- Continued economic conflict between the US and China bode bad things for the world economy
- Donald Trump, as the incumbent, had many advantages in the 2020 Presidential race
- Consensus has been that Donald Trump failed the leadership challenge posed by COVID-19
Charles Zelden, a top academic of the United States speaks to Daily Mirror. about the political implications of COVID-19 in his country on the November 3 Presidential Elections. The US is the worst-hit country by the pandemic. He also responds to queries on the US Electoral College system and its relevance to Sri Lanka. He is professor of history and politics at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. He is also Co-Director of NSU’s Institute of Dialogue and Democracy. His work and publications focus on the intersection of law, politics, and history. He is the author of eight books, the most recent of which is a biography of U. S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall and an expanded third edition of his history of the 2000 Presidential election: Bush v Gore: Exposing the Growing Crisis in American Democracy. A ninth book, The American Judicial System: A Very Short Introduction is currently in production and due out later in 2021.
Q In Sri Lanka, one pro-government group advocates electoral reforms that include the establishment of the Electoral College to elect future Presidents. How does the Electoral College work in your country?
The Electoral College in the United States was set up to respond to specific and unique situations that the nation faced in the 1780s.
1. We were a large and very spread out nation at a time without mass communications. The news could only travel as fast as a horse or ship. As a result, most Americans only had a regional knowledge base, upon which, to pick a President. The Electoral College was a way to provide a two-stage election process for President – one that would allow the majority of voters to pick someone they trusted who they knew had a more national focus to decide as to who should be President. Keep in mind, that at the Constitution’s writing, there were no political parties. Thus, there was no winnowing of Presidential candidates to provide the voting public with a binary choice of candidate A or B. Rather, it was the Electoral College that was supposed to do the winnowing process with the House of Representatives choosing the final victor should no candidate receive a majority of the electoral votes. The rise of political parties at the 1800 election negated the need for the Electoral College to provide this winnowing process. But, by this point, it was already in the Constitution and thus hard to remove or replace with another way of picking a President.
2. The spread-out nature of the country, also produced regional conflicts over policies and leadership preferences. In particular, the North and the South had differing perspectives on the issue of slavery and the role of the national government vis-à-vis the states as a result of these differing views. The electoral college was a way of tamping down on these differences and thus to keeping the peace (until the Constitution of 1787 no longer could contain the tensions between the regions and Civil War broke out). Once again, as the need for this service disappeared, the inclusion of the Electoral College in the Constitution, made it hard to remove it. So, it was kept on.
3. More recently, the Electoral College has been seen as a check by small states on being overwhelmed by the numbers from large states. Since the electoral College guarantees each state at least three EC votes no matter how small its population, smaller states feel protected from the power of numbers that the big states wield. This element of the Electoral College remains in forces today and explains why the institution has not been replaced by a popular vote majority for choosing the President.
So unless Sri Lanka has similar structural tensions that call for a two-part electoral process to pick a leader, I’m not sure that the US Electoral College is a good model to follow.
Q How do you define its pluses and minuses according to experience in your country?
As noted above, the primary purposes of the Electoral College at the Constitution’s writing no longer exist. It currently only serves one purpose, as a counter-majoritarian check on popular democracy (much as the U. S. Senate provides). Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on one’s views about majoritarian politics. Should the majority get its way always or should there be checks and balances to protect minorities from the whim of the majority? Each view has its proponents in the U. S. And while a majority of Americans would prefer a popular vote to choose the President, the difficulty in amending the constitution almost guarantees the continued existence of the Electoral College (as the OK of small states would be necessary to receive the necessary ¾ ratifications necessary to amend the constitution to end the Electoral College).
So, you can say that the pluses of the Electoral College are consistency and protection of minority rights. The negatives are its undemocratic nature that could allow the election of a President who did not receive a majority of the votes for this office.
Q Before the pandemic began, some factors stood in favour of President Donald Trump in his bid for re-election in November. Now we find a lot of criticism against him for the way he handled COVID- 19. How do you see his popularity because of his re-election bid?
Donald Trump, as the incumbent, had many advantages in the 2020 Presidential race. A large platform to get his message out. The ability to claim victory for any positive events in the country (the economy, low unemployment). And, before March 2020, things were looking good for Trump’s re-election chances. A good economy plus incumbency often are a winning combination.
Then came COVID-19. While this could have been an opportunity for Trump to strengthen his bid for reelection, he would have had to been seen by most Americans as successfully responding to the pandemic crisis. COVID-19 is the sort of challenge by which leaders are judged as competent or incompetent. Given the trend of events since the start of March, the general consensus has been that Donald Trump failed the leadership challenge posed by COVID-19. Over 7 million Americans infected and over 200,000 dead of the virus placed an enormous strain on American’s trust in the competency of the President. To combat this, Trump sought to convince Americans that the pandemic was either a hoax or not as serious as claimed or soon to be over. This might have worked, but with President Trump’s recent infection of the coronavirus, this argument is likely to fall apart.
Put simply, Donald Trump chose to minimize the pandemic, to limit the federal government’s response to the pandemic, and now he is paying the price of this decision. Had he gotten out in front of the pandemic and utilized the full power of the federal government to combat the pandemic, he might be currently cruising to an easy victory. He didn’t, however. As such, he is currently well behind in the polls and while he has not lost the race yet, he is at best going to need the occurrence of the sort of unexpected voting shifts that brought him to power in 2016 to win reelection.
Q The US suffered the most as a country from the pandemic. The death toll is over 210,000 cases. In your analysis, how will the pandemic alter the political and social dynamics of the US?
Any crisis of the magnitude of the Coronavirus pandemic will have political and social ripples. Add in the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 and the pre-existing social tensions brought on by Trump’s governing style, and the outcome is sure to be crisis whose conclusions will result in a new political and social balance. Just what that new balance will turn out to look like, is unclear at the present moment. But one thing is sure, the political and social norms post-2020 will be different – perhaps VERY different - from what preceded the presidency of Donald Trump (even if Trump wins reelection). The United States will be feeling the ramifications of the pandemic for years, if not decades, to come.
Q What kind of impact will the recent demonstrations over the police killing have at the next Presidential elections?
The rise of social justice protests following well-publicized police killings of unarmed African Americans is just another element that has shaken the political and social balance of the United States. While it is unclear what impact these events and subsequent protests will have on the 2020 election, their impact on American life, politics and social relations are real and will no doubt be long-lasting. The race has always been the Achilles heel of American democracy. Racial tensions have shaped many of the most egregious parts of American history – from slavery to Jim Crow Segregation to the mass incarceration of people of colour. As a nation, we are always struggling with the effects of racial tensions.
The current manifestation of this offers hope that real change may occur, but also reminds those past efforts to end racial (as well as ethnic and gender) discriminations have fallen woefully short of true equality. As the Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall once noted, these are fights (for racial justice) that every generation must take up. That past gains are no guarantee of future success. The current Black Lives Matter movement is but one of a long train of efforts to assure democratic equality for all Americans. Sadly, it will not be the last.
Q The US is embroiled in a bitter clash with China over trade, digital technology etc. How will these topics feature at the Presidential elections due in November?
The growing conflict between the United States and China over trade, international relations and the future trends for our world, is serious and important. The continued economic conflict between the US and China bode bad things for the world economy. When giants clash, everyone gets hurt. Perhaps more important are the contrasting visions for the world of tomorrow held by each side. These economic fights are often a surrogate for ideological conflicts. No matter who wins the 2020 Presidential election, these conflicts will be a major issue for the future. This said, and sadly, recent China/US tensions are unlikely to have much if any impact on the 2020 Presidential election outcome. Other, more domestic, issues will play a major role in shaping how Americans vote and on who wins the office of the Presidency. It shouldn’t be this way, but such is the power of Donald Trump’s personality and the impact of the pandemic/economic recession on American’s thought processes. It also is another example of most Americans’ myopic view of the world.
Q How does the general public view the US withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)?
Sadly, most Americans don’t even realize that we withdrew from the Council. Such is the inward focus of most Americans. For those who do pay attention to such matters, most are appalled by this decision. I expect that should Trump fail in his re-election bid, such actions will be quickly reversed. Should he win, however, then you can expect even more of a withdrawal of the US from international institutions and relationships. This is one of the more important issues to be settled by this election, even if most Americans won’t be thinking about it as they decide on their vote for President.