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Saturday, April 27, 2019

A Guide to 2020 Elections for non-Americans

Ginger Temptation by Bennilover from flickr (CC-ND)

American elections are a great show, but it might be difficult for a non-American to understand what's going on exactly.
To help everyone enjoy it, I wrote this post.

It's a post about politics, but I'm not advocating any political position here. If you're interested in more, I linked a lot of references.

Before I get to the candidates, I need to clarify some background points.

American elections do not matter

American political system is designed to maximize gridlock and inertia, so even the most radical claims made during campaigns rarely translate to much policy change.
Candidates tend to propose sweeping changes, and most of the time either nothing happens, or some extremely watered down compromise bill passes.

Regardless of who wins, government will grow bigger, public debt will keep growing, young people will keep getting screwed by gerontocracy, housing and healthcare will keep getting more expensive, Constitutional rights will keep getting curtailed, and so on.

Most of time something changes suddenly it's due to unelected Supreme Court legislating from the bench and bypassing the whole democratic process.

Two Party System and Primaries

First Past The Post system enforces two big national parties. Sometimes regional parties also emerge (like Bloc Québécois or SNP), but not in US. National "third party" is basically impossible, except when the part system falls apart completely.

This effect is even stronger in the US. On one hand bipartisan gerrymandering lets major parties collude to prevent any minor from emerging. And on the other hand, American parties are far more open than European parties, with "big tent" model.

Even if someone's positions are very far from the mainstream, they should just pick one of the major parties and stand in primaries, it's far more promising than a futile independent run. Donald Trump is an example of this approach succeeding, but many people like Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders attempted this with some success. Of previous presidents under new primary system, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barrack Obama were fairly marginal figures in their parties, and not definitely not their party's establishment first choices.

Similar system exists for Congressional and state elections. It's less so nowadays, but it used to be common to have wide diversity of views on both sides.

How Primaries Work

Parties choose their candidate in "primaries".

Presidents can serve two terms, and sitting president gets de facto automatic nomination from their party. Sometimes there's a token primary opponent, but nobody expect anything to come out of it.
For 2020 elections, Republican Party will nominate president Donald Trump. Democratic Party will hold a proper primary.

During primaries different states vote at different times, which is extremely helpful for candidates with less money. Instead of being forced to get money from big donors for a national campaign, a candidate can just focus on a few early states, and if that appeal is successful, they'd have much easier time fundraising for the rest of the campaign later.

Each state elects some number of delegates. Republican primaries are closer to "winner takes all" model, and Democratic primaries are closer to "proportional" model, but each state's primary is different.

Everybody is horrible. It's by design

Two party system means both parties are vast coalitions including a lot of views. Including many absolutely horrible people.

Even if two parties take fairly similar moderate position on some issue, people with very extreme views will join whichever party is closer to their views. And there's assortment of special interests and people with unusual causes who end up in one party or another.

As it's necessary to keep parties broad to win, candidates and parties cannot reject such people except in most extreme circumstances. This is somewhat moderated by the need to appeal to swing voters.

In primaries extremist tendencies tend to be a lot more pronounced, as candidates are fighting over voters from their own party, not for swing voters. People with extremists views are also much more likely to participate in primaries, contribute money, volunteer, and so on. To a degree, big donors act as a bit of a counter-balance to this extremist bias.

So all successful candidates always pander to people on the fringes, including often some really horrible people. It's mostly cheap talk, and generally very little policy change comes out of it.

Horrible candidates do not help third parties

One would naively think that major parties nominating horrible candidates would help third parties, but the opposite is the case.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 were the first and second most hated candidates in recorded history, and this only made sure everyone voted for one of them due to hating the other. For what it's worth people who disliked both mostly voted Donald Trump, so basically Donald Trump was disliked by more people overall, but Hillary Clinton was disliked more intensely by swing voters.


It's not completely clear why, and there are many interesting theories, but American politics became a lot more polarized over last few decades.

Depending on how you look, it started in the 1990s, and got progressively worse with time. By now it got so bad, huge number of people say they'd have an issue with their child dating a person supporting the other party, a position that would be totally baffling to Americans of the past, or to most of the world today.

A side effect of this polarization is that media generally take sides, and whatever you'll read about the candidates will likely be from highly partisan position. It's difficult to get fair information, but that's what I'm here for.

Anyway, let's get to the candidates. Democratic candidates ordered alphabetically.

Never vote for old people

There needs to be a maximum age for top level positions. Humans at this age are biologically incapable of high level performance, and the system is gerontocratic enough as is. Presidency ages people fast, and people who already start old really can't do it.

Old candidates often claim that they're far healthier than typical person their age, but don't believe any such claims.

It's well documented that White House lied about Ronald Reagan's mental decline. Even more extreme case, for Franklin D. Roosevelt's 4th term press lied about his health so much American people basically elected a corpse. In both cases having mentally incapable president had serious consequences, it was especially bad for Roosevelt, as his government was overran by Soviet agents.

Donald Trump

Current president and presumed Republican nominee. As a political outsider he's awful at being a politician, failing at navigating the process, failing to stay on message, and generally acting as a huge troll. In terms of actual policy, he achieved very little. His old age is definitely not helping.

Democratic-leaning media are frequently described as suffering from a "Trump Derangement Syndrome", greatly exaggerating all issues, and believing conspiracy theories like the Russia collusion theory. It's not that different from treatment president Obama got from Republican-leaning media, with "birtherism". It was also true to lesser degree of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. As far as I can tell, presidents before Bill Clinton rarely faced this, at least not to this degree.

Also he's 72 years old, so nobody should vote for him for this reason alone.

Amy Klobuchar

Senator from Minnesota, best known for abusing her staff.
She disputes these allegations, but she has highest staff turnover in all Congress so regardless of how correct all the details are, it would be really shocking if the story wasn't basically true.

Andrew Yang

The first serious Asian candidate. Best known for his support of Universal Basic Income (in the most modest opt-in form, so people could get welfare or UBI but not both), and premature worry about technological unemployment.

He was brave enough to go on Joe Rogan to argue his positions, something all other candidates are too cowardly to do.

He seems to be non-horrible. Also one I'd be most interested to see in debates.

Bernie Sanders

In spite of coming second in 2016 Democratic primaries, he still refuses to officially join the Democratic Party. Supports big government as solution to all the world's problems.

People often compare Bernie with Corbyn, but that's unfair, as Bernie actually has some integrity, while Corbyn supports anti-Semites, xenophobia against Central Europeans, Venezuelan dictatorship, Islamic terrorists, and pretty much every evil dictator imaginable. Bernie is same socialism with less hate.

He's 77 years old, so nobody should vote for him for this reason alone.

Beto O'Rourke

Best known for standing on tables, for losing to Ted Cruz, but far more narrowly than any Democrat did in Texas, and for drunk driving.

He fundraises like a tier 1 candidate, but polls like a tier 2 candidate. He's known for taking very "woke" positions.

Cory Booker

Black senator from New Jersey. Liberal but not too extreme. Tries his best to pull off Obama 2.0, but black voters inexplicably seem to prefer white grandpa Joe Biden.

Would be the first vegan president. And you know who else was vegetarian?

Elizabeth Warren

A white woman best known for falsely claiming to be a native American, which DNA test then disproved. It's unclear if she tried to exploit "affirmative action" policies with her fake ancestry claims. She claims not, but evidence is mixed.

In terms of policy positions fairly close to Bernie Sanders, but she's committed to Democratic Party. So far her campaign is getting nowhere, as Bernie Sanders is dominating that lane.

She's also 69 years old, so fairly borderline if she'd be mentally capable of presidency.

Joe Biden

Barrack Obama's vice-president and current front-runner. It's difficult to know what he stands for, as over his long political career he took a lot of different positions. Usually presumed to be "moderate".
He recently became notorious for having a fairly different idea of what's appropriate personal space, making some people feel awkward, but most voters don't seem to care.

He's 76 years old, so nobody should vote for him for this reason alone.

Kamala Harris

A genuine mixed race woman, and former attorney general of California. Most notable for supporting all kinds of police and prosecutorial abuse, doing her best to keep innocent black men in jail. Will black people vote for someone who represents the worst of mass incarceration police state just because she's half black? It's a theory I find seriously insulting to their intelligence.

Also notable for Nate Silver's belief that she's a tier one candidate, contrary to polling and all other data.

Pete Buttigieg

A gay mayor of a minor Indiana town. Most notable for hating on Vice-President Mike Pence instead of the usual hating on Donald Trump.

Also known for learning Norwegian for fun, which shows he questionable priorities in life.

Tulsi Gabbard

Representative from Hawaii. Easily the best designed website.
Best known for being buddies with Syrian dictator and notorious war criminal Bashar al-Assad.

She's far lower tier than anyone else on this list, but come on, that beautiful website...

There's a bunch of others.

According to DNC debate rules, at least 16 candidates qualify to take part in primary debates. In addition to those I mentioned, Jay Inslee, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Tim Ryan also qualify, and a few more might just make it.

Hopefully this post gave you enough background to grab the popcorn and enjoy primary debates.


ElephantofDoom said...

Harris has a lot of political junkies interested because she is the only woman without a lot of baggage, is mixed race, and is fairly liberal without being far-left. I doubt she will win but I would not be surprised at all if she got the VP slot.

taw said...

I'd say that long paper trail of Harris trying to keep innocent people in jail counts as more baggage than any other candidate.

ElephantofDoom said...

Called it

taw said...

ElephantofDoom: Unfortunately you called it. Old media completely doesn't care about Harris's baggage.

ElephantofDoom said...

They were more concered with giving unfounded baggage to my boi Mayor Pete