[By Nic Lindh on Thursday, 01 September 2011]
America is spending a lot of money and blood exporting democracy to the rest of the world, no matter how reticent the particular country on the receiving end of that gift happens to be. What’s ironic about this is that the form of democracy being practiced in America isn’t exactly best-of-breed.
No, it isn’t. Hear me out.
Democracy is kind of a touchy-feely concept, and the Greek and Roman thinkers who influenced the Founders never quite got around to sitting down and formulating an end-all-be-all form of democracy, so there was quite a bit of making it up as you go when those very impressive men sat down to figure out how democracy should work in their new Republic.
Parenthetically, the idea embraced by some of the nuttier far-right hysterics that the Constitution was a revealed document from God instead of something hashed out by very smart, well-educated people who often disagreed with each other drives me up a wall.
What the Founders were sure of was that the Republic wouldn’t be a kingdom like England. No, no, it would be a people’s democracy. As long as those people were white and male. Obviously.
It took a while and a lot of strife, but we finally ended up with one person, one vote for every citizen. So that’s a huge win.
One of the striking things about democracy as practiced in America is that it shows its roots very clearly: designed to work well in small settlements where everybody knew everybody else and there was little long-distance communication. There are scaling problems, to say the least. For instance, the patent silliness that is the Electoral College.
But the biggest systemic problem is that in America you have to register to vote. Oh, you thought because you were a citizen and voting age, you could just stroll in to a voting station? No, no, no. That would be silly. You have to register. And why? So you can indicate which of the two (2) parties you’re going to vote for.
And here you were, thinking one of the prime tenets of democracy is that nobody knows who you voted for. Well, don’t worry. You do have privacy in the voting booth. But you still have to tell us who you’d like to vote for.
Well, technically, you don’t. You can register yourself as independent, meaning you’re the kind of cool cat who makes up your mind on the issues or whichever candidate has better teeth or whatnot, or you can go full-on subversive and vote against your preferred party’s candidate.
Which still doesn’t explain why you should have to explain your party preference at all. But, see, that’s so you can vote in the primaries.
In America, unlike most of the Western World, your party doesn’t bring forth a candidate for you to vote for or against. No, no, that would be silly. In America, your party includes you in the search for a candidate. Which is fantastic, because it means your party gets to spend two years accomplishing absolutely NOTHING while the candidates get vetted on the campaign trail by begging for votes in every miserable podunk town across this great land.
And in a lot of those states, only those voters who indicated that candidate’s party when they registered are allowed to vote in the primaries.
This is the famous “base” and means Democratic candidates will lean left and Republican candidates will lean right during the primaries. After they get the nod, they will slew hard center for the real election. It’s a tricky political calculus to out-party the other candidates during primaries, and then turn centrist—a uniter, not a divider—during the real campaign.
You might say, hey, with 50 states, this sure sounds like it could get really drawn-out and tedious, and that a bunch of people in very small towns would have an inordinate amount of influence (COUGH Iowa COUGH). And you would be correct. The process takes years and gives people in small towns momentary rushes of power when the national media parachute in to interview them in their rustic, telegenic diners as they eat their all-American meals in their coveralls and baseball caps.
OK. This all seems like the voters across the country are doing the job the parties really should do for themselves—find a candidate?
And that is true. It makes the process an open one that takes years of slog and an obscene amount of money.
But the stump speeches do get pretty good after all that repetition and refinement.
Be that as it may, and perhaps you’re a bit cynical here mister narrator, what I’m wondering about is what happens to the voters who declared themselves independent?
An excellent question. Voters who declare themselves independent can’t vote in some of the primaries, so they don’t get any kind of choice in what candidates the parties end up presenting to the people.
So that—very long, very expensive—part of democracy is lost on independents. Oops.
But they do get to vote in the final election, so it’s not like they don’t have a choice. Unless choice means a chance to influence the candidate selections—the reason for having primaries to begin with—in which case they don’t have one.
But fear not: Even if you registered as a Republican, you can still vote Democratic in the election, or vice versa. It is a democracy, you know.