Acton Institute Powerblog

A British view of the 2020 presidential election

(Photo credit: Press Association via AP Images.)

When it comes to elections, my preference is for an “ideas person” – someone who can articulate a vision for political and economic liberty, a constitutionalist, someone with a moral outlook informed by faith and advocacy for small government. I am usually disappointed. Ideas people are rarely elected – in the UK, the last such example was Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister from 1979-1990. She understood that, in the same way that a household must balance its budget, so too must the state.

Neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden could be described as ideas people. The principal attraction of each is that they are not the other. The British media, like other liberal news outlets, wants Biden to win and they despise Donald Trump. Then again, they wanted Hillary Clinton to win. And Barack Obama. And Al Gore. And Bill Clinton …. There are three ways in which foreign media (and indeed perhaps the U.S. domestic media) misrepresent seemingly unimportant matters to colour the election.

The first is the misinterpretation of the Electoral College. The Electoral College is presented as the underhanded reason that Donald Trump won in 2016 and if he wins again in 2020, the system will again be offered as a scapegoat for what will be seen as a distorted result.

On the contrary, the Founding Fathers knew exactly what they were doing when they established the Electoral College. They understood that true democracy is not simply about majority votes, and they displayed great wisdom in ensuring that a balance of interests was maintained in the presidential system. It is time for a more articulate defence of the Electoral College in both domestic and transatlantic media.

First, the Electoral College ensures that a presidential victor has breadth of appeal as well as depth of appeal. In 2016, Clinton displayed considerable depth – in California and in New York, where the ballots cast for the Democrat could have been weighed rather than counted. Donald Trump won because he demonstrated breadth across states large and small in the enormous and vast nation that is the United States.

Secondly, in a federal system of government, the protection of the rights of smaller states is an important balance and a protection of their liberties. The Electoral College system gives slightly greater weight to the votes of the smaller states relative to population as compared to the more populous states. This is exactly the same principle as in the election of the U.S. Senate, where every state is allocated two senators regardless of its size. Thus, everyone campaigning for the abolition of the Electoral College should also campaign for the abolition of the Senate. The fact that some are doing so simply illustrates that the tyranny of the majority is incompatible with liberty.

Let’s not take any nonsense about the Electoral College denying the will of the electorate. Democracy is neither demonstrated nor served by a president being elected because a candidate runs up millions of votes in the San Francisco Bay area whilst failing to demonstrate support across Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

The second area the foreign media misrepresent the U.S. presidential election is in its coverage of mail-in balloting. They fail to distinguish between a voter requesting a mail-in ballot and the state preemptively mailing a ballot to every voter on the state’s voter rolls, although the names, addresses, even the voter’s status as living or dead may be outdated. The UK’s media fail to recognise the potential for fraud, which poses a direct threat to political liberties.

The third area in which the foreign media misrepresent the situation in the United States is the claim that President Trump is stacking the Supreme Court with extreme, right-wing justices. However, Barack Obama stacked the court with left-wing justices like Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. If Justice Stephen Breyer retires during a Biden administration, the president will surely replace him with a judge who shares a similar ideology. These three judges have sometimes shown themselves indifferent to protecting the fundamental rights of U.S. citizens to live out their faith. Many overseas observers of American politics simply fail to understand the importance of ensuring that religious liberty is protected through the appointment of constitutional judges to the courts, not least the Supreme Court.

Part of this hostility comes from Trump’s status as a confirmed populist. To people interested in ideas, populism jars. What the liberal media fail to recognise, however, is that populism is remarkably popular, and populist leaders often cut through to voters and reach parts of the electorate that others do not.

In the UK’s London-centric leftist media, Boris Johnson is considered an immoral buffoon. To voters outside of London, he speaks their language, reflects their priorities – he cuts through. Shortly before the December 2019 British General Election, Boris Johnson visited a chemical works in the former steel town of Redcar in northeastern England. (The closest U.S. analogue would be Pittsburgh.) The sitting Labour (socialist) member had polled 56% of the vote in the previous election. The media showed Boris flubbing his response during a question-and-answer session. But the media did not show a group of chemical workers in their overalls and hard hats holding up a sign that said, “We love Boris.” In that election, the Labour Party’s vote fell to 37%, and the district elected a Conservative member for the first time in its history. His populist rhetoric prepared them for his free-market economics.

The way in which the U.S. presidential election is reported outside of the U.S. seriously distorts fundamental issues which underlie political, economic and religious liberty. That is the case irrespective of whether one agrees with the president’s policies.

But, what about character? I have many doubts about Donald Trump’s moral character. I find the narcissism particularly off-putting and his incessant “policy by tweet” most irritating. There are certainly moral questions for the Christian observer – as indeed there were for Hillary Clinton, who was hardly a paragon of virtue. Nor was Bill.

So, what to do? For myself, if I were an American citizen, I would lament the lack of candidates with ideas and vision. But in the final analysis, I would not shun my duty as a Christian citizen to cast a vote informed by my faith.

Richard Turnbull

Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull is the director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a trustee of the Christian Institute. He holds a degree in Economics and Accounting and spent over eight years as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst and Young and served as the youngest ever member of the Press Council. Richard also holds a first class honours degree in Theology and PhD in Theology from the University of Durham. He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England in 1994. Richard served in the pastoral ministry for over 10 years. He was also for 7 years the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He has authored several books, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.