Is American Democracy Fucked ?

So is the American political system completely dysfunctional.

I suppose the easy answer is to say they elected Trump so case closed, but of course it is much more complicated than that.

What advanced developed democracy cannot manage to keep it's government functioning.

The obvious answer should be “none” but of course we know that is incorrect.

Even countries that require months of negotiations after elections to form a coalition government do not let their governments shut down. They understand that government is more than just politics, that government is a good thing that provides vital services to the people. They have processes to allow the everyday work of government to continue while the politics is sorted out.

Take Canada for example. If a government cannot get its spending plan (in the form of an Appropriation Act) approved it is considered a loss of confidence in the government by the legislature and an election is called. However the Prime Minister and Cabinet (whom are all Members of the legislature) retain their positions and what are referred to as Governor Generals' Warrants are issued to fund the day to day operations of government. Government continues in a caretaker mode with no new policy initiatives undertaken until a new government is formed.

However the American system seems designed for deadlock with no confidence mechanism to break deadlocks by electing a new government. They have an executive with a Cabinet appointed and led by a President that is not responsible to the legislature and a bicameral legislative process, requiring the two legislative bodies and the President to agree for legislation, including government funding bills, to become law.

Currently the two legislative bodies are controlled by two opposing parties and the President who, while nominally the leader of one of the two main parties, is in reality a rogue actor with no political allegiance except to himself and no discernible political philosophy except for his own incoherent version of populism. This is a recipe for the chaos that is the current American political situation.

I can only suppose that when the founding fathers drafted the American Constitution they put a great deal of faith in the good will of the political participants to put the good of the American people ahead of petty politics.

Now let us look at the American electoral system.

We will start with Election Day when most (but not all as there are variations between states) Americans vote for federal, state and local officials. They could not design a better way to overwhelm voters leading them to take the path of least resistance and vote a “straight party ticket”. Just the mechanics of voting for that many officials (including many positions that should be public servants), without even considering the time and effort to consider local, state and federal issues and make meaningful voting decisions, must be completely overwhelming to voters.

Americans also elect prosecutors and judges. This raises the whole other issue of the politicization of the justice and judicial systems all the way up to a very politicized Supreme Court. This could be the subject of a treatise all by itself.

Looking at elections for federal office we have the absurd situation where the states set the rules and procedures for federal elections and these vary from state to state. So a federal election is not a consistent process with consistent rules for all Americans.

But the most egregious fact is that it is state politicians from the state's governing party that control the federal election process in that state, including the drawing of the electoral map with that infamous American institution of gerrymandering (to manipulate the boundaries of an electoral constituency so as to favour one party). This also includes the use of various voter suppression methods to reduce voting, usually of black and other minority voters.

Then we have the electoral college system which routinely elects Presidents that are not the choice of the majority of American voters. The system is somewhat designed to do that by giving smaller states relatively more electoral college votes but is made worse by the fact that in most states all of a state's electoral college votes go to the candidate with the most votes in that state. So if a presidential candidate gets 60% of a states votes he gets 100% of the states electoral college votes further skewing the results away from the popular vote.

Another concern is the primary system used to select the individual parties candidates, including the presidential candidates. Again we have an inconsistent system of primaries and caucuses that are different for each state. But perhaps the biggest problem is the timing of these primaries at different dates for each state. It makes for great drama and entertainment but the results of earlier primaries cannot help but affect the results of later primaries. There is a reason election results are not released before all the polls are closed – so that earlier voters do not influence later voters. The primary system seems designed to do just that.

A consistent federal election process overseen by an independent non-partisan agency (similar to Elections Canada) would go a long way to solving the structural problems with the American electoral system. The cultural problems of political corruption are another matter.

And we have not even looked at the role money plays in American elections which is a huge subject all by itself, especially the role of wealthy donors, PACs (Political Action Committees) and SuperPACs. No one in American government can possibly govern without constantly thinking about where the money is coming from for their next campaign. It is very hard to argue that that will not affect their decision making.

And it is almost impossible to do anything in the form of political financing reform as the Supreme Court has ruled that money equals free speech, effectively ruling that the wealthy have a greater right to free speech than ordinary citizens and a greater ability to promote their preferred candidates for election.

So with all of these fundamental problems how can American elections be fair. If American elections are not fair, they are not democratic, and if the electoral process is not democratic then the whole governing structure is not democratic.

American democracy is fucked.


The Mound of Sound said...

In a paper published by Princeton in 2014, professors Gilens (Princeton) and Page (Northwestern) presented research and analysis demonstrating that the US had been transformed from a democracy into a plutocracy.


They were roundly attacked by establishment types which led them to a powerful defence in the Washington Post.


rww said...

Thanks for those references.