Why Trump was elected

(it’s not what you think)

Trump was elected for many reasons, but the biggest one has been ignored. The forgotten rural class, angry whites, Hillary’s emails, misogyny, Jill Stein, Russian meddling, voter suppression, contributed in 2016. Other factors will contribute to similar elections in the future. They should be addressed. But they’re not the biggest, most important reason.

Trump, someone like Trump, was inevitable. He’s not even the worst that could have happened. Why? Only 30% of potential voters elect Presidents in the U.S.A.. Trump got 27%.

55.7% of potential voters voted in 2016, based on self-reports. The real number is probably lower. 64.2% claimed they were registered. Hence 35.8% of voting age citizens weren’t able to cast a ballot.

Compared to other developed countries, Americans are non-voters. 40 of 44 European countries have higher turnout. However if you compare turnout among those eligible (registered) to vote, the U.S.A. ranks much higher. If an American is registered, they are probably going to vote.

A simple reading of these stats suggests that other countries differ by registering most of their voting age population. Making registration universal in the U.S.A. might lift American turnout to the levels found elsewhere.

However that’s a solution. The problem today is that G.W. Bush and Obama were elected with 30% of the potential electorate, and Trump and Clinton got 27% and 28% respectively.

History tells us that giving 30% of the population the authority to elect leaders causes problems. In the last truly free German election (1932) prior to World War II, Hitler won 27% of potential voters. Same percent as Trump.

In the 2016 Philippine presidential election, Duterte, a promoter of extra-judicial killings and undemocratic norms, won 39% of registered voters. About 85% of Filipinos are registered, so Duterte was elected with 33% of potential voters.

The most recent French presidential election was between a mainstream centrist and right-wing, race-baiting populist with fascist roots. 43.6% of potential voters voted for the centrist, Macron. 22.4% voted for the populist, Le Pen. If Le Pen had gotten 30% or more, she probably would have won.

Just because a leader gets elected with 1/3 of the potential voting population, doesn’t mean he or she will be a fascist or other dangerous populist. It opens the door to the possibility, however, because a third of the population can go off the rails.

After President Nixon resigned, in the face of solid evidence that he’d authorized criminal activity in campaigns, 30% or more of the U.S. population supported him. After Joseph McCarthy was censored by the Senate, and his methods of destroying innocent people were made public, a third of Americans still supported him.

Human nature isn’t pretty. There will always be angry, vindictive, envious, excitable people, ready to target some enemy. Their absolute number varies, but they’re rarely a majority. If they reach 30%, that’s something. If a system lets 30% (or 27%) elect it’s leader, that something can become President.

Someone like Trump is inevitable, given that less than 1/3 of potential voters elect America’s President. Someone like Trump will get elected again, if 30% continue to make the decision.

This is important, because there will be third party candidates, news media rabbit holes, foreign meddlers, and probably, sadly, the Electoral College, for many future elections. We can harden election infrastructure, ferret out fake news, combat ignorance. But surprises happen if 30% can choose.

Our priority should be to increase voter participation. Those who argue that nonvoters are ignorant and likely to make poor choices are wrong, both logically and empirically. It’s not that people make better political choices when they’re disengaged from politics. But they are as likely to make independent choices, based on their own judgement, as those invested in politics. Societies make better decisions when more individuals provide independent choices.

It may be hard to understand, intuitively. But groups of people have immense capacity, if they’re not coerced or swayed by dominant beliefs. No individual is likely to have a better answer than the dominant believers, but the sum of independent answers is almost always better.

Empirically, countries with mandatory voter participation, like Australia, eliminate the weird, extremist politics found in the U.S. Most Americans, including most Republicans, think the rich should pay higher taxes. No Republican in Congress will agree, because their narrow base doesn’t. If everyone votes (or chooses “none of the above”) the incentive to adhere to an extreme base’s view is minimized. It makes more sense to grab the middle.

People can argue whether having higher turnout will improve outcomes. But they miss the deeper point. If a country has turnout so low that 1/3 of citizens elect the leader, they’ll eventually run into a disaster. The U.S.A. just experienced this. Will the nation learn?

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