Friday, May 13, 2016

What can we learn about Trump from elections in other countries?

For those paying attention to news outside 'mer'ca, it won't be a shock to say that Donald Trump is not entirely unique in the world.  Terrified liberals complain that he is Hitler, Mussolini, or some combination thereof, but they're pretty much afraid of their own shadows anyway.  In contrast, I have compared him more to Jimmy Carter.  Personality-wise, Trump is nothing like Carter, although I wouldn't be surprised if he were terrified of a bunny-wunny.  The newly-elected Filipino president, though?  The similarities aren't difficult to see there.

What do Trump-like candidates in other countries tell us about the US?  That's hard to say.  There are two areas in which US elections are difficult to compare to the rest of the world:  the structure of the system, and the voters themselves.

Structurally, a few things stand out about the US system.  First, we have a "plurality rule" electoral system.  Whoever gets the most votes wins.  Yes, we have complicated methods of aggregating votes, like the electoral college, but the basic principles are generally plurality rule.  That reduces the number of parties to two (we call this principle "Duverger's law," after Maurice Duverger).  Second, we have a weak party system.  In other countries, parties have much more control over who gets on the ballot.  Third, we have a lot of elections.  Like, really a lot.  More frequent than just about anywhere else.  That reduces turnout through voter fatigue.  Fourth, our executives are elected independently rather than chosen by the legislature (we have a "presidential" rather than a "parliamentary" system).

Those are just the biggies.  Not many other countries share these characteristics, which makes it hard to find analogs around the world.  Most of these factors work against Tony Clifton-like candidates.  Systems with more than two parties can have smaller parties led by weirdos.  Strong parties don't let Tony Clifton rise through the ranks to leadership positions.  Turnout isn't much of a factor-- the electorate and the non-voting public have similar preferences, with the former just having stronger preferences.  That's why they vote.  Legislatures pick executives from their own ranks rather than from the ranks of reality tv rosters.

All of these factors, though, work through the nomination stage.  Trump blew those rules to smithereens.  He exploited the weakness of the party system and post-1968 party reform, as I have written previously.  But there is nothing structural about general elections that works either for or against Trump since the turnout factor is far weaker than whiny, little goo-goos assert.*

Thus, when we see Trump-like candidates win general elections in other countries, the question is whether American voters resemble the voters in those countries.  This brings me back to policy and valence, which I addressed in two recent posts (here and here).  Are voters capable of formulating, recognizing and voting on the basis of policy preferences?  If so, do those policy preferences resemble those of voters in other countries?  Do voters in this country assess traits like competence and honesty in the same way as voters in other countries?

Trump's primary appeal is to nationalist impulses and to policy associated with nationalism, and you probably won't be surprised to know that cross-national polling does not indicate lower levels of nationalism in the US than in other countries.

But what about the valence side of the equation?  Are voters in the US more or less capable of recognizing Tony Clifton than voters in other countries?

That remains to be seen because our nomination system has generally stopped Tony Clifton-like characters from getting to this stage.  So how much do other countries' elections tell us about Trump's chances?  We don't know.  We are unmoored from history here.

*Goo-goo:  one who believes that all political ills can be cured by changing some political rule, like redistricting reform, campaign finance reform, mandatory voting, etc.  They are obnoxious and uninformed children who should be treated as such.  I, on the other hand, am obnoxious and informed.  See, that's totally different.

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