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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Democracy in America and Elsewhere:
Part I: Does It Really Have to Be This Way?

James S. Henry and Caleb Kleppner
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After more than a year of intense primary coverage, pre-convention foreplay, and two carefully-scripted, almost protest-proof party conventions, the US Presidential marathon has finally entered the backstretch, with the overall contest still too close to call –- despite President Bush’s brief post-convention surge in the polls.

Although many pundits and politicians have hailed this contest as the “most important election of our lives," and talked about the “striking difference” between the two top candidates, most opinion polls show that a majority of ordinary Americans are profoundly dissatisfied with the limited choices available on this year's Presidential menu, with a majority of undecided voters disapproving of both Bush and Kerry in this week's polls.

They correctly sense that the prolonged, torturous process by which we choose the Leader of the Free World is deeply flawed. Many are asking, “Am I the only one who is unhappy with having to choose between these two Yale-bred prima donnas?......the only one who feels that this year's campaigns and the mass media have systematically avoided most of the critical issues that confront our country??”

If so many Americans prefer a different type of politics, however, why can’t they have it?
Electionnight_bush

It turns out that this year’s unsatisfying campaign isn’t just an aberration. Rather, many of its less attractive features are a direct byproduct of deep-seated structural flaws in our electoral system, most of which are decades- or even centuries-old.

Unless we undertake the fundamental reforms required to fix these problems, our version of "democracy" is likely to become less and less attractive as a role model.

These structural flaws come into sharp relief is when we compare the US to other democracies, especially several younger ones that have proved to be much more innovative than we are when it comes to "designing democracy."

When we do so, we arrive at a disturbing conclusion: in many respects, American democracy is falling behind the rest of the democratic world.

As we will explore in this series, the fact is that many other countries – including several developing countries as well as our First World peers – have adopted electoral processes that are much more democratic than our own.
Kerrytwoface

Rather than bemoan this year’s Presidential campaign, therefore, we propose to explore the root causes of our political malaise. We will tackle this problem with the help of a comparative approach, examining "best practices" in other leading democracies that are working hard to insure that national elections are more than just the costly, high-carb biennial beauty pageants that they have become in the US.

Politics As Usual
When this race is finally over, most Americans will probably breathe a sigh of relief regardless of the outcome -- at least until the next election cycle begins again in just 1.5 years. But for conventional political reporters it has turned out to be a classic horserace, which promises to capture audience “eyeballs” right down to the final flag. Stemcell_1 The race’s essential unpredictability has been determined by several factors. There is exceptional animosity between the dominant parties and lasting scars from Bush’s controversial road to the White House. To the surprise of many, the Democrats have fielded a centrist, if somewhat vacillating, candidate – the only genuine war veteran on either ticket, a gun-owning, church-going Catholic who basically supports both the Iraq War and a balanced budget, and, as liberals go, has been a devoted husband. Except for the fact that Kerry is from Massachusetts and wants somewhat higher taxes on the top 1%, this has made it hard to paint him into the McGovern/Mondale/Dukakis/Dean” corner. Of course this has not suspended the rules of Politics 101 for Republicans – (1) when you have nothing much to brag about, go negative, and (2) if people are scarred enough, they will vote for Alfred E. Newman, so long as he promises to keep them safe. Gwnotwithit

Another factor that has made the race close is the record level of campaign spending on both sides – more than $795 million for the Presidential race alone, plus at least $272 million of “527” money, including $20 million from the National Rifle Association and $2.6 million from the Swift Boat Veterans group. Contrary to expectations, both parties have stayed about even in the money rush, despite President Bush’s renowned fund-raising abilities.
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Finally, there have also been an unusual number of wild-cards – putative terrorist threats, oil price shocks, North Korean nukes, job growth, Ralph Nader’s quixotic quest, and the continuing ups and downs of the Iraq and Afghan Wars, plus all the typically American quasi-religious disputes over gay marriage, the Vietnam War, assault rifles, stem cell research, and late-term abortions.

Along the way, we've had a floodtide of small-bore reporting, encouraged by instant polling, “rapid response,” and the army of several thousand reporters who have nothing better to do than cover the campaign 24/7 and 31/12.
Kerry

Much of the resulting reportage reads like a kluge of the Daily Racing Form and the National Enquirer, with far less attention paid to hard policy issues than to campaign tactics, polls, and candidate “features" -- values, personal histories, eating habits, wives, children, appearances, misquotes, and mood swings. (For a good example, witness, for example, today's cover stories on "where's Edwards?" in both the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times.)

So far the candidates, their campaigns, and their advertising have reinforced this pattern, spending far more time on their own values and competence than on fundamental issues -- or on the real benefits that voters would derive from electing them. Even when they do get down to issues and actual benefits, the focus is on just a handful that won't offend undecided voters in key states. (See Box A.) Given the electoral college, they are also spending almost all their time and resources in the same 15-16 “battleground states,” where the polls show a gap between Kerry and Bush of 3 percent or less. (See Table 1.) Within these states, they are also focusing on the same 6-10 percent of voters who have somehow managed to remain “undecided” even at this late date.

As a result, this year's election will be decided by just a sliver of potential voters in a handful of states. The battleground states account for less than a third of all US “voter-age” residents or “potentially-eligible voters” -- after deducting non-citizens, convicts, and others not eligible to vote. If these states repeat the modest turnouts that prevailed in 2000, less than 57 percent of their voting age populations will vote. And since a winning candidate only needs a plurality, which can be less than 50%, this implies that in a country with more than 293 million people and 223 million of voting age, the outcome of this "critical" election will be determined by at most 18.3 million “undecided” voters – just 6 percent of the country's population.

Given the way our particular version of democracy is structured, therefore, the rest of us face the fact that the chances that we will die in an accident on the way to the voting booth are infinitely greater than that our votes will have any impact whatsoever on this election. As we will see below, the chances are also slim to nilthat we will exert any influence on the vast majority of Senate or Congressional races.

All this might not matter so much if undecided voters in battleground states were good proxies for the rest of us. But they are not.
As indicated in Table 2, they differ from the rest of the country in many important respects. Most of these states are relatively backward, in the bottom half of all 50 states in terms of per capita incomes and education levels, with a much higher-than-average share of poor residents. Nearly a quarter of their populations live in rural areas, twice the average share for non-BG states.

Compared with non-BG states, the residents of these states are also more likely to own guns, and much less likely to have lost factory jobs in the recent recession. They are also more religious -- Catholic voters account for 40 percent and 35 percent, respectively, of all potential voters in New Mexico and New Hampshire, while conservative Christians account for more than a third of the population in 10 of the 15 BG states, and orthodox Jews are a key voting bloc in Florida. Hispanics account for more than 15 percent of potential voters in Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico. Illegal immigrants constitute a critical part of the work force and Census headcount (for apportionment purposes) in half the BG states.

Furthermore, as shown in Table 1, almost half of the BG states have harsh “felon disenfranchisement” laws. Most of these permanently deprive anyone ever convicted of a felony within their states of the right to vote, even after their sentences have been served. These laws could play a decisive role in battleground states like Florida, Virginia, Arizona, Tennessee, and Iowa, just as they did in 2000.

All told, given the “winner take all” nature of the US electoral college system (see below) and the strategic role of so-called “undecided voters” will play in battleground states, it is not surprising that there is a long list of important issues where both Bush and Kerry have either both been completely silent, or have adopted straddling positions, many of which can only be distinguished from the President's under an electron microscope.

So far, at least, Kerry appears to have bet heavily that the American people will choose him mainly because he's brighter, more competent and more trustworthy than Bush, not because his foreign and domestic policy alternatives are wildly different and exciting. This is a bet that the far more well-liked, if quasi-competent and semi-literate Bush has been delighted to accept.

As a result, as discussed in Box A, even though a majority of US voters may well be open to far less timid new approaches to issues like the Iraq War, farm subsidies, illegal immigration, gun control, energy conservation, corporate crime, our relationships with “allies” like Israel and Saudi Arabia and “enemies” like Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, not to mention the Patriot Act, balancing the budget, global warming, reforming Social Security, and revising drug laws, from the standpoint of capturing marginal voters in battleground states, many of these issues have been deemed “no win” and too-hot-to-handle. 2038510

Furthermore, when other candidates – independents and third party candidates – try to raise such issues, they are either ignored or tagged as “spoilers” whose presence only serves to help those voters’ least preferred candidates. Since such candidates are marginalized by the mainstream media and excluded from US Presidential debates, the major party candidates can easily skip over any special issues that they seek to raise.
Photo_laura_bush_and_chirac
Despite all the hoopla, therefore, many American voters justifiably feel like they've been invited to dinner and served pictures of food. In effect, discourse on fundamental issues has been stifled by the rules of the American electoral game.

E.g., it is not only the felons who have been disenfranchised by this US Presidential election process.

Does it really have to be this way? To get a handle on this question, it will be helpful for us to step back and take stock of how the US stacks up against other democratic countries, especially those in the developing world -- not in terms of economic performance, but in terms of effective electoral democracy. Interestingly, it turns out that we actually have quite a few things to learn from them.

***

©James S. Henry and Caleb Kleppner, SubmergingMarkets™, 2004

September 15, 2004 at 10:38 PM | Permalink

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Comments

I would have to say that our current system isn't the only reason why people don't vote. Look at the kind of candidates people get to chose from. This year the choices for president are between candidate A: a right wing christian nut who listens to no one but neo-cons and karl "I know how to win, but not much else" rove. B: a monerate, at best, slug with nice hair. The american people give up on the system for another reason, because large amounts of money play to much of a roll in #1 who runs for office, #2 what issues are talked about and how votes are casted.

The voting problems in this country won't change until people see the chance of a 3rd party candidate or a candidate in the 2 major parties that puts issues above all else and can actually win!!!

Posted by: john p miller at Sep 17, 2004 1:03:42 PM

We are so happy to say "ain't it awful" and dismiss a heartfelt effort by a guy with a brain to come in a make a difference. Much of what Kerry is criticized for is a necessary adaptation to the twisted political system in which we swim. Clearly the madness in Iraq would not happen in the absence of the "drinkin' thinkin'" need to seek revenge on the guy who tried to kill daddy evidenced by the bizarre shift from bin Ladin to Iraq with the job in Afghanistan barely begun. I have no doubt that our chances of meaningful healthcare reform are much better with Kerry et al than with the current White House resident. The megaphone of big money keeps repeating lies that become accepted by virtue of their repetition. We need to work for change in the short term within the limited scope that the present system allows, rather than focus on eventual change that will not save us from a right wing supreme court engendered by more Bush years. Get on the phone. Put up lawn signs. Write letters to the editor. Become an agent of change rather than a nattering nabob.

Affectionately,

-Don Deye

Posted by: Donald L. Deye MD FACP at Sep 21, 2004 11:05:59 PM

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