Spark 002 / The Canadian designer’s response to the Trumpocalypse

If like me, you watched the early results from the US election coming in last night and saw mainstream media landing pages with headlines like “Trump surges!” you probably viewed them with surreal fascination, something like looking through a wormhole to an alternate universe. Perhaps you felt that you were viewing a mock satirical layout or 1940’s-esque anti-fascist propaganda (“It CAN happen here!”). And, if you’re like me, you also felt the horror crawl up your spine as you slowly realized the nightmare was becoming real.

CNN, November 8, 2016 vs US War Production Board poster, circa 1943

I’ve been hearing a common refrain among my fellow Canadians today at the design school where I teach. Accompanied by a throwing up of one’s hands, the phrase is generally along the lines of “Well, it’s not like we can do anything about it.” This is true. As Canadians in general — Canadian designers in particular — there is precious little to absolutely nothing we can do to influence American politics. That doesn’t mean we are powerless. It falls to us now, to lead by example, and to use our skills and energy to influence politics here, lest we see a nightmare scenario soon unfold here akin to what happened last night to our cousins in the south.

The most striking thing about last night’s American disaster is that even though Hillary Clinton received more of the popular vote (that is to say, a majority of Americans voted for her) than Donald Trump — 59,626,052 to 59,427,652 respectively, a difference of 198,400* votes — she still lost the election. It is a function of the bizarrely arcane US Electoral College system that has allowed fully five contenders throughout its history to win more votes, yet still lose the election. And Canadians can ill afford to be smug about this; our First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system routinely allows parties to form majority governments with around thirty-five percent of the vote, leaving the remaining sixty-five precent (the majority, in other words) to languish in opposition, without much real power.

During the 2015 Canadian federal election campaign, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party made a promise that this would be the last election fought under the unfair FPTP system, and that it would be replaced with a fairer system, such as Proportional Representation (PR). Under PR, we would see an end to a party winning majority rule with a false majority of the votes. Take for example the 2015 election: the Liberals won 39% of the votes cast but our FPTP system translates this to 54.4% of the seats in Parliament—in other words, a majority. The Green Party garnered 3.5% of the votes but won just .29% of the seats (1 seat). Even worse, in the 2008 federal election, the Greens—to use one example of a party that suffers badly at the hands of FPTP—won almost a million votes, but not a single seat in Parliament. These are egregious results—anyone with the most basic understanding of math can see that. Contrast these results with what would occur under PR: 39% of the vote would equal 39% of the seats, and thus not yield a majority. The percentage of votes won by every party would directly determine their seat count, ensuring that no one’s vote is wasted, and that almost all voters in Canada are fairly and proportionately represented in their Parliament. Yes, minority governments would be more common, but would compromise, coalition building and consensus be such awful things to have in government? It’s a system that works in spectacularly functional modern democracies such as Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, to name but a few.

Lately, Justin Trudeau has been musing in the press that perhaps getting rid of FPTP isn’t such a priority, that people really just wanted PR when getting rid of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was an issue of concern. His thinking being that now that it’s Trudeau and his “sunny ways” 24/7, maybe everything’s fine as is after all. The glaring problem here lies in that he was elected with the promise of electoral reform very much on the table. He has a clear mandate to enact a system that is more fair and equitable to all Canadians, and he should be held to this promise that he and his party made to all of us.**

“Nationalism won’t be recycled. Professionally dispose of right-wing agitation!”: Powerful graphic protest from Berlin.

The challenge to Canadian designers, as I see it, is this; yes, be interested in American politics, but be far more interested, engaged and active in our politics here at home. We should, right now, be blanketing our cities in graphic work that demands electoral reform, specifically Proportional Representation. Moreover, very few Canadians know what Proportional Representation means — we should be using our skills as communication designers to explain it, in a clear and interesting manner that the government has either failed to do or is not willing to do.

I realize that communication designers traditionally think of political work as bland, boring or corporate; it needn’t be that way. Look to groups like Propagate, Jacobin Magazine, Adbusters, and Metahaven; look at designers like Justin Kemerling, Design Action, or Firebelly. Graphic political agitation has a rich and successful history because it is a powerful tool: if we can get enough people to simply start asking questions (“What is Proportional Representation?” seems a good place to begin), those questions will stick, and people will want to know more. We should be expoiting the social media enabled Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) phenomenon that political war rooms have so successfully capitalized on in our own political work (remember Kony 2012? Imagine something on that scale, but run by rational, thinking people!). It’s not enough to simply retweet some pithy statements about Trump to your followers on Twitter, or even to write articles here on Medium; we need to do now what designers do best; take it to the streets and demand that what happened last night in the United States, can never, ever happen again here in Canada.

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*These numbers changed dramatically as vote counts came in from California. Clinton’s vote share is steadily increasing over Trump’s, thus increasing the disparity between her popular vote and Electoral College result. As of last count Clinton was +3 million votes over Trump in the popular vote. It is also worth noting that of the seventeen “majority” governments Canada has had, only four of those were true majorities—i.e. won with a popular vote of over 50%—the last being in 1984 when Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives won with 50.03% of the vote.

**Since this article was first published, Trudeau has halted all plans for electoral reform, citing lack of consensus, despite much evidence to the contrary.