Monday, November 28, 2016


I have recently been granted French citizenship. After 15 years of full-time residency, I am, at last, “French.” My relationship with France is a long and winding road, and one over which I will most definitely muse in a future post. However, in the wake of recent political events, I find myself not nearly so preoccupied with becoming French as I am with being American at this gray dawn of the Trump era.

Living abroad is in many ways an existential balancing act; it forces us expatriates to reflect long and hard on who we are in relation to where we were born. We must each wrestle with what the concept of citizenship truly means; we must each try to understand the extent to which the national identity of our home country is interwoven with our own identity as an individual.

What makes me a representative of my native land? What traits and beliefs do I have that reflect my nationality? Am I proud of them or am I embarrassed by them? Do I want to own them, or do I want to purposely shed them in order to more seamlessly blend into the social fabric of my adopted country? If I shed them, will I still be me?

These are but a few of the questions that I have faced off with since first setting foot in Paris as a student nearly two decades ago. And while I imagined that obtaining French citizenship would incite me to re-examine them, the US presidential election is what truly has me mulling over notions of national versus personal identity and realizing that, even after having spent most of my adult life in France, I am more attached to my identity as an American than I thought.

I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a patriot, for what kind of patriot is so smitten by a foreign country that she chooses to move there forever? But I do love a great many things about America, and have never consciously tried to distance myself from my roots. I believe that one can fully immerse oneself in a foreign society without losing one’s unique sense of self. I have tried to the best of my abilities to reconcile French and American culture, to be proud of my origins while embracing the customs and traditions of my adopted home.

I moved to France shortly after the election of George W. Bush, which was my first major political disappointment—and may have subconsciously confirmed my decision that it was time to go abroad. Ever since, I have in some small way considered myself an ambassador; it is my duty to counter the ugly stereotypes so often held about Americans, particularly by Europeans. Barack Obama’s presidency made that task infinitely easier, and I was very much looking forward to proudly proclaiming that the United States had elected its first female president—and a damn fine one at that. Alas, fate decided otherwise; now, rather than celebrating America’s progress, millions of us are shocked and sickened, wondering what can possibly have happened to the country we thought we knew. I am beyond disillusioned; I am in mourning. I mourn what might have been; I mourn what surely will be. I mourn Obama’s legacy and I mourn Hillary’s. I feel as though there has been a death in the family.

We as a people—my people—looked at this foolish man, this coward, this liar, this con artist extraordinaire, this vulgar celebrity, this cruel bully who mocks the disabled, this spiteful demagogue who feeds on racism, this male chauvinist who thinks of women as subservient playthings—and after acknowledging all that, we still chose him. Every evil thing that he represents, every heinous word and deed that he has said and done—none of that made him ineligible for the White House. We let it all pass; we condoned everything we owed it to ourselves to reject. We gave a voice to our worst instincts: hatred, jealousy, paranoia, violence. We betrayed the spirit of our own Constitution, we failed our fellow man, and we spat in the face of all that we as a nation should—nay, must—embody if we are to go about claiming any sort of moral authority. By choosing to elect this singularly inept, unworthy figure to our highest office, or at the very least doing nothing to stop him, we have deliberately blown our own national myth to pieces. For if we can allow this foul man to become our leader, despite the fact that he incarnates all of the things we pride ourselves on not being, then what does that say about our values and ideals?

People ask me why I’m so upset over “just an election,” especially as an expatriate. And I must admit that the visceral nature of my own reaction has come as a surprise even to myself. But the answer is actually quite simple: This election goes far beyond a country choosing its new chief executive; this election is a statement to the world about who we are as Americans—and the person of Donald Trump is at odds with everything I most cherish about America and everything I believe about myself as an American.

Despite appearances, I don’t ruminate non-stop about this; there are wide swaths of time in which I’m focused on other things: work, errands, my family and in particular my two small children. But gazing into their big, bright eyes, the significance of this electoral outcome hits me again like a sucker punch to the heart. How could we? For the love of everything that is good and decent and just, how could we do this to our own country, to each other? To Barack Obama, who has gone gray striving for positive change? To Hillary Clinton, who has spent her entire public life working to make a difference, who was born to shatter that cursed glass ceiling?

I suppose what it all boils down to is this: Living abroad has taught me to see America in a new light, and that light is often an unflattering one. Nevertheless, the aura of America, all that we as a nation have historically done right, all that we continue to do so well—these things matter. They matter to me. But by electing Donald Trump as president, right on the heels of our first African American, we have confirmed the sad truth of what the European community has been saying all along, but which I was always loathe to hear: America is indeed capable of the best, but it is every bit as capable of the worst. We tamed the West, but we also committed genocide against the Native Americans; we liberated Paris, but we also bombed northern France to smithereens; we spend billions of dollars on foreign aid every year, but we spend far, far more on war.

We Americans are often criticized for trumpeting our virtues while glossing over our sins, and while I like to think that living abroad has made me more lucid about this dichotomy, less apt to blindly accept our own propaganda, less naively patriotic, in my heart I still believe that America is special. I still believe that we are a uniquely optimistic people, a creative people, a decent, hardworking people. I believe in the American Dream. But America has just reminded the world, yet again, that that dream only exists to the extent that we believe in it—and believing in it just got a whole lot harder.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Demystifying the US Electoral System: part III

Okay, so for all those who missed my last post—and that would be 99% of you because it’s kind of TMI so I didn’t exactly publicize it—here’s the short version: I’m a new mom. Again. And it’s awesome but it’s also sort of kicking my ass because three year olds are way more terrible exuberant than two year olds, and so when one’s eldest turns three that is maybe not such a good time to go and add a newborn, but then again that’s what my parents did and it worked out pretty well for them, so I’m remaining hopeful, plus both of my kids are amazing and I’m over the moon for them even if they’re totally winning in the parent-child tug of war we call “life.”

But enough about me. Let’s discuss politics! With only a few short weeks left until I either celebrate the election of the first woman president in American history or renounce my citizenship altogether, it is time to take a good close look at this grand shindig known as the US Presidential Election. I’m assuming you’re all read up on the Electoral College and the Presidential Primaries (I mean why wouldn’t you be?), so we can cut straight to the chase.


(Help! I’m in a 3-part nutshell!)

Part III: the Presidential Election

After the incredible complexity of the primary process, the actual election seems relatively straightforward. Ha ha! Except it’s not! What actually goes down on Election Day? What’s the difference between the electoral vote and the popular vote? What would the Framers have thought of Trump v. Clinton? Let’s find out.

Even more history

As you’ll recall from our fascinating look at the Electoral College, the US Presidential Election is an indirect one, meaning we plebeians don’t vote for the president him (her!) self, but rather for a bunch of electors who go vote in our place. Why do we do this? Because the Framers thought it was a good idea. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, “A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.” In other words, the average citizen cannot be trusted to vote intelligently. Anyone who disagrees need look no further than the basket of deplorables supporting Trump. “Yes,” you might say, “but why do we still use electors?” Because the electoral vote tends to produce clear winners, that’s why, whereas the popular vote does not. Clear winners mean fewer riots. Also, we fear change.

So in 1845, Congress passed a federal law that established Election Day as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, meaning that Americans go to the polls on what could possibly be the most depressing day of the year: a Tuesday, which is way worse than a Monday, in November, which is almost as sucky as January. Again, what were the Framers thinking?

They were thinking of logistics (aren’t we all?). Back in the day, most Americans worked on farms and lived far away from the county seat where voting took place. In order to allow them the three-day travel time necessary (and we complain about having to drive across town to vote), without interfering with worship days, market days or holidays, Tuesday was the clear winner. As for the time of year, spring and summer were dedicated to planting, so they were out, winter travel was a pain in the ass, so it was out, and early autumn was harvest season, so it too was out. That pretty much left November. Chilly, dark, boring November. No wonder turnout is always low.

What actually happens on Election Day?

The roughly 60% of Americans who can be bothered to vote get themselves to the polls (or just the post office in some states) and cast their ballot for a major party candidate or a write-in candidate, although not all states allow write-in candidates and even those that do require a bunch of paperwork to be filed beforehand, so Homer Simpson is never going to be elected president, alright?

Once the polls close, usually between 7:00 to 8:00 pm local time, the votes are tallied manually or electronically. The results are reported by each precinct (which can mean anything from a few city blocks to an entire county) to a central elections office, which then releases them. Meanwhile, exit polls allow the media to start making projections state by state long before the final vote count is completed.

And this is when the Electoral College at last comes into play. The result of the popular vote in each state determines which slate of electors has to get off its duff and do its duty ... in December. Every state but two (I’m looking at you, Nebraska and Maine) applies the winner-takes-all approach, meaning that the candidate who receives the greatest number of the state’s popular votes gets all of the state’s electoral votes.

The goal of each candidate is to reach the magic number of 270 electoral votes, which constitutes an “absolute majority” in the Electoral College. The candidate who reaches this number wins a four-year, all expenses paid trip to the White House. Should no candidate reach it, the election is “thrown” (or “chucked”) into the House of Representatives, where each state delegation casts one vote for president. If it’s still a tie, arm wrestling ensues.

What’s the difference between the electoral vote and the popular vote?

Glad you asked. The popular vote is quite simply the one-man-one-vote thing, i.e. the total votes cast by the voters in each state. However, the Constitution clearly stipulates that the presidency is decided not by the popular vote but by the electoral vote. The electoral vote is of course the vote cast by the members of the Electoral College, and as you may recall from the 2000 election, a candidate can absolutely win the electoral vote while losing the popular one. This is due to the winner-takes-all rule discussed above. Remember Florida? Gore and Bush were fairly evenly tied in popular votes there, yet Bush was ultimately declared the winner and thus made off with all 25 of the state’s electoral votes—bringing his Electoral College total to 271 and deciding the whole damned election, despite trailing Gore by over half a million popular votes nationwide. I moved to France the following year. The two may not be entirely unrelated.

What would the Framers have thought of Trump v. Clinton?

They would have thought, “Hot damn, we were right about the Electoral College! The general mass truly does lack the discernment to vote responsibly! Also, what is Twitter?”

Quirky facts
  • U.S. territories can vote in the Primaries but not in the General Election.
  • Washington, D.C. has its own electors (three of them) despite not being a state.
  • Donald Trump does not drink alcohol. Cocaine, however, is probably another matter.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Deliver me

NB: the following is by far my most TMI post and is intended exclusively for those of my fellow mothers who have been to the childbearing battlefield and made it back again in more or less one piece—and now find sharing their gory, super personal experiences to be strangely cathartic. For everyone else, you’d probably be better off avoiding this one. There, you’ve totally been warned.

OK, so first of all I realize that I promised to write the conclusion to my 3-part series on US presidential elections before going off an any more tangents, but a) all five of my readers will probably forgive me and b) childbirth is way more important than the Electoral College. I mean come on.

Anyway, so, childbirth. I just did that. And it was beautiful and miraculous and also kind of physically awful and emotionally terrifying and if it had gone down like that 100 years ago we’d probably all be dead and so I don’t think I’m going to do it again, like, ever. #ThanksEve

So, as you know if you’re a regular, hubby and I already have one awesome child—little g—but we wanted to go and add a second awesome child, because why stop at one, especially when that one really needs a playmate, seeing as how Mommy can only get down on the floor and build train tracks and stuff for like 15 minutes before she realizes that she has some super urgent thing to do (literally anything else).

Thus, we went and “made” a second awesome child, which is the part of the whole “pregnancy” thing that my body is actually “good” at, and so I passed GO, collected 200 mood swings and entered the first trimester. It was kind of more gnarly than I had remembered it, with many more Ugggggh I’m going to barf/faint/fall asleep standing up moments, in addition to that wretched omnipresent fear of something going wrong, which all we pregnant ladies live with night and day for nine frigging months but try to just suck up and not talk about because really—who’s listening? I also developed a severe aversion to drinking water of all things, I who used to chug two liters religiously every day. But I made up for it with juice and a lot of “fun” newfangled sodas, which in hindsight was pretty dumb of me sugar-wise, but hell, a girl’s gotta stay hydrated.

Now, with the birth of awesome child #1 in 2013, we moved out of Paris and into the western suburbs, thus necessitating a change of maternity clinic for awesome child #2. I researched diligently, found just the right place, and chose a lady doctor with a reputation for being a straight shooter, which is really all anyone should want from an Ob-Gyn. Our first encounter was predictably a little odd; in France, women’s health visits are generally performed entirely in the buff, so the first one with a new doctor is always awkward—at least to my American sensibilities. Like, we just met; do I really have to take everything off and clamber onto this exam table all naked and stuff? Shouldn’t we at least go for coffee or something first? Plus this particular doctor turned out to be pretty damn austere in both word and manner, but surprisingly not in eye makeup—magenta one day, glitter the next—thus adding an extra layer of weird to our budding relationship.

Anyway, I made it through the loooooong, woozy first trimester and joyfully leapt into the second, which as we all know is the “good one.” And indeed it was good. And it went by all too quickly. And I really have nothing more to say about it other than that my belly got way big way fast, but I felt pretty bitchin’ anyway, and have I mentioned that awesome child #2 turned out to be a GIRL and how extra awesome that is? I love me some pink!

Then along came Mr. Mean and Nasty Third Trimester, who was already NOT my friend back in 2013, as the nearer I came to my due date, the more crazy shit my body started to do, some of which was NOT FUNNY at all. First, my feet went: I came down with Plantar Fasciitis, which is an inflammation of the soles of the feet causing intense pain and making moving about even less pleasant than it already is with a big ol’ pregnant body. Then I started blowing up like a balloon, or rather a water balloon, and got bitched out by my then-doctor for gaining too much weight when really—it’s water, dear doctor. Look up “edema,” which is pretty common and you should really know that ‘cuz it’s um your job—but worst of all, around week 36 I developed this in-SANE itch. It began on the soles of my feet and spread to my palms, belly, face, and pretty much everywhere else and it ROYALLY sucked. It sucked so much that I mentioned it to my doc, and bless her heart, she recognized it as being all kinds of NOT FUNNY and sent me for immediate blood work and fetal monitoring. I didn’t quite get what was up, but with the lab results and the help of good ol’ Professor Google, I soon realized that I had a hideous liver disorder called Intrahepatic Cholestasis of Pregnancy (ICP), which basically means that one’s liver cannot deal with the hormonal deluge any longer and decides to just stop working. Aside from being royally unpleasant for the mother, ICP can straight up lead to stillbirth—right at the end, too, just when you thought you were ready to cross the finish line. The only cure for this MoFo of a disease is to deliver, and thankfully, awesome child #1 seemed to sense that and decided to exit my toxic body of his own free will some 10 days later. Phew. Of course, I then went and got saddled with a host of crazy postpartum crap, such as D-MER and Diastasis Recti, but oh hell, who’s keeping track at this point? So my abs split in half and I felt like throwing myself off the balcony every time my milk let down—so what? In exchange, I somehow came away with a pair of lovely skinny legs, zero stretch marks, and a child for Pete’s sake, so let’s try to keep a little perspective.

THIS time around, the Plantar Fasciitis gave me a break, and the edema was slightly better (yet I still managed to get bitched out because apparently the entire medical profession thinks that edema is a joke and really it’s just too many cakes we fat pregnant chicks are wolfing down, in addition to all that juice and soda, which furthermore makes BIG babies and by the way your baby is “too big” which means STOP THE FUCKING SUGARY DRINKS RIGHT THIS RED HOT MINUTE OR IT’S STRAIGHT TO C-SECTION LAND). But worst of all, I once more came down with FML, er, ICP, and naturally, several weeks earlier than in 2013, leaving me with much more time to totally freak the hell out. Wassup, liver? Why you hatin’? Okay, so there were a few years in my wayward youth running around in Paris when I may have gone slightly overboard in the alcohol department, but c’mon. Liver disorder? From that? Well, no—rather, it seems to be a hereditary thing, meaning that my Scandinavian blood is to blame. My mom didn’t have it, but apparently it can skip a generation. Great. Anyway, if you want to know all about ICP, and just how much it sucks, here is a blog by a fellow sufferer and here is a support group and here is a Wikipedia article and if after reading all that you still don’t appreciate how terrifying it is to be diagnosed with this satanic POS of a disease, then you have no empathy and are probably a sociopath.

From my first mention of itchiness (“It could just be my hay fever, right?”), I found out precisely why this particular doctor has a reputation for no-nonsense; she may wear funny eye shadow, but she does not fuck around when a pregnancy starts to head south. She immediately put me on the drugs Ursodiol and Atarax and prescribed a strict regimen of weekly blood work and ultrasounds, bi-weekly fetal heart monitoring and all kinds of other reasons to hone my driving skills driving back and forth from home to clinic to home to clinic—but no complaints here because holy shit, I’ve never been so scared in my life. There is a famous quote by Audrey Hepburn about how the toughest part of motherhood is the inner worrying that cannot, must not be shown, and that is SO TRUE, especially with an ICP pregnancy. I mean there you are, after gutting it out for 8 months and OH SO READY to finally meet your little one, only to come down with this rare, wretched disease that turns your heretofore safe, cozy uterus into a toxic prison. And no one knows what you’re going through, and you can do nothing about it, aside from following your doctor’s orders and praying night and day that everything will work out. In other words, it is out of your hands—way, way out.

With the help of the Ursodiol, whose role is pretty much to do the job that one’s loser liver has decided it no longer wants to do, my blood work showed marked improvement. This allowed me to, you know, sleep at night and not totally lose my mind. Until it stopped working, that is—obviously while my doctor was on holiday. She had been planning to induce me at around week 38, as most ICP patients are, but in light of my spiking bile salt levels, the head midwife at the clinic decided to go ahead and induce me at week 37—which was absolutely fine because every second my baby spent inside me constituted a risk of the absolute worst nature. So the day after my 37th birthday (let’s all appreciate the parallel), I headed for the clinic with chéri in tow, there to spend much time ushering awesome child #2 out of me and into the world, which despite Islamic terrorism, Zika and Donald Trump, is still a hell of a lot safer than my frigging body.

Now, a fun fact about induction is that it hurts. It hurts A LOT. It hurts more than normal labor, which as everyone knows really, really hurts. But at first it didn’t; at first it just felt like particularly nasty cramps, leaving me with the silly idea that I could handle the pain for a few hours before summoning the anesthesiologist. But then I realized that no, in fact, I really couldn’t handle the pain, so they put in an epidural, plugged in an oxytocin drip to speed things up and ... GAHHHHHHHH!!! The contractions suddenly got 10 times worse. I was like, “Why can I feel this despite the BIG ASS needle sticking out of my spine?” And Science was like, “I’ll tell you why. Because contrary to popular belief, epidurals are not fail-proof; they fail quite a lot, actually.” This one had the particularity of failing only on my right side while functioning perfectly on my left, but pain management during childbirth does not lend itself to philosophical discussions about having a half-empty or a half-full perspective; it’s really an all or nothing affair, and if you opt for all then you should get all and not fucking half is the point I’m trying to make here. But such is life.

Ultimately the midwife, who must have gotten mighty tired of listening to my groans and whines and whimpers echoing down the hallway, told me that if I wanted the pain to end then now would be a good time to start pushing. “Seriously? But there’s no doctor here,” I said, but apparently that was no biggie. The baby was high, the pain was unbearable, and we had time to kill. So push. Well alrighty then—I pushed. A bit too enthusiastically it seems, because suddenly the midwife was shouting “STOP STOP STOP!” and there was still no doctor in sight because the guy on call obviously had a very screwy notion of what being “on call” actually means and was thus tied up in a fucking appointment at his fucking office and OMG there’s no MD here and my body really hurts and this is not how it’s supposed to work—I want my mooooooooom! But then, the midwives had been taking care of everything since I had shown up that morning, so why the hell would we suddenly need a doctor anyway? In the end they drafted some random one from another delivery next door and together they all shouted encouragement and then suddenly, out pops this little head and then out comes an entire 8-pound baby and holy crap I am such a STAR at pushing I had no idea! To be fair, I think I can definitely credit awesome child #1 for blazing the trail down there with his own, much more difficult passage three years ago. *Shudder*

OK, so they take this wailing baby, who I am SO ELATED to see, into another room to be checked and weighed and all that, and only THEN does the actual on-call doctor decide to actually show the fuck up. Nice. Did I still pay him? Yes. Why? Because he turned out to be quite an excellent conversationalist once he decided to finally, you know, sit the hell down and get to work—coaxing scary things out of scary places that you honestly don’t want to know about and stitching up other things that had paid the price for my drinking all that soda, the whole gory operation perfectly reflected in his glasses as he explained to me how much he appreciates the States and how great it is that we Americans always seem to keep our sense of humor. “Do you want to see the placenta?” he said. I laughed.

And that is my, or rather, our birth story. Did it go according to plan? Sort of—my plan essentially being to give birth to a healthy baby and live to tell about it. And here, two weeks later, our beautiful, perfect little girl is asleep on my lap as naturally and innocently as can be, and 90% of my own pregnancy-related difficulties have evaporated. And if that isn’t sweet Deliverance, I don’t know what is.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Into the woods

France is a sexy place. It has swingers’ clubs, fetish parties and bakeries specializing in penis-shaped bread. It also has the forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (emphasis on the “laye”).

We live on the edge of this very forest. From where we are, it looks all green and beautiful. It has bike trails, blackberry bushes, historic landmarks and lots of hikers carrying fancy metal walking sticks—which they really don’t need because this is in no way the El Capitan of forests. It’s leafy and pretty flat. It also happens to be peppered with prostitutes.

Now, France has a long relationship with prostitution, which continues to this day although the circumstances aren’t quite the same. Gone are the brothels, but the prostitutes remain. If you want to find one, many possibilities exist. For those seeking outdoor adventure, there’s the forest of Saint-Germain.

To be a prostitute in the forest, you need a plastic shopping bag. Because racolage (solicitation) is illegal, plastic bags are attached to tree branches along the highway to serve as passive markers for the wandering eye. If you drive through the forest and come across a bag floating from a tree, there will be a prostitute perched fetchingly on a folding chair a few meters into the shrubbery. Sometimes the prostitute is a he, dressed as a she. Sometimes the prostitute is not fully clad, just to make sure that the open for business message is crystal clear.

Drive further on, and you will eventually come to L’Etang du Cora. A lovely pond by day and quite popular with the stroller crowd, it bares another face entirely come nightfall, when swingers, voyeurs and various other libertines take over—which sort of makes one think twice before sitting on any of the pond’s public benches, and often results in random pieces of TMI being strewn about for discovery by the morning’s first promeneurs. “Look Mommy, I found a balloon!” “That’s not a balloon dear, now let’s go wash your hands with some bleach.”

How do I know all this? Because I went to French driving school, and the parking lot of L’Etang du Cora, in addition to apparently being a great spot for casual group sex, is also a handy place to practice parallel parking and 3-point turns. Or at least that’s what they told me.

Next time: back to politics, with the final chapter of my 3-part look at the US electoral system. Less sexy than the French forest, perhaps, but cleaner safer more interesting less illegal.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Demystifying the US Electoral System: part II

Alrighty. Now that we have the Electoral College well in hand, it is time to turn our attention to another, even more sadistic awesome component of the US electoral process: the presidential primaries. If you’ve been following the news of late, then you must be under the impression that the whole ordeal is complicated, which it is—to the point of absurdity, but hang in there anyway, because it can also be sort of fascinating. So here we go.


(Help! I’m in a 3-part nutshell!)

Part II: the Presidential Primaries 

First of all, the Framers in their infinite wisdom decided to leave the entire primary thing out of the Constitution. Why? Because you try coming up with a presidential nomination process, that’s why. It sounds like a total hassle. Plus they had more pressing matters to worry about, like where to get more saltpeter and pins.

In hindsight, they really should have tried harder—or just tried, full stop—because whatever system they came up with would undoubtedly have been superior to the total mess we’re stuck with today. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

A bit more history

So how DID the primary process evolve? Well, as you surely remember from last time, the Electoral College single-handedly elected the president and vice president in the first four US elections. In the first two elections, the College even chose who could be on the ballot to begin with (George Washington and George Washington, respectively). But with the ratification of the 12th Amendment, and the rise of the first political parties, the notion of a formal nomination process finally had to be dealt with. Ick.

Enter the legislative party caucus* wherein congressional members from each party would gather in back rooms informally, in order to agree on their party’s nominees. Already in operation as early as 1796, the caucus became the official way of doing things beginning in 1804. Henceforth, party caucuses would formally nominate two men to make up the “presidential ticket” as standard bearers of their party. The system held out for around 20 years before collapsing in 1824 during an election best known for Andrew Jackson getting shafted Al Gore-style, losing his run for the White House despite having won the popular vote. Interestingly, 1824 was also the first year that there even was a popular vote worth mentioning.

Understandably ticked off, Jackson made a comeback in 1828 in an election so ugly it makes 2016 look like a game of pat-a-cake, and was rewarded with a sweeping victory. In other words, campaigning like a bunch of total jerks is as old as campaigning at all. With the congressional nominating caucus in tatters, the next election’s candidates were chosen by (drum roll) national conventions after the Anti-Masonic Party came up with the idea in 1831—that is, if 96 men gathering in a Baltimore saloon can be considered a national convention.

Ever since then, most parties have held national nominating conventions, attended by state delegates, to crown their presidential and vice presidential candidates. Today’s conventions are criticized for being nothing more than glorified pep rallies with no suspense left as to which candidates will be selected because the states have already decided. Obviously, this was not always the case; much like the original Electoral College, the original nominating conventions used to be actual decision-making bodies. But those conventions had their own problems, namely corruption. (To which you are surely reacting with utmost shock—corruption? In politics?!)

Indeed—up until the 20th century, nominating conventions were controlled by party bigwigs, who would hand-pick their state’s delegates and then make sure they voted “correctly” using whatever means they deemed appropriate. Surprisingly enough, this eventually became problematic and that, my friends, is when the presidential primary election was finally born—to boost the democracy factor by letting the people in on the action. Now, not all states were hip to that jive—because honestly, if all the states suddenly started agreeing on stuff then where would the fun lie? Still, by 1916 more than half of them were holding primaries, which isn’t great, but it’s passing (actually less than 60% is technically an “F” and therefore isn’t passing at all, but let’s say we’re grading on a curve). By 1936, however, under pressure from party leaders and potential candidates who weren’t fans at all of this popular vote business, all but 12 or so states had abandoned the presidential primary. And 12/48 is definitely an F.

Following WWII, democracy made a comeback with help from television, which brought candidates and their antics right into people’s homes (and they haven’t left since). Primaries once more grew in popularity, major reforms beginning in 1968 cleaned up the process, and soon every state was at last holding some form of presidential primary. Which brings us to today. Are you still awake?

Elect your champion

OK, so here we are in 2016 and every state is on board the USS Primary. Do they all go about it the same way? Oh hells no—again, states still like to pretend that they’re all sovereign and stuff, so like they’d be caught dead doing some weird collective thing. Instead, each party in each state chooses its own nomination format from the following electoral buffet:
  • Closed primaries: only voters who are affiliated with a given party can vote on that party’s ballot
  • Semi-closed primaries: political parties may choose to allow unaffiliated voters to vote on their ballot, while affiliated voters can only vote on their own party’s ballot
  • Semi-open primaries: voters of any affiliation can vote on any party’s ballot, but they must first make some public declaration of support for a single political party 
  • Open primaries: voters of any affiliation can vote on any party’s ballot
  • Caucuses (this one’s for you, Donald): voters have to get off their butts and head to a local party gathering, where they openly decide which candidate to support in addition to dealing with other party business. Voting is done by raising hands or breaking up into groups.

Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa!

As you are most certainly aware, not all states vote on the same day. Instead, the primaries are staggered, beginning early in the year and concluding in June, followed by the national party conventions. The famous Iowa caucuses always fire the opening shot of the primary season. Why? Do you really want to know? I bet you don’t. *Yawn* (But just in case, here’s a braver attempt than anything I could muster.)

What’s so super about Super Tuesday?

Super Tuesday falls on a particular day of the week (guess which), early in the primary season, when multiple states vote at once. It’s “super” because more delegates to the nominating conventions can be won on this one day than on any other day of the primary calendar. It also represents an important test of each candidate’s electability, thus separating the proverbial wheat from the proverbial chaff.

Delegate math

We haven’t discussed delegate allocation yet, mainly because it’s an awful subject. To give you the short version, each party determines how many delegates it allocates to each state. On the Democrats’ side, the rules for doing this are so effing complicated that they have to use a mathematical formula—and a gnarly one at that. If you really want to go there, check out The Green Papers (and good luck understanding any of it). For their part, the Republicans aren’t much better. Incidentally, the Democrats have a way bigger convention than the Republicans do, with around twice as many delegates. This is because Democrats party harder the two parties handle delegate allocation differently, as discussed above. But to either party, there is only one number that truly matters: in 2016, that number is 2,383 for the donkeys and 1,237 for the elephants. Why? Because it represents the amount of delegates required to secure the nomination and proceed to the Big Top.

Superdelegates: like normal delegates, only with superpowers

Well, not really—but they do get a pretty awesome name. So, in addition to the “pledged” delegates that each candidate racks up during the primary process (who are supposed to remain faithful to that particular candidate), both parties also have these other delegates who are free agents and can vote any way they choose! On the Republican side, these folks are the three top party officials from each state. In 2016, there are 109 of them, and they are called … automatic delegates. Big whoop. On the Democratic side, on the other hand, they are called Superdelegates, and are composed of senior party officers and elected officials. There are 714 Supers in 2016, or 15% of all Democratic delegates. The whole idea came about in 1984 as a way for party leaders to have more of a say in the election process (because it’s all well and good to talk about the will of the people, but sometimes the people go a little nuts. Witness the rise of The Donald). Are Superdelegates democratic? Yes … when they favor your candidate. Actually, despite all the recent hoopla in the news, the Supers have never once contradicted the pledged delegate majority, so those Sanders folks need to just calm the hell down. As Samantha Bee pointed out this week, we should think of Superdelegates as a driving instructor with his foot hovering over the brake in case we do anything too stupid. Having recently passed my driving exam, I can truly appreciate the analogy.

Is this over yet?

Yes! Next time we’ll cover the Ultimate Showdown: the Presidential Election. In the meantime, how about fixing yourself a nice stiff drink? I know I could sure use one.

*Probably derived from an Algonquin term, meaning “to talk informally with one’s fellows.” Little surprise that Donald Trump, who is no fan of Native Americans, has no clue what this means.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Demystifying the US Electoral System: part I

As those of you not living under a rock are surely aware, it’s election season in the USA: a time when millions of people attempt to come to terms with the most mysterious, convoluted electoral process the world has ever seen. One voter = one vote? Not by a long shot! What do you think this is, a democracy?

My tussle with the rules governing US presidential elections first began when I left the Motherland for France and found myself incapable of explaining the intricacies of the Electoral College to my bemused French colleagues. Alas, how we Americans elect our presidents really isn’t something that can just be Wikipediaed; it’s far too labyrinthine, which is perhaps why no one understands it. Seriously, no one—just ask presidential candidate (*wince*) Donald Trump:

“What the hell is [a] caucus? Nobody even knows what it means.”

In years past, I’d duck any election-related questions more nuanced than “Who are you voting for?” (Hillary) but this is 2016 and enough is enough—it’s time I understood my own damn electoral system. And it’s time you did, too, because face it: you’re just as bewildered as the rest of us. How could you not be? It makes no effin’ sense!

Or does it?

 (Help! I’m in a 3-part nutshell!)

Part I: the Electoral College

A bit of history

First of all, if our system is overly complex, we can start by blaming the Framers of the Constitution. Many of us (especially the more right-wing types) like to pretend that these guys were virtual demigods in wigs, but in reality they were just mortal men in wigs. And mortal men make mistakes, even when all they have to do is found a country. To their credit, the Framers were facing a whole mess of difficulties we don’t have to bother about today: namely, how to elect a president prior to the existence of political parties, when the very act of running for office was considered “ungentlemanly.”

Among the crazy ideas tossed around in 1787 by the Committee of Eleven—which had nothing to do with the Rat Pack—was that of direct popular vote,* but it got nixed since the Framers figured the “uninformed” (read: dim-witted) public would just go and choose some fool from their own state, who would in turn never secure an indisputable national majority and thus never enjoy a nice clear mandate. You know, like the one George W. Bush received in 2000.

Ultimately, the Framers found inspiration in the Roman Republic, settling on a system of indirect election by a select group (college) of well-informed individuals (electors) who would represent (replace) the common folk. Members of this Electoral College would be chosen from each state, by each state, according to that state’s number of representatives in Congress (based primarily on population**), and would meet every four years to elect the president and vice president of the United States. Each elector was to exercise independent judgment and cast two votes for president, one of which had to be for a candidate outside of his home state (state rivalry clearly being not funny at the time). The candidate with the most votes would become president; first runner-up would be VP. Well-intentioned yes, but clearly none too effective: the system only stuck it out for four elections, which is way worse than the Romans.

By then, political parties had emerged—oh good!—including one called the Democratic-Republicans, whose legacy lives on in the uninspired names of our two leading modern parties. In light of this development, the Framers (who must have been pretty old by then) went back and made a few strategic tweaks, which took the form of the 12th Amendment. From then on, electors could only cast one vote for president and one vote for VP, thus hopefully avoiding the awkward situation of electing a prez and a veep from two different parties. And to avoid the even more awkward situation of a presidential tie (such as that of 1800, when Aaron Burr came this close to becoming our third president instead of just “the guy who shot Alexander Hamilton”), it was decided that the House of Representatives would make the ultimate decision in case of a stalemate.

The Electoral College in 2016

Fast-forward to the present and the Electoral College of two centuries ago is pretty much still in effect: each state has as many electors as it does Senators and Representatives in the US Congress, who convene in their own state capitol every four years to cast their votes for president and vice president. What has changed, however, is that the Electoral College is no longer a deliberative body with a will of its own; rather, the electoral vote is supposed to reflect the popular vote (yet does not always do so, as we shall later see).

Today, the Electoral College has 538 members (hence the name of election whiz Nate Silver’s famous blog, FiveThirtyEight). It is their job to vote in your place, because remember: the US presidential election is in-dir-ect. So when you go to the polls on Election Day, naively thinking that you’re voting for president and vice president, you’re straight up wrong. In reality, you’re voting for the slate of electors who have been nominated by your state’s various political parties.

Let’s look at an example, because this is some complicated sh*t:
My home state of California has 55 juicy electoral votes. But it has a whopping 330 electoral nominees (each of California’s six qualified parties gets to nominate its own slate of 55 electors). If, say, the Democratic presidential candidate wins the state’s popular vote on Election Day, only the 55 Democratic electors will be tapped to meet in Sacramento to cast their votes, while the other parties’ electors will probably just Netflix and chill.

So there you go. But wait—what actually happens on Election Day? How can a candidate win the popular vote yet lose the electoral vote? And what the hell is a caucus? Ah, but you’ll have to wait for the next installments (while I go try to figure it out myself).

Quirky facts 
  • There is no physical Electoral College; electors from each state convene at their own state capitol to vote, but at no time do all 538 members party together. A shame, really.
  • Electors vote long after the presidential election has been called: on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December to be exact. The results are then read before a joint session of Congress on January 6—by which point the public is no longer paying any attention whatsoever.
  • Not all electors are legally obligated to respect the popular vote when casting their ballots. Electors who ignore the popular vote and choose according to personal preference are referred to as “faithless electors,” which for some reason makes me feel sad. Have faith, guys. It’ll all be OK.

*Popular vote: votes cast by “the people,” meaning property owning white male people until 1870 and 1920, respectively.
**Population: all free persons + 3/5 of all slaves (each slave equaling three fifths of a non-slave for taxation and representation purposes—when you hear about systemic racism in the United States today, it might have something to do with this).