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What do popular votes mean in the USA?

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 5 March 2021

In this essay I want to return to the US Presidential election, not because I think there was anything suss in the outcome, though there might have been (see Time magazine's expose here), but to point out some singular features of the result, and what they might mean both in the USA and here.

First, the numbers. No one in American history has won more votes than Donald Trump did last November, save for Joe Biden, who won over 81 million popular votes, just over 51 per cent of the votes cast. Donald Trump won 74 million, or not quite 47 per cent of the votes cast. So while Biden scored highly in electoral college votes, in popular vote terms his rival did astonishingly well. One reason for the large vote was a large turnout. Nearly 160 million turned out to vote, the largest turnout in American history. But note again, the turnout was not obviously the gathering of the sensible Americans to sweep away Trump and 'Trumpism' (whatever that is). It can also look like the flocking to the polls of those who wanted Trump to continue and to defend what he had done. So what was going on?

My suggestion is that there may be an emerging third force in American politics, which I'll call 'T' for want of anything better. It exists because both the Democratic and Republican parties are losing ground. Why are they losing ground? Again (I think), it is because, on the Democratic side that party is seen as captive of an urban elite, while the Republicans are seen as weak-kneed and unable to counter the urban elite. Now 'T' is seen as strong and tough and effective. As I've said in earlier essays, one of our problems is that we really only get the anti-Trump perspective in our mass media. How can Australians come to understand the 75 million who voted for a man pictured as a buffoon, a crazy and a philanderer? Plainly, they didn't see him that way. What did they see?


My response is that either they didn't think those aspects were important, or they saw other things as much more important. I plump for the second option. They don't like what the Democrats currently stand for, and they don't see the Republicans as able to stand up against those things What are those things? There is a strong socialist tendency coming from Bernie Sanders that is unusual in American politics. The Democrats see climate change as tremendously important, but a lot of Americans don't. The Democrats want to extend social welfare to everyone. That too is against the historic American culture of one's being responsible for oneself. Oh, and guns.

Let me jump to our own country, where I see something rather similar going on, not that we have a 'T'. But we do have an uneasiness about our current political division. Public opinion polls suggest that the electorate is evenly divided between the Coalition and Labor, which may mean that there is considerable dissatisfaction with both sides. The Coalition is having to deal with some intransigently conservative MPs, like Craig Kelly. Kevin Andrews has lost his pre-selection. On the face of it, the Coalition is trying to move left to counter Labor, and to appease the urban elite, especially the young, who see socialism as a viable way forward and who also think climate change is truly important. It may be quite soon when our Prime Minister opts for zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That will be a strategic move, since he has been avoiding doing so since he attained office, but it is suggestive of the problems in our own political division.

Labor is caught, because Climate Change Action, for example, threatens the livelihood of miners, however attractive it is to the young elite in the big cities. The numbers are in the cities, of course, but Labor has to be able to appeal to all Australians, and as we have seen in Queensland, that just isn't possible where jobs are involved. Something else has happened since the 1990s, and that is the extent to which people, especially the young, have been educated to the point where they think their own opinions and values are as good as anyone else's and a lot better than most. That would be true in the US as well, though the process would have started a generation earlier. On Climate Change Action there has been a shift towards concern since 2013, with about 60 per cent in both the USA and Australia seeing it as a concern, compared with only 40 per cent eight years ago. The data are from Pew research, and I do trust it.

In both countries, the more education you have had the more likely you are to see it as a concern, and there is an obvious division on party lines, the Democrats and Labor really concerned, the Republicans and the Liberals/Nationals much less so. I'll add another factor. Some 94 per cent of the Australian population live in urban conglomerates above 100,000 people. The urban culture has been growing, and the rural and regional has been shrinking. So it makes sense for ScoMo to lean towards the young urbanites. The USA is different, because there a much larger proportion of people live outside big cities. Trump played to them, and indeed he won the majority of states outside those with big cities.

Does that solve the puzzle? I don't think so. There is the big fat fact that Trump got the vote of 75 million Americans, who did not heed the anguished cries from the Democrats that America was in danger. They didn't think so at all. If anything they might have thought that America was in danger from 'the swamp' - the Washington bubble and the big cities. To me that tremendous vote says something about what is happening in the US. Is the same thing happening in Australia? On the face of it, no, because we don't have a Donald Trump. Yet I feel that some of the same unease is here too. What causes it? I've set out some of the possible causes, but have no way of testing them.

We have had the same sort of party system here since 1910. It has been described as a system where conservative governments implement Labor policies, to general satisfaction. It survived, indeed prospered, because parents handed down their partisanship to their children, who did the same later on to their children. Has that process ceased? I think it has, or at least greatly diminished. And that leads to the possibility of a third force emerging, supported by those who don't think the old parties offer much to them. At the moment it lacks a leader. Donald Trump filled that part in the USA.


Where would we get one here?

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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