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The U.S. could use a little democracy

By Lance Selfa | November 15, 2002 | Page 9

GEORGE W. BUSH never hesitates to preach the virtues of the "greatest democracy in the world"--nor does any other American politician. But they might want to practice what they preach.

The first tenet of democracy, we learn in textbooks, is majority rule. But that's often not the way it works in the U.S. Just ask Bush, who won the presidency with fewer popular votes than Al Gore.

As the Supreme Court's notorious Bush v. Gore decision reminded us, the U.S. Constitution doesn't really give the people the right to elect the president. It merely gives the states the right to set up a mechanism to choose "electors" to an Electoral College.

What about "giving the people their say"? The most "democratic" part of the U.S. government, the House of Representatives, gives voters a chance to elect their representative every two years. Yet the prospect of a member of the U.S. House facing a serious challenge and losing their re-election campaign is about as likely as a member of the Chinese People's Congress losing re-election.

In the 2002 midterm election, 98 percent of incumbents won. With the Democrats and Republicans in most state legislatures controlling the drawing of boundaries every 10 years, congressional districts are "gerrymandered" to protect as many incumbents as possible.

"While we have a two-party system, the frame of reference of most voters is of a one party system--the party that dominates their district or even their state," the Center for Voting and Democracy reported. "Moreover, because most of these districts are so lopsided, there really aren't even campaigns in many districts to engage voters and turn them out to vote."

In fact, 35 candidates for the House and Senate ran unopposed this year, and another 122 drew token opponents who spent less than $5,000 on their campaigns--just enough to justify having their names on the ballot. In other words, one-third of all national legislative seats "in play" on Election Day weren't really "in play" at all.

The turnout of 39 percent of the electorate for the midterm election is the lowest for a national legislature in the major industrial democracies. But politicians in both major parties favor this because they like their re-elections--and their careers--to be predictable.

California Gov. Gray Davis actually opposed an initiative to allow Election Day voter registration, a policy that helped Minnesota voters send the Democrats and Republicans packing in favor of Jesse Ventura in the 1998 governor's race. With the California Democratic machine opposing the initiative, it went down to defeat. And Davis limped to reelection on an abysmal 25 percent turnout.

Then there's the money chase. Fully 95 percent of House races and 75 percent of Senate races went to the candidate who spent the most money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. These elections didn't come cheap. In the eight most contentious Senate races that the Center tracked, candidates spent an average of $5 million each. Needless to say, few ordinary people or opponents of big business can rake in contributions--mostly from big business--to be able to compete in this money-saturated system.

All of these factors--rigging districts in favor of incumbents, obstacles to voting and legalized bribery that funds the election system--don't even touch on the narrow range of choices that mainstream candidates actually present to voters.

Anyone who had to suffer through hundreds of TV advertisements focused on prescription drug benefits, Social Security or education would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the Democratic and Republican candidate. That's okay with big business. When the only alternative is between a millionaire Democrat and a millionaire Republican, Corporate America always wins.

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