voting is familiar to Canadian voters but in our case the stakes aren’t as high. We can often elect a minority government, which keeps the Prime Minister in check. Moreover, because the Prime Minister is the leader of the largest party, it is almost always clear who gets the blame for legislation and whatever mess ensues.
In the U.S., their “checks and balances” serve to obscure whether the President or Congress are why things aren’t getting done because the President and Congress are at odds. The blame game becomes a national pastime.
The acrimony is exacerbated by the presence of big money in U.S. elections. This not only serves to keep out third parties but also to make attacks on the opposition more effective. With usually only two candidates able to raise the money to mount effective campaigns and with both of them being relentlessly attacked, it’s easy to see why Americans are disillusioned with their elections.
In Canada we usually have strict controls over campaign finances and special interest campaigns. This limits the impact of attack ads but they still have some effect.
The Americans also have a unique system of primaries where party nominations are opened to the public to decide. This leads to lengthy campaigns where the attacks begin before the nominees are chosen.
To stop this, the American Fair Vote campaign seems to have abandoned their promotion of proportional representation and instead focus on eliminating primaries by replacing elections with Instant Runoffs. This is a poorly thought out decision since that system precludes removing money from their electoral system (big money simply finances multiple cooperative campaigns).
In Canada the Liberals have consistently promoted Instant Runoffs, which they call Ranked Ballots or Preferential Voting. Should they actually bring in such a system, our elections would become more like the American ones, with money playing a larger role and smaller parties facing even greater barriers to winning seats.
Moreover, the French two-round system has already vaulted a neo-Nazi party into second place in their polls, possibly soon to be followed up in their parliament. Instant runoffs won’t change this possibility.
Conversely, if the Liberals keep their promise to “make every vote count”, which can only be accomplished by proportional representation, our elections will become more like the European ones, where voters get real choices and where extremist views are relegated to minor parties that are usually considered too toxic to include in coalitions.
We’re seeing in the Conservative leadership race that some candidates are attempting to emulate Trump by appealing to the same racism and xenophobia he tapped. In the U.K., Brexit proved that such feelings can hold sway. Indeed, the U.K. system is largely the same as ours and they were able to elect people like Thatcher.
While there are features in our electoral system that make electing a Trump less likely, the presence of significant 3rd and 4th parties also allow for a party led by a Trump-like figure to win a phony majority with even less than the 45+% it typically takes to elect the U.S. President.
Our best bet for preventing giving a demagogue control over our government is to fix the phony majorities our system allows. This requires moving to proportional representation. While there is no system that can prevent demagoguery, proportional representation offers the fewest possibilities of it happening.