Flat White

Why we have so much at stake this presidential poll

27 September 2020

5:00 AM

27 September 2020

5:00 AM

Outside the United States, few people are as interested in American politics as Australians.  Understandably so given our peace and prosperity remain closely tied to America.   

The US is our principle defence ally, largest source of foreign investment and major cultural influencer.  We share the same language and many values. 

Without America, Australia might not have been settled by the British.  It was the American Colonialistvictory in the Revolutionary War in 1783 that forced the British to find a new destination for convicts leading to the First Fleet’s arrival in Botany Bay in 1788. 

It is the American system that gives us our Senate with its six-year terms, half senate elections and fixed representatives per state; the model former prime minister Paul Keating called unrepresentative swill. 

America is family and despite us not getting a vote, we are deeply engaged and invested in the American electoral cycle.  Yet because we look at America politics through Australian glasses, we are often confused when watching.   

To understand American politics requires an understanding of America’s founding and its foundational governance architecture in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. 

An important distinction between the US and Australia is the structure of our constitutions.  The Americans, having just fought a war to secede from the British sovereign, designed a form of Government that did not require reference to a higher authority, an independent arbiter above politics, to resolve political disputes.  This role is performed today in Australia by the Governor-General and the dispute resolution mechanism was well demonstrated in November 1975.  In America, when supply is blocked, the government shuts down until the dispute is resolved. 

The American founders sought also to design a system of government that also harnessed human nature but did not try to change it.  They recognised Montesquieu’s separation of powers across the legislative, executive and judicial was necessary but not sufficient.  The American constitution thus also maintains a delicate balance of majoritarian and anti-majoritarian features, features generally unfamiliar to Australians.   

The anti-majoritarian features were essential because, having just fought a war to depose of a tyrant, America’s founders were concerned about having a system of government that enabled the tyranny of the majority.  As James Bovard pithily wrote, democracy must be more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. 

Former US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia noted that many countries had liberal and rights protecting constitutions, including USSR and North Korea.  Yet it is the separation of powers and checks and balances within the US Constitution that protects its people from a descent into tyranny.   

These anti-majoritarian measures, such as the Bill of Rights, the Electoral College and judicial review contribute to limiting wild policy swings in America.  They necessitate broad accommodation and compromise to achieve broad policy change.  When big and controversial policies are pushed through with slim majorities, such as Obamacare and recent US Supreme Court appointments, this damages the fabric of American politics.  Yet policy change by single vote majorities is almost standard practice in Australia.   In the US, effecting policy change through super-majorities gives extra legitimacy to democratic methods. 

As America inches towards its November 3 elections, confidence in the institutions of American government is also on the ballot.  Both Presidential candidates and major parties have acted to undermine faith in the electoral system with a view to undermining their opponents.  Both sides are treating this election as a Flight 93 election.   

When the size and reach of government has grown such an extent, it is easy to fear being on the wrong side of an election as an existential threat.  A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take everything you have. 

Yet, come 12.01 pm (EDT) on 20 January 2021, either Donald John Trump or Joseph Robinette Biden Jr will be sworn in as US President. 

Meantime, Australia and the rest of the world will be watching and wondering how the great American republic has been diverted into a faction riddled ochlocracy and whether it can correct course.  For Australia, our prosperity depends upon it. 

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