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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 12/28/16

Winner Take All--The American Way of Life

Author 505282
Message Manfred Weidhorn

Most things in life have multiple causes and multiple effects, but people prefer simplicity and therefore focus on a singular explanation for what happens. So the defeat of Hillary Clinton is blamed on Russia by some observers, on Comey by others, and so on. The very multiplicity of plausible monocausal explanations rules out a monocausal explanation. So it is with trepidation that I try to clarify the mess by blaming two agents as mainly responsible for a defeat that the many other factors cited would have been insufficient to account for or, put differently, a defeat in which these two agents gave potency to all the other factors.

My trepidation is doubled by the likelihood that my explanation will be labeled misogynistic. But here goes: the two central causes of defeat were Hillary herself and Dr. Jill Stein.

Hillary knew in 2008 that she was likely to run again for president but instead of spending the waiting period immaculately, she set herself up for a crash. Why give those apparently compromising speeches to Goldman Sachs and, at that, for exorbitant fees, money that she did not need in her affluent years? That decision set her up for her unwillingness to release the texts of her speeches, which, added to a long list of other secretive actions, rendered her deeply vulnerable. Why, moreover, set up the private server and the host of problems that it led to? Why get entangled in the Clinton Foundation with the resulting impression, false or not, of a "pay to play" modus operandi?

Her self-destructive behavior can be accounted for as due to either arrogance--she was not to be assessed the way normal people are---or a blindness to the consequences of her actions. Either attribute could disqualify one for the presidency.

Dr. Stein sinned by Naderizing us. She committed the old vice of ignoring history and thereby repeating it. Hillary lost the Rust Belt "blue wall" by 30,000 votes, and Stein received a larger number there, thus sealing the defeat. Stein had a perfect right to try to advance her super progressive message, but prudence, as well as the example of Nader in Florida in 2000, would have confined her campaign to the Northeastern and the Pacific coast states where she could garner her votes without hobbling Hillary.

The flaws of these two women were consequential because of the electoral system. Donald Trump was absolutely right in declaring, before November 8, that the election was rigged. It was rigged, indeed, by the Founding Fathers, who set up the Electoral College as a body with veto power in case the volatile and untrustworthy electorate fell for a demagogue. As oft happens in life, the very act of trying to avoid something disastrous turns out to be the enabler of that disaster (see the Oedipus story), and so the Electoral College itself, not the broad electorate, picked a demagogue.

In sum, this sorry tale is actually a piece of Americana. When George W. Bush won in 2000 in the same peculiar way as Trump just did, the commonsensical way to react--the way which the Parliamentary system necessitates--would have been to govern from the center. With the electorate split down the middle, you pick a cabinet and follow policies that constitute a blending of conservative and liberal viewpoints, in other words, lots of compromises. But Bush treated the mere act of winning, however bizarrely, as warrant for pursuing hard-right tax and foreign policies. We know not yet Trump's detailed program, but his hard-right choices in cabinet posts and advisors portends Bush policies on steroids.

Yet, given the split electorate, neither man could point to a mandate for such behavior. That means that, compared to the Parliamentary system, the much vaunted American exceptionalist way is an undemocratic defect, not an advantage.

Trump and his more delusional followers speak of a landslide and a mandate. Nonsense. Let us be clear: Trump won the presidency because of the rules of the game, but the mandate--if any such thing exists here--clearly favors the liberal positions by three million votes. That mandate, such as it is, will of course be ignored by Trump because of the principle of "winner take all."

The electoral college is so constructed that, in almost all states, if you get 50% plus one of the vote, you garner all the electoral votes of that state. This is not the way all the other modern democracies function. It is peculiarly American because it shows up in many ways in our culture. To wit, our economic system is based on the idea that if you become wealthy, whether through genius or double-dealing, you get all the breaks, and to hell with everyone else. You get the offshore tax havens, the lavish real estate tax breaks, the carried interest fraud, and numerous other loopholes not available to Joe Sixpack. It is reflected in the mushrooming divide between executive compensation and the lowliest worker; the ratio used to be 10 or 30 to 1, and now it is 300 or even 1000 to one. It is reflected in the current GOP plans to shred the many safety nets, which are already porous compared to the European versions. Yes, Virginia, we do have classes and class warfare, even though it is disguised by lots of ranting about "freedom," "competition," "entrepreneurship," "individual initiative." And not only is there such a war but, as Warren Buffet noted, the affluents are winning it.

In Europe, especially in Scandinavia, there is a sense that we are all in this together and that, while wealth should certainly be available to the talented few, the rest of the populace should have skin in the game, especially as there are psychological limits to how much happiness all the money in the world can buy. But here it doesn't work that way because, you see, America is exceptional and the "winner takes all."


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For 51 years Professor of English at Yeshiva University. Author of 13 books and over a hundred essays.
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