Explaining Inexplicable American Politics to the French

Text messages and phone calls from my French friends started invading my cell phone around midnight on Election Day.  The messages all subscribed to the same theme of extreme surprise and overwhelming curiosity.  “How could Trump even be the nominee?”  “He just won Florida – does that mean he could win the election?”

Texting for political explanations.
Texting for political explanations.

“Will I need a Visa to visit the States now?”  I shut my phone off to gain some extra time.  But I knew, as an American living in Paris, that the French wanted answers.  Answers that could be understood.

Then, the next day, as if explaining how Donald Trump won the Presidency wouldn’t be a daunting-enough task, I saw that Hillary Clinton won the majority of the popular vote.  That meant I had to EXPLAIN the Electoral College, the “only-in-America” voting system, to the demanding French.  You see, when you’re the only American they know here in Paris, they think you know everything.  But I don’t.  So, as a first step, when I finally got my head cleared, I went with the numbers.  Now, that’s something everyone can understand in any language – at least that’s what I thought.

I started returning my phone calls and messages with statistics.  I told the curious French that 46.9% of eligible American voters did not vote (this was less of a voter turnout than in 2012 and 2008).  I told them that Trump got 279 electoral votes; he needed 270 to win.  Clinton got 228, so she lost the electoral votes.  Now, that could look like a big win for Trump.  But, for the popular vote, where every person counts, Hillary beat Trump by 238,087 votes.  That means that Trump got 59,704,847 and Clinton received 59,942,934 votes.

Historical statistics.
Historical statistics.

If the US election followed French rules, Hillary would be President.  And, by that same token, Al Gore would have been named President instead of George W. Bush in 2000 since Al Gore had more than half a million votes over Bush.  I gave my French friends the numbers and they all asked the big question, “Why don’t you Americans change the voting system?  Using the majority system is fair and easy.”

Using the majority system might be easy, but changing the electoral college requires an amendment to the Constitution.  Even though the electoral college began in 1804 and times have changed since then, US lawmakers have only tried once to change it to a direct vote election.  That attempt failed in the Senate by only by 2 votes.  And that was in 1934.  There is another movement, started by John Koza, a computer scientist and lead author of the book “Every Vote Equal.”  Professor Koza has proposed legislation to change to a direct voting system state-by-state, thereby circumventing the need for a constitutional amendment.  Each state would pledge its votes to the winner of the popular vote.

John Koza is the lead author of "Every Vote Equal".
John Koza is the lead author of “Every Vote Equal”.

So far, eleven states have adopted this – not yet enough for repeal of the electoral college.  My French friends scratched their heads in disbelief.  I was getting tired of feeling responsible for the US electoral woes so I changed subjects.

“You know, we voted for some interesting issues on the Presidential ballot,” I told them.  I mentioned how some states voted for the legalization of marijuana.  Now that took them by surprise.  “What, you can do that in America?  Vote for marijuana and the President at the same time?  That’s strange.”  Strange as it may seem, I explained that on November 8th, California, Nevada and Massachusetts voted to legalize recreational marijuana use.  Three other states – Florida, North Dakota and Arkansas – voted yes to medical marijuana.  I threw another number at them.

America votes green!
America votes green!

Now 21% of Americans live in a state where there is legal recreational marijuana.  “Put that in your pipe and smoke it,” I added, quoting an age-old expression my mother used to say (though, I must admit, she was never referring to marijuana!)

Talking about the marijuana referendum issues with my French friends was so much more fun than trying to explain the electoral college.  I won’t have to try and deal with our voting system for another four years, when its ugly head will reappear for the next presidential election.  In the meantime, I’ll enjoy helping French friends plan their future vacations to California, Nevada or Massachusetts.

The Disrespecting Women Effect in Presidential Elections

Everyone I have spoken to about the upcoming US presidential election, both in France and America, is shocked at the incredibly low level our presidential debates have sunken to.  The French news media broadcast both debates live but it’s really the second one that is the most embarrassing.  You see, when you’re an American living in Paris, your French friends and family feel it’s absolutely necessary to badger you with their opinions and questions about the elections.

The candidates in the second round of low-level debates.
The candidates in the second round of low-level debates.

They ask you how Donald Trump could have been nominated in the first place; why do Americans dislike Hillary Clinton so much; how does the electoral college work; why don’t the candidates talk about their policies during the debates; why is sex so important in the election and on and on.  Explaining the electoral college system to the French is boring and useless so I’ll just skip it.  Let’s talk about sex – and its part in both French and American recent and future elections.

The latest sexual development in the American campaign is, of course, the sound track of Donald Trump’s offensive comments regarding having a license to grab women’s private parts.  This caused Republicans like Paul Ryan and John McCain to withdraw their support of Trump, saying he had crossed the line.  This also gave hope to Hillary supporters who believe that the indecisive voters will now be on her side or not vote at all – which in the end is good for her.  I just want to remind everyone that Trump crossed the line with racist comments many months ago.  He also insulted families of soldiers who have died for their country.  But fellow Republicans didn’t raise an eyebrow until he was exposed as a sexual aggressor.  Just goes to show how women, or rather disrespecting women, could make or break this election.

Presidential candidate hopeful DSK being arrested in New York City.
Presidential candidate hopeful DSK being arrested in New York City.

Now the French have their sexually-related political problems too.  Remember Dominique Strass-Kahn?  He was the Director of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) who was supposed to have run as the Socialist candidate for president of France in 2012 but encountered a major obstacle in 2011. That was when he was taken off an Air France plane in New York and arrested in connection with the alleged rape of a hotel maid.  His subsequent trial and eventual settlement blew his chances for political success and cleared the way for Francois Hollande’s win in May of 2012. Another potential-president bit the dust due to a woman-related issue.

Again back in the USA, the Trump campaign is hitting Hillary hard with claims that Bill Clinton has sexually attacked and abused women for many years.  The fact that Bill Clinton is not running for president doesn’t seem to deter Mr. Trump.  For the second debate, he brought in three women, Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey who have all alleged that Mr. Clinton sexually assaulted them

Trump and the women who claim Bill Clinton sexually assaulted them.
Trump and the women who claim Bill Clinton sexually assaulted them.

during different points of his career.  Their claims range from sexual harassment to rape.  Mr. Trump thought he would show that Hillary is not a defender of women’s rights.  He said and I quote, “Hillary was an enabler and she attacked the women who Bill Clinton mistreated afterward.”  The second debate seemed like more of a reality-show-gone-horribly-bad or, even worse, a horribly bad TV show that suddenly becomes real.  I have never seen anything so hard to watch.

The French have now begun their debates in view of the presidential elections which will take place in May of 2017.  France is hosting primaries for the first time in its political history and the first meeting of seven candidates of the center-right party was held this week.  It was a tame, polite meeting compared to the Trump-Clinton debates, but it’s only the beginning.

The first French Presidential primary debate - a calm affair - for now.
The first French Presidential primary debate – a calm affair – for now.

The current president, Francois Hollande, has not yet announced his candidacy and will not do so until December.  That makes for only five months of French political campaigning, which seems like heaven at this point.  Women-wise, we’ll see what happens.  So far, so good, no major sexual scandals have emerged.  But, like I said, it’s just the beginning.