Voters and Veepstakes

New York City

Last night, almost 50 million Americans – and a handful of Aussies slurping canned beer on a high-rise Lower East Side couch – tuned in to watch the two men vying to become America’s next vice president trade barbs on national television. The viewership, as to be expected, was considerably lower than that of the primetime debate last week between the two presidential contenders, but the stark differences between that event and last night’s performance from Governor Mike Pence and Senator Tim Kaine don’t end there.

Despite being Trump’s running mate, Pence was cool, calm and collected last night, demonstrating patience and reserve that the Republican nominee sorely lacks. Kaine also complemented perceived weaknesses of Hillary Clinton, comparatively combative against his opponent.

Overall though, the debate was more sensible, policy-driven and thoughtful than that of their bosses. Or, as those following on Twitter surmised: absolute snoresville.

Both Pence and Kaine are eminently qualified to be president and commander-in-chief. As current Indiana governor and former Virginia governor respectively, they have strong executive experience of actually governing, not just of doing deals and talking the talk like so many politicians – although their Washington, DC credentials are pretty flawless also.

Like Joe Biden to Obama, they both represent a safe choice as experienced, “presidential-looking” white middle-aged, committed Christians with sons serving in the military. Unlike the wildcard pick of Sarah Palin by the McCain campaign, both campaigns this time around have opted for two large scoops of classic vanilla – and given the high unfavourability ratings of Trump and Clinton it was probably wise to not raise any extra eyebrows.

While as TV viewers, those Americans who watched last night’s proceedings might have been bored – certainly compared to the fireworks of the presidential debate – as voters, many are probably waking up this morning wishing that one of these two vanilla options was about to become Commander in Chief, refreshingly free of the volatility of Trump and the baggage of Clinton.

But in a democracy shouldn’t the people ultimately decide who the candidates for president should be? How is it that voters could possibly be in a situation where they prefer options other than those they apparently already chose in the primary elections?

It is a telling sign of the state of the American political project that the two VPs – who, importantly, were appointed and not elected to their current role as running mate – are arguably more qualified, impressive, perhaps even more popular than the two individuals that might occupy the Oval Office.

Partly the blame can fall to the Twitterati and the 24/7 cable news cycle which has raised the importance of entertainment in politics, playing right into the hands of the likes of Trump and other loud-mouthed celebrities with bucketloads of media savvy.

Voters, however, are not blameless. The United States has open primaries and so anyone can play a role in choosing the nominees. The only reason Trump is weeks away from potentially becoming the most powerful person in the world and not Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz is because he simply garnered more votes than they did. The same is basically true of Hillary Clinton, putting to one side allegations (and WikiLeaks documents suggesting) that the Democratic National Convention rigged their primary in her favour against a ‘Feel the Burn’ movement that challenged their cushy power.

The point is that Trump and Clinton were ultimately chosen by the people. Had nobody voted for them (whether super-delegate or average punter) they wouldn’t be there.

And yet, many of those same voters are now likely thinking their choices inferior to the ones made by some political hacks and apparatchiks in dark rooms for dark purposes.

This sort of thinking is understandable but dangerous.

Sure, Trump and Clinton both have some pretty sizeable downsides and American democracy has some problems –  media and special interest agendas for example or people choosing entertainment over policy prowess for example.

But the alternative is to declare that the people are incapable of choosing, that the choice would be better left to the elites, to the most educated among us – that appointment garners better results than election.

Sometimes this can be true, but the precedent is not worth the risk. Wherever systems based on the principle that the “intelligent” should make decisions on behalf of the rest have been tried – the Soviet Union chief among them – it has resulted not in enlightened decisions but in stagnation, unhappiness or even genocide.

After the UK’s shock ‘Brexit’ decision, social media was rife with those urging reform of the political system to prohibit the “stupid” from having a say. Should Trump win this call will no doubt intensify.

Democracy is an imperfect system there is no doubt. That Americans are now forced to choose between two people they dislike is perhaps evidence of that.

But I’d take elected maniacs over appointed experts anyday and history tells us bad things happen when we allow rulers to choose their own successors.

Bring on the next round of television fireworks.


Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat) and Governor Mike Pence (Republican) square off in the televised VP debate. Image source: NBC News.

Published on 5 October 2016

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