22 July 2008

Just Democracy?

To show that The Nation remains a worthwhile magazine despite its rather contemptible cartoon about The New Yorker (see below), I turn my attention to publisher Katrina vanden Heuval's manifesto, "Just Democracy" from the previous number. Her object is to get more people to vote on the premise that the more people, the more progressive the outcome. She wants to make it easier for people to vote through such reforms as instituting Election-Day voter registration and rescheduling Election Day to a more convenient time.

I was interested to see vanden Heuval advocate underminng the two-party system, but here I have to differ with her strategy. As far as I can tell, she makes no effort to prioritize her proposed reforms. That might make it more difficult to topple the American Bipolarchy, especially if she gets her way and the country adopts presidential elections by popular vote. I sympathize on principle with that objective, but as long as the Bipolarchy rules, abandoning the Electoral College will only strengthen the major parties' grip on the Presidency. Arguably, the more democratic our elections have become, the more they've acquired the first-past-the-post, winner-take-all aspect that so many reformers claim to abhor.

Under the current system, a challenge to the Bipolarchy has a chance if it can establish a regional voter base. Southern insurgent candidates have won electoral votes in 1948 and 1968, while Ross Perot, for all his popularity and national fame, won none in 1992 or 1996. The fact that Southern candidates advocated a rotten agenda shouldn't blind us to the potential of a regional insurgency against the two-party system. Of course, if we insist dogmatically on maximum democracy, then the most likely outcome of a regional insurgency, an election of the President by the House of Representatives, will be regretted. Let's recall, however, that the President wasn't conceived as a representative figure. The House of Representatives, after all, belongs to a different branch of the government.Presidents historically have claimed to be representatives of the entire American people in order to claim more power for themselves. Perhaps, if the President were chosen in a plainly less democratic fashion, people would be less willing to grant him all the super commander-in-chief or unitary-executive powers that the Bushies have claimed for their man.

vanden Heuval argues that Instant Runoff Voting or cross-endorsements will empower independent parties, but the first proposal merely invites independent voters to announce their intention to abandon their cause at the first opportunity, while the second defeats the purpose of independent parties, which is to elect independent candidates. Both proposals are basically placebos, remedies for the fear that votes for independent parties and candidates are "wasted." They are meant to reassure wavering independents by assuring them that they can be on the winning team after all. Anyone who really wants to wreck the Bipolarchy will see that these are useless remedies.

I'm not really sure that vanden Heuval wants to destroy the two-party system rather than replace one of the pillars. All of her proposals are designed to get more "progressive" outcomes from elections, presumably including Democratic primaries. This is most apparent in her contemptuous dismissal of any need to safeguard elections from fraudulent voting. She claims that statistics show that hardly anyone tries this stunt, but that doesn't mean that it's never been done on a far larger scale, or that it could be attempted on a far larger scale in the future. The problem with fraud is that it's a "conservative" issue, perceived by "progressives" as a partisan smokescreen concealing brute force efforts to suppress voter turnout amongst the poor. That sort of thing has also happened in history, and to this day conservatives fuel progressive suspicions by declaring openly that the fewer people vote, the better. But progressives want to argue that every conspiracy theory about vote-suppression by conservatives is true, while every conservative conspiracy theory about fraudulent voting is false. That's dishonest. Toward the end of her article, vanden Heuval proposes a "grand bargain" that would please progressives by maximizing easy access to the polls while addressing conservative fears of fraud, but she's vague on the terms of such a bargain. Common sense suggests that it would have to involve a national identity database, and probably the sort of I.D. card which she earlier deemed an onerous burden on poor people. I agree with her that requiring people to pay for a card they need in order to vote equals an unconstitutional poll tax, but would she agree to requiring a free state or national I.D. card? That remains unclear.

In the end, there's nothing new about any of vanden Heuval's proposals. She's only tried to tie them to Senator Obama's coattails in the hope that Democratic optimism might be open to a more ambitious agenda. But she'd have to be far more ambitious if she really meant to break down the American Bipolarchy or break the power of money in politics. She'd need to think further outside the box about ideas like eliminating party lines from election ballots or banning political advertising from television. Furthermore, if she really believes that the institutional hegemony of the two-party system inhibits genuine debate and genuine reform, and isn't just angling to climb to the top of one of the pillars, she'd begin to weigh the necessity of revolutionary change -- which can be as peaceful as the convention in Philadelphia back in 1787, but might require more of the American people.


Jack Boyd said...

You skip over the fact that Vanden Heuvel also gives a good plug to proportional representation voting methods which take on winner-take-all elections directly.

Also, instant runoff voting doesn't force people supporting third parties and independents to indicate major parties; it just gives them that option. It allows voter choice to breathe in our politics, and that's got to be a good thing.

Samuel Wilson said...

As things stand currently, the threshold for independents to win seats under a proportional representation system in this country would have to be set very low, unless you think that more voters would be willing to choose an independent if they only had to aim for, say, 10% of the vote rather than 51%. That may prove to be the case. But based on past performance, even a 5% threshold, except maybe in local elections, might be too much of a challenge.

Voter choice already breathes in our politics, by the way, but too many voters seem to suffer from shortness of breath. Any independent candidate could win any election today under the current rules, except for the complacency and brand-name loyalty bred by the American Bipolarchy. Something may need to be done specifically to break down the Bipolarchy before any effort to build up alternative parties can succeed.