How to Mess Up a Perfectly Good Democracy as Seen From Down UnderSaturday, 21 December 2013 09:14 By Niall McLaren, Truthout | Op-Ed
Democracy is not a perfect form of government, but some democracies are decidedly less perfect than others - although rarely by accident.
S1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.Cleaning Up Electoral Rolls
S2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
- Fifteenth Amendment of the US Constitution
I see where the North Carolina legislature has decided to get rid of hundreds of thousands of ghost voters by insisting on photo ID and various other canny restrictions. About time, too, it must distort the democratic process having all those names on the rolls with no bodies attached to them. . . What? They really are living people? Then why are they being disenfranchised?
Living underneath the real world, as we do in Oz, we tend to do things back to front. For example, for us, voting is a tedious duty - but up there in the Greatest Democracy in the World, voters are exercising a privilege. That's why so many people in the United States have to struggle to get registered as voters, and their right to vote can be canceled at the stroke of a judge's gavel or a bureaucrat's whim. In fact, the right to vote was so restricted in some US states that the federal government had to step in and enforce fair voter-registration laws. Unfortunately, as you will know, the Voting Rights Act was recently emasculated by the Supreme Court which, on somewhat underwhelming grounds, decided that the discrimination that led to the original act had been overcome and so the act could be weakened. This has been greeted with hoots of delight in many states, which have immediately reintroduced the sorts of restrictions that brought about the VRA in the first place. Mind you, it's not discriminatory, just a matter of tidying the electoral rolls. And the electorates. And the process of voting and counting votes, and declaring elections and all that housekeeping stuff. Not discriminatory at all, just common sense, as N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory was pleased to announce after well-rehearsed amendments to N.C.'s voting act slid through in record time.
You Mean I Have to Vote?
It may be common sense, but there is an easier way of doing it - like making everybody vote whether they want to or not. Voting has been universal and compulsory in this country as long as I can remember. Everybody over 18 has to register to vote and, once registered, has to vote in state and federal elections. I suppose this is what Henry Mencken meant when he said, "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."
It wasn't always thus: Universal adult suffrage came in dribs and drabs, starting with limited female suffrage in 1895 and finally ending with votes for Aboriginals between 1949 and 1965. Because our bothersome government insists that citizens vote, they have to make it easy, otherwise they can't fine the lazy, the drunk or the obstreperous who don't turn up on election day. Note this: Duty goes two ways. Citizens are duty-bound to vote, and governments are duty-bound to provide the facilities to make it happen. Thus, to collect votes at election time, electoral teams have to travel to the most remote communities (and many of them are very remote, believe me). They visit hospitals and old people's homes, military bases and prisons . . . Prisons? You mean even prisoners can't get off the hook? This is so. Anybody serving fewer than three years is required to vote; longer than that, it's optional. Check this page on the Electoral Commission's site for details. As soon as he is released, a former inmate goes back on the list and is obliged to keep his details up to date. There's no rest, even for the wicked.
Our other peculiarity is that, under our odd preferential voting system, you're not actually voting for the person you want, you're voting against the people you don't want. This means that the winning candidate isn't the person who can buy the biggest mob of supporters or disenfranchise his opponent's supporters, it's the person whom the electorate regards as the least objectionable turd in the cesspool. You can't win an election with just 30 percent of the electorate, as regularly happens in first-past-the-post voting. On our voting slips, each candidate must be numbered in order of preference. If there are 10 candidates, they must be numbered from one to 10, starting with your favorite and giving 10 to the dangerous extremist you would like to dump in the sea. When the votes are counted, poor old number 10 is soon eliminated because nobody likes him, but the clowns who did vote for him get a second chance. Their "second preference" is counted as a vote, then number nine is eliminated and all his second votes are distributed.
By repeated rounds of elimination, we end up with the candidate most people can live with. And yes, when you look at the parade of galahs (you would say turkeys) who have levered themselves into the lush fields of Canberra over the years, you'd wonder how effective this really is. Preferential voting tends to produce moderate governments with no wild swings; you could say boring governments, we won't object - boring is less onerous than extremist. Minor parties can ride into parliament by positioning themselves between the major parties and picking up preferences as the Big Boys are eliminated. It makes life a bit difficult for minor parties, but it means that extremists almost never get in. In fact, if a major party is silly enough to endorse an extremist, the minor parties rub their hands with glee because he is sure to provoke the centrists into giving him the last position on their vote, and they can collect his preferences.
Voting for the Really Silly Party
What happened in the most recent election (September 2013) was a 3 percent swing against the Labor government, not earth-shaking, but the Liberal-National coalition was handsomely elected. In the Senate, things were different. Enough people were so pissed off by the antics of both major parties that they gave their secondary votes to idiots, including the Motoring Enthusiasts Party (truly) and the bizarre Palmer United Party, run by the billionaire who clearly sees himself as an Antipodean Berlusconi. Even though the MEP scored only 0.22 percent of the primary national vote, they were able to slip past the major parties who had about 40 percent of the primary vote each, because people could not agree; therefore, the least objectionable party got in. Nobody hated the MEP, but what does it say when 99.78 percent of the electorate think the major parties stink? It says something, and they would be very unwise to ignore that message. But the important point is that the Tea Party would never make it here: Ten percent may love them, but 90 percent loathe them, so it would be goodnight, Tea Party. They could perhaps take control of a big party by the usual back-room deals, but once they faced the electors, they would be wiped out.
The last point to think about is that the Electoral Commission pays subsidies to political parties to cover some of their election costs. It isn't a fortune: Only parties that gain more than 4 percent of the vote qualify, and they shelled out only $59 million after the September vote scramble. In an age where presidents need a billion dollars or more to win an election, it's pretty small stuff, but it has one compelling advantage: As soon as federal money is involved, it clamps down on the monkey business. Any party that accepts cash from Canberra (and have you ever known a party that would turn down free cash?) is required to submit to stringent auditing procedures. End of Dark Money. It's a cheap price to pay to know that your government can't be stolen while you're walking home from casting your vote.
Politicians as Untouchables
And so we come to the Byzantine wedding cake known as the American form of government. As an aside, in the great majority of cases where the United States was able to decide on a foreign country's form of government (think Germany, Italy, Japan, Iraq etc.), they chose the Westminster model, not their own dysfunctional Rome-on-the-Potomac version (and check the Afghan imbroglio). The point is that, in the Westminster form, if the opposition somehow managed to gang up and bring the government to a halt, as in the recent display of suicidal Republican arrogance and stupidity, the prime minister would call their bluff by adjourning parliament and going to the polls. Oh dear: Electorates don't like elections, and they tend to punish the party that forced another one on them. Good.
Mr. Boehner (Col. Klink to his friends) and his motley bunch of schoolyard Brownshirts would suddenly have been brought face to face with the prospect that their posturing would give them the seat they deserve, outside the employment exchange. But Americans can't do that. Once in congress, the chosen few are able to resist everything but the smell of freshly-minted dollars (or stale ones, they aren't fussy). They know the electorate has a short attention span and will forget last year's nonsense, especially if it is buried under a deluge of propaganda paid for by billionaires. American politicians are like the neighbor's cat, sitting inside its window and poking its tongue out at your dog: They know they are untouchable. That is not a good notion for politicians to get. Far better that they should spend their lives in a Kierkergaardian sweat of whether they will have their seats tomorrow. Make the bastards suffer, that's the only possible way of keeping them honest (and all too often, even that doesn't).
Another essential point is that the Australian Electoral Commission, which sets electorate boundaries, is wholly independent and looks only at population statistics. US electorates, due to gerrymandering, which tend to look (and act) like bacterial infestations (see California District 38, Illinois District 4), cannot happen.
Just Remind Me: Who Owns the Government?
A few days after the 9/11 attacks, in an address to a joint sitting of Congress, President George W. Bush gave his versionof why anybody would want to attack the United States: "Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chamber - a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms - our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other." This is possibly true, the jihadists may hate the freedom to vote, but not half as much as the Koch brothers do. And all their like-minded friends in ALEC, North Carolinaand so on. When a country doesn't have universal suffrage (as the US doesn't), it is ridiculous to claim that its citizens enjoy the "freedom" to vote.
Theda Skocpol put her finger right on the problem: ". . . as long as a fired-up and morally dogmatic minority, backed by ideological money, can manipulate legislatures, it can choke things up . . . (T)his is truly extremist . . . American institutions . . . create(s) openings for obstructionists to really grind everything to a halt. We’ve seen Republicans, as they fear that they can’t make it in majority elections, turn to creating new uses for old institutional mechanisms and rules."
None of this is new. What the Tea Party is doing in the United States is exactly what the Nazis did in Germany in 1932-33, by the same methods and with the same intent: using existing legislative means to create a dictatorship for the few based on the fears of the majority (Hitler was appointed chancellor with just 34 percent of the vote). The Tea Party leaders and their secretive financiers have studied German history closely and are applying its lessons with lascivious vigor. Anybody who can't see this doesn't deserve to live in a democracy.
So what is the goal of our contrasting parliamentary palaver? It has two purposes, the first being to make it very difficult to buy elections. The second is to produce governments by consensus, and that's generally how they operate. Most of the pyrotechnics is pure theatre, and nobody takes it seriously. Our parliaments usually have narrow majorities, so governments have to proceed carefully as they can easily be changed. Unlike the United States, where the president is head of state, executive head and commander-in-chief, we split those functions so chucking out a prime minister is no big deal. The PM cannot say, "L'état, c'est moi," because (s)he ain't. Governments can be forced to the polls before their term is up so they have to keep on their toes, and it's not a crime to call for the overthrow of the government. The PM cannot order the military to support him in an emergency as he isn't their boss, and they know it. As long as politicians are looking over one shoulder at the angry voters, we don't mind. In fact, we quite enjoy it. It's when they start to get big ideas, like thinking they are above the law, that we get angry. Then the fun starts.
By the way, our election campaigns normally last only three to five weeks, for which, small mercy, we are truly grateful.