By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Several of my Nigerian readers have asked me to help them make sense of Donald Trump’s unsettling electoral triumph over Hillary Clinton. Why would a country that prides itself on being the “greatest country on earth” and the world’s “oldest democracy” elect a vulgar, reactionary buffoon like Trump?
Well, Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote, which makes Trump's “victory” not nearly as earth-shattering as it's been cracked up to be. American voters who went to the polls on November 8 DIDN'T reject Hillary Clinton; more Americans voted for her than they did for Donald Trump. The vote tally as of Wednesday shows that 59,796,265 people voted for Clinton, representing 48% of the total vote cast, and 59,589,806 people voted for Trump, representing 47% of the total vote. The remaining 5% went to third party candidates.
If this weren't America, Hillary Clinton would be president-elect. But American presidential election isn't a one-person-one-vote democracy like it is everywhere else. Here, voters don't directly elect their president. Instead, they elect “electors” to the Electoral College who then elect the president on behalf of the voters. It's a weird, outdated, convoluted and, frankly, undemocratic electoral system that non-Americans (and even Americans) have a hard time wrapping their heads around. So let me break it down for you.
Each state in America is allotted a number of “electors” that correspond to the number of representatives it has in Congress, that is, in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. America’s founding fathers designed this to protect small, thinly populated states from being dominated by big, densely populated states. Every state has two senators irrespective of population. But, like in Nigeria, representation in the House of Representatives is proportional to the population of the states. So a populous state like California has 53 representatives while small, sparsely populated states like Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming have just a representative each.
The Electoral College system, in principle, ensures that these small states have at least three electors in the Electoral College (to correspond to their congressional representation).
Since most states have a winner-takes-all system, any candidate who wins a plurality of the votes cast in a state, even if this is just by a vote, gets all the electors. In effect, the votes of people whose candidates lose the plurality of the vote don't count at all. That’s a huge disincentive to vote. So, for instance, if you live in the South where most people are dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republicans, it’s pointless to vote if you are a liberal Democrat because your vote won’t count.
However, two states—Maine and Nebraska— are not winner-takes-all states. They allot two electoral votes to the candidate that wins the plurality of the statewide vote and one electoral vote to the “winner of each Congressional district.”
In 26 states of the federation, electors can, technically, vote against the wishes of their electorate by not voting for the presidential candidate elected by voters in their state, although this rarely happens. (Some people are holding out hope that the electors would refuse to elect Trump in a few weeks from now, but that's wishful thinking). In the remaining 24 states, there are strict penalties against “faithless electors,” that is, electors who do not cast their votes for the candidate their electorates voted for.
Interestingly, in a 2012 tweet, Donald Trump wrote: "The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy." Today, ironically, he is a beneficiary of this "disaster for democracy” where it is mathematically possible to win just 30 percent of the popular vote and still win the Electoral College vote—and the presidency.
In America’s over 200-year history, there have been only 5 presidents who won the Electoral College vote and lost the popular vote. In 1824 Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote to John Quincy Adams. In 1876, Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote to Rutherford B. Hayes. In 1888, Grover Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote to Benjamin Harrison.
The only other contemporary instance of this, apart from Trump’s, is Al Gore’s loss of the Electoral College vote to George W. Bush in 2000 after winning the popular vote.
Attempts have been made in the past to abolish the Electoral College and give primacy to direct election, the last such attempt being between 1969 and 1971. The House of Representatives passed a resolution to abolish the Electoral College in 1969, but the Senate rejected the House resolution in 1971.
Also note that the last election had one of the lowest turnouts in recent American electoral history. Only about 55.3 percent of eligible voters voted. Compare this to 62.2 percent in 2008 and 58.6 percent in 2012—when enthusiasm was thought to be low.
More than 46 percent of eligible American voters didn’t vote this year, and only about 25 percent voted for Trump. That’s not a decisive mandate.
Clinton lost the battleground states (states with high electoral votes whose voting patterns aren’t predictable) because her supporters didn’t vote; they stayed home, buoyed by the false confidence that she was leading in the polls and that no sane person would elect a monster of bigotry and depravity like Trump. Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, were motivated to vote because most polls said their candidate would lose.
So, basically, a minority of American voters gave us Trump because the majority of Americans refused to vote. Plato once said, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” We can rephrase that to, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by fascist, bigoted demagogues.” America is learning this the hard way.
This year’s electoral choice says more about American political apathy than it does about American endorsement of Trump’s bigotry. The only consolation is that America has resilient, enduring institutions that can withstand Trump. Trump won’t— and can’t—do a quarter of the things he said he would do because he would be hamstrung by the sheer strength of America’s institutions.
That was the hope I had for Nigeria when Buhari was elected president. In my May 16, 2015 column titled,"6 Reasons Why Incoming Buhari Government Fills Me with Hope," I wrote: “President Barack Obama is famous for saying, ‘Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.’ But strong institutions don’t come out of thin air; they are built by strong men through the strength of their personal example. I hope Buhari is the strong man who will build strong institutions in Nigeria with the strength of his character.”
Exactly a month later in South Africa, Buhari echoed my thoughts: “When US President Barack Obama came to Africa…he said Africa…should have strong institutions instead of strong leaders. If he had come to Nigeria, he would have known that it was strong Nigerians that destroyed the strong institutions. And, paradoxically, maybe another strong Nigerian will come and revive the institutions and make them strong again,” he said on June 16 in Johannesburg while speaking with the Nigerian community there after an AU meeting.
Sadly, it’s turning out that my hopes were misplaced. Buhari isn’t building any institutions; he is only building a personality cult around himself. He appears, so far, to be interested in fighting corruption only if it is committed by his political foes while shielding corrupt people who are in his good graces. The nation’s security forces, particularly the DSS, have become ruthless foot soldiers of Buhari’s personal political vendetta against adversaries—just like during Jonathan’s time.
America can survive Trump’s demagoguery because of the strength of its institutions. I hope Nigeria can also survive Buhari’s “business-as-usual” government masquerading as “change.”