Unless you’ve been hiding in an underwater bunker with no access to the Internet (in which case you’re probably not reading this article!) you know that the U.S. is in the throes of another presidential election. Our process is difficult enough to grasp from the inside and even many Americans don’t understand how our system works. From the outside, however, it can be difficult to see more than a circus sideshow if you don’t know what to look for. Below, I’ll outline our election process, highlight U.S. values, and draw on my own perspective to explain how culture plays a part in our election process.
First, let’s start with the basics of American presidential elections. Unlike other countries where there are many small parties that must form a coalition, the U.S. has two large parties that each contain diverse interests within them. During the past few decades, the Republican Party has attracted voters who believe the country’s laws should align with Christianity, who are in favor of low taxes and a laissez-faire government, and who are generally pro-trade and business. By contrast, the Democratic Party has attracted voters who believe that government and religion should be strictly separate, but that government should create a more progressive society – through higher taxes, if necessary. It has also been more activist about civil rights issues, more skeptical toward business interests, and more pro-labor. These are only generalizations, however – and such varied interests do not always fit comfortably under each party’s big tent.
Parties control certain aspects of the primaries like when to have debates, but they don’t get to determine who enters the race. Meanwhile, the mechanics of voting are managed at the state level, with the result that each state has its own rules, procedures, and timelines. In recent years, states have tried to increase their relevance and influence by holding their primaries earlier and earlier. This is how we arrived at the Super Tuesday scenario, with more than a dozen states and territories voting on the same day.
A word about delegates
Voters are actually voting for delegates who will nominate the party’s candidate at its convention. Each state has a certain number of delegates available; in some cases they are apportioned according to how many votes each candidate receives, but in other states there is a “winner take-all” system. For this reason, the media is constantly calculating and recalculating the number of delegates each candidate needs to win the primary. When it becomes apparent that a candidate will be unable or unlikely to capture the requisite number of delegates, they are pressured by the party and the public to drop out.
The national election
Once each party has nominated a single candidate, the national campaign season will begin. Because voters do not directly vote for the president but go through the electoral college (similar to the delegate approach during the primary), the math frenzy starts all over again. The electoral college is winner-take-all, and based on past voting patterns, most states can be expected to go to one party or the other. Parties will therefore spend the bulk of their energy on so-called “swing states” – states that could theoretically go either way. Media coverage on election night will consist of tallying the number of electoral votes each candidate receives, and each news outlet will hope to be the first to “call” (or declare) a winner. With the exception of 2000, this is usually straightforward. The new president will be sworn in on the steps of the Capitol Building in January. After the inauguration, Americans will have a new president – at least until the next election.
Now let’s turn to American culture, which can be understood by looking at our values. According to L. Robert Kohls, mainstream American values include individualism, informality, egalitarianism, directness, openness, pragmatism, action, and materialism. We also look to the future, view change positively, are competitive, and believe that we control our own destinies. So, how are these values playing out in the election?
Group identities are on center stage with movements like Black Lives Matter and the DREAMers. However, there is growing pushback against the idea that voters will automatically support someone who shares their ethnicity, race, or gender. Instead, voters want to be seen as individuals with individual hopes, needs, and decisions. For example, many women were outraged when Madeleine Albright declared at a Hillary Clinton rally that there was a special place in hell for women who don’t support each other. Similarly, Latino voters in the Southwestern state of Nevada surprised political insiders by voting for Donald Trump instead of one of the two Latino candidates.
In assessing each candidate, voters ask themselves, “Do I like this person?” And without realizing it, many Americans answer that question based on cultural factors.
In many parts of the country, people dress, speak, and behave very casually. Candidates therefore strive to come across as ordinary, easygoing folks – someone you would run into at a neighborhood picnic or barbeque. (This is why they are often seen with their collars unbuttoned, without a tie, or even in jeans). This is important because voters dislike anyone who appears awkward among regular people. Consider that Barack Obama was much more at ease than Mitt Romney. (To relive one of the more painful moments of the last election, see this video of Romney trying to relate to people in Michigan).
Under this value, voters ask, “Is this candidate a normal, everyday sort of person?”
Americans believe in equal opportunity, fairness, and cheering for the underdog. In practice, this hasn’t always meant equal outcomes – and voters increasingly blame economic, cultural, and political elites (and newcomers) for strangling the prospects of ordinary people. There are also insurrections within each party as supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump demand to be taken seriously by party elites. There is a long tradition of populist candidates, but it seems particularly potent and resonant this year.
The questions here are “Will this candidate make the U.S. more fair for people like me?” and “Is my party in touch with its members outside the Beltway?”
Directness & Openness
Americans have an easier time trusting people who say what they mean clearly and directly. At a time when society is saturated with branding, it is refreshing to hear someone speak his or her own mind like a living, breathing person. Extroversion, energy, and emotional openness are also important in communicating authenticity. Voters are skeptical of candidates who seem to change like chameleons, give cagey or tentative answers, or stick to campaign talking points. (For example, in 2004 John Kerry was never able to overcome accusations that he was a “flip-flopper.”)
Here voters ask, “Does this candidate have integrity? Is (s)he the real deal?”
Pragmatism & Action
Americans like what works, and we have exported our model around the world largely on the basis that it seemed to work the best. Today, however, people feel angry that the system is no longer working for them and they want someone who will do something to get the country back on track. At the same time, each party’s priority during the primary is to find someone who will be viable on the national stage. (One example of debating “what works” is in this video of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruze debating tax policy).
Questions here are “Does this candidate understand the problem?” “Does (s)he have a plan to fix it?” “Can (s)he break through the gridlock to actually implement the plan?” and “If chosen as the party’s nominee, can (s)he win the election in November?”
Although the American Dream is being reinterpreted somewhat since the Great Recession, the idea that hard work should translate into material wellbeing remains. And yet, with stagnant wages and soaring costs in housing, health care, and education, many families are losing their middle class toehold. This value is related to pragmatism, as voters want leaders who can get stuff done – with tangible results in their lives, and egalitarianism, in that they want candidates who will make changes for regular people.
Voters ask themselves,”Will my family be better off if I vote for this candidate?”
Future-orientation and Change
Elections are about the future. In general, while it’s acceptable to criticize what has not worked in the past or present, voters quickly lose patience with someone who lacks a compelling vision for what to do next. Along with this comes an openness to change. To us, change represents fresh ideas, creative thinking, optimism, and an opportunity to shake up the old guard. We tend not to worry about what consequences a lack of experience brings, since we believe you can learn on the job and learn by doing (which ties into our egalitarian, action-oriented natures, too). Recall that “Yes, We Can” resonated so much that Obama beat a much more seasoned Senator John McCain in 2008.
Under this value, voters ask, “Does this candidate inspire me? Does (s)he offer something new and improved?”
One reason people tune in to the “highlights” is that our media gives the impression that running for president is a kind of modern gladiator fight. Even when it is distasteful or cringe-worthy, we like to see people compete, achieve success, and vanquish the losers. Similar to the value of directness, we want someone who exhibits tenacity, boldness, and assertiveness. It is being taken to the extreme in this year’s Republican primary, and many people have been appalled by Trump’s antics. Even so, like a dramatic tackle in a football game, or an egregious foul in basketball, it’s almost impossible not to watch.
Here voters ask themselves, “Is this candidate a winner? Does this candidate have what it takes to beat the other party’s nominee?” and “Will (s)he stand up for American values on the world stage?”
Controlling our Destinies
Americans believe that we can control our environment and actively shape our own destiny. On a bigger scale, we have historically understood ourselves as having a mission to lead the world, too. The election embodies this value, as we see ourselves as determining the future for our country and the planet by who we elect. There is a danger of over-promising and under-delivering, as Obama found out when his hopes and dreams crashed into reality. Even so, Americans think we should actively try to make our country better through goals, planning, and concrete action (which ties back into pragmatism). Where we differ is in our interpretation of what the future should be.
Voters look at candidates and ask, “Is this person a leader who can transform our country into the place it’s meant to be? Is this person going to assure America’s role in the world?”
Given these values, where do the candidates stand?
Hillary Clinton has struggled to get people to like her because she comes across as shrill and stiff. Casual dress doesn’t work for her, and unfortunately her competitive streak is a liability because of her gender. As someone with decades in the political establishment, she can’t play the “change” card. However, because she knows how to navigate D.C. bureaucracy, her policy proposals might actually get implemented. She is also a survivor and a master of controlling her destiny, which people respect even if they are tired of her.
Bernie Sanders scores much higher on the passion front. Voters are invigorated by his righteous indignation speeches against Wall Street, his fervent support of making college tuition more affordable, and his dedication to advancing civil rights more completely. Moreover, people like to see an underdog succeed. On the other hand, there are concerns that his proposals and confrontational approach are unrealistic, and even supporters are unsure about how he will fare in the national election.
Donald Trump is attracting attention with his willingness to say whatever he wants, but the Republican Party fears that the same offensive behavior garnering supporters now will alienate the general public later in the national election. He fits our love of competition and public theater, is the physical embodiment of materialism, and comes across as more of a “do-er” than a thinker. However, people doubt whether his proposals are pragmatic; for one thing, at least some of them could be unconstitutional.
The problem with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio is that they are difficult to distinguish without doing research into their policy proposals. This isn’t because they are seen as generic Latino candidates, but because they are both so overshadowed by Trump’s grandiosity that they have not been able to really take shape in voters’ minds. They thus suffer on the very first value: In order for voters to like them as individuals, voters have to have a clear idea of who they are. Lately, there have been calls for one of them to drop out of the race in order to defeat Trump, but this remains to be seen.
American elections are a strange beast. Not only do we have an arcane system that few citizens understand, but we also have a unique combination of cultural values that informs the way we respond to candidates in the primary stage. On top of this, we have an entertainment-obsessed news culture that promotes celebrity and the drama of the day over substantive discourse and analysis. Our process is further distorted by campaign finance laws which turn primaries into a scavenger hunt for donations from wealthy backers. All of the above mean that we have very different elections than the kind you see in other countries and cultures – even ones that seem closely related to us. There is plenty to criticize, but one thing is clear: they are distinctly American.