No way to elect a president

With the victories in New York for Mr Donald Trump and Mrs Hillary Clinton, Americans are one furious contest closer to the end of this presidential nomination spectacle. But we've known for a while now where we're headed, and it isn't any place good.

American voters are displeased with the candidates they've been given. They're disengaged from the process that winnows the field.

And that process disregards the political centre, erodes common ground and leaves us with a government that can't build the necessary consensus for, let alone implement, sensible action in regard to taxes, to infrastructure, to immigration, to guns, to just about anything.

Make America great again? We need to start by making it functional.

This election campaign has certainly been extraordinary for its characters, but it's equally remarkable for its context, one of profound, paralysing sourness.

When you treat a campaign as if it were an athletic contest, you turn it into more of a blood sport than it already is.

A poll released by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal on Sunday showed 68 per cent of American voters couldn't imagine themselves casting a vote in the general election for Mr Trump, while 61 per cent said the same about Mr Ted Cruz and 58 per cent, about Mrs Clinton.

A much, much higher percentage of voters viewed each of these three unfavourably than favourably. "Unpopularity Contest" was the headline on the story on the NBC News website, which rightly asked how well any president of such polarising effect would be able to govern.

We've had such presidents (and candidates) before. And pessimism isn't new. But there have been developments and differences in 2016 that may well be making the situation worse.

The media, for one. This election isn't being covered so much as marketed, by news organisations whose desperation for eyeballs has turned many of them into drama queens. Each new poll is a major scoop. There are countdown clocks for events as humdrum as candidate town halls. Debates are teased with ominous soundtracks and photographs better befitting prize fights.

When you treat a campaign as if it were an athletic contest, you turn it into more of a blood sport than it already is. And when you breathlessly promote it the way you would a hit TV show's season finale, it becomes just another piece of theatre. Neither approach encourages sober-minded engagement.

Nor does the manner in which so many voters use the Internet in general and social media in particular, to curate and wallow in echo chambers that amplify their prejudices, exacerbate their tribalism and widen the fault lines between us. The online behaviour of the Bernie Bros is a great example, but it's hardly the only one.

Additionally, the precise unfolding of the Republican and Democratic races this time around, along with complaints from the candidates themselves, has exposed the undemocratic quirks and mess of the process: the peculiarity of caucuses; the seduction of delegates and superdelegates; closed versus open primaries; states that are winner-take-all as opposed to states that are winner-take-most; the possibility of a brokered convention at which an interloper could be crowned.

To prevail, a candidate doesn't even have to persuade an especially large share of the electorate, given how splintered and detached voters are. In an important commentary published in The Hill on Monday, the Democratic pollster and strategist Mark Penn extrapolated from Mr Trump's and Mrs Clinton's vote tallies to note that, in his estimation: "We now have a system in which it takes just 10 million votes out of 321 million people to seize one of the two coveted nominations." "The result," he wrote, "is a democracy that is veering off course, increasingly reflecting the will of powerful activist groups and the political extremes." Would-be nominees needn't worry much about the roughly 40 per cent of Americans who at least technically consider themselves independents - a group that's grown over the past decade - or the 60 per cent who say that a third political party is needed.

No, these candidates "can just double down on elements of their base", Mr Penn observed. "Rather than bring the country together, they demonise their opponents to hype turnout among select groups, targeted by race, religion or ethnicity." Mr Penn suggested several smart reforms to increase voters' participation and sense of investment, including the abolition of caucuses and a rotation of the order in which states vote, so that Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina don't always get such outsize sway.

I wish we could also find a way to shorten these presidential campaigns significantly, so that they're not such a soul-draining, throat-ravaging turn-off to almost anyone who's not an epic narcissist or mired in politics to the point of no return.

Then maybe we'd look up one of these years and be choosing among the greater of goods, not the lesser of evils, and the victor would be left, physically and ideologically, with a voice that still carries.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2016, with the headline 'No way to elect a president'. Print Edition | Subscribe