Friday, July 14, 2006

America – the quasi-democracy

Americans love democracy but hate politics. However, what is democracy if not politics?

The problem is what we have is a quasi-democracy we call a democracy. The system skews power to blocks of voters, who happen to live in small states, in representation in the legislative branch and election of the executive branch. Not only are the executive and legislative branches divided (unlike parliamentary systems) but the legislative branch itself is divided leading to legislative gridlock. The corruption in the redistricting process for the House of Representatives has become so enhanced by technology that it has become almost pointless for many potential candidates to even try to run to unseat an incumbent. (See my previous post on that subject here.)

And that’s just the national government. Don’t get me started institutional problems with local and state governments.

Larry Sabato is a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. He is the author of over twenty books on the subject of politics and is very well known in central Virginia as a political commentator on local television news programs at election time. Professor Sabato offers an interesting proposal in the summer issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review regarding our electoral system. He says,
It’s manifestly obvious. The last thing the United States needs is more
politics. Or so the American people, who hate politics, believe. And on this
point, alas, they are very wrong. One reason citizens dislike politics is that
the political system doesn’t work terribly well, but it doesn’t work well
because we have neglected to create wise rules to govern it. We can place the
blame for this deficiency squarely on the shoulders of the Founders.

In so many respects, today’s political system is broken, and there
is currently no reasonable prospect of fixing it. Our schedule of presidential
primaries and caucuses is a front-loaded mess, and the Congress, the parties,
and the states refuse seriously to tackle its reform. The Democrats are
currently tinkering at the edges of reform, just as the Republicans attempted to
do in prior years, but little will come of it because of the powerful interests
with heavy investments in the status quo. Our scheme of campaign financing
incorporates the worst of several worlds, and with each election cycle the
process deteriorates further. Our partisan procedure for drawing legislative
districts enforces vicious polarization rather than encouraging moderation and
compromise. Are these calamities our fault? Certainly. But all these disasters
can be traced back to the writing of the Constitution—not so much what was
included in the text, but some items foolishly or thoughtlessly excluded from

He goes on to propose a solution to one piece of one of our electoral problems – the nomination process for President of the United States and what he proposes is a constitutional amendment.

According to Sabato in 1968 there were seventeen state primaries spread over four months. In 2004 there were forty state primaries – not counting the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and “Americans Abroad”) – spread out of six months from January through June. This is on top of the effort to frontload the system by scheduling primaries earlier and earlier. He says that only one state had a primary in January or February in 1980 but by 2004 nineteen states were holding elections in the early part of the year.

This means that a tremendous amount of funds have to be raised to run these campaigns just for the nomination – remember there is a general election in November. If the candidate is an office holder, this represents an enormous amount of time away from his or her duties. If the candidate is the incumbent President running for re-election then most of the fourth year of his or her term is devoted to campaigning.

The problem with Sabato’s proposal is symptomatic of reform efforts in general – the temptation to tinker with a good idea and overlook the virtue of simplicity. He proposes breaking the country down in four huge regions and holding a national lottery on New Years Day to determine the order in which these regions would hold primaries or caucuses. The states within that region would be required to hold their nomination process within that month. The whole process would be over in four months with no pre-determined advantages for any state. This would be settled by a constitutional amendment so individual states could not later sneak around the whole system. So far, so good.

But then he suggests a second lottery for the 20 states that have less than four representatives in the House from which two winners would emerge. These winners would then be able to hold their primary or caucus prior to the regional primaries. This would be to recreate the New Hampshire/Iowa scenario without (necessarily) New Hampshire and Iowa. So here we go again – even our reform would have the tail wagging the dog by devising another Rube Goldberg system.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the second part of Dr. Sabato’s reform, I do very much like the first part. But more importantly, he is on the right track that something is very wrong with the whole system and we need to start talking about reforms. He is doing just that and bully for him.

This discussion is exactly what needs to be done and it needs to be expanded to the whole system. No foreign army will march into the U.S. and take our democratic (or quasi-democratic) system from us. Rather it will slowly wither on the vine and die of neglect as it becomes less legitimate in the eyes of the governed. There is no knowing of when point of no return has been passed until it is too late which is why this discussion cannot wait.

Read Dr. Sabato’s article here.

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