Sunday, June 9, 2013

America's Broken Political System

I read Jeffrey Archer's novel 'First among equals' as a schoolboy. I was fascinated by the two party system, the debates, the shadow ministry etc. After 14 years in USA I still would say that fascination is almost intact albeit a bit jaded.

The world's richest and ancient democratic country has a broken political system. At more than 250 years old USA is an ancient democracy that is still functioning based on rules drawn up in the 18th century. That does lot of credit to the prescience of the founding fathers. And the system is now broken. The last presidential election saw both candidates raise and spend a billion dollars each. If we include congressional races the figure reaches an astronomical 6 Billion dollars. That does not bode well for a democracy.

The Bush V Gore election was America's most shameful moment in modern political history. That the worlds most mature and richest democracy was deciding its President in the Supreme Court remains a shame. The world came to know of America's convoluted electoral college system for presidential elections.

The electoral college was devised for a different era with different fears in mind. The founders, as much as they were democratic in outlook, feared mobocracy more. The electoral college was devised to be a cooling chamber. Members of the electoral college can actually vote any way they want and not according to how their state voted. Strangely that has not happened to the extent that the ayaram-gaya-ram culture of India.

Democratic presidential candidates today have a great advantage because two of the largest states, NY and CA, are decidedly democratic thus contributing a large chunk of electoral college votes. Then add MA, NJ, IL etc. The votes for the republican candidate in a state like NY and CA are totally wasted. Likewise democratic votes in Texas. It is time to scrap the electoral college and go for a direct election where every voter feels his vote counts for something.

The two party system is a blessing and a curse. Coming from India where coalitions are stitched in naked bartering I do like the two party system. The two party system however stifles diversity of ideological shades within the party. It is common for primary candidates to not just hew to party lines but make a fetish of how far they can swing to the right (as in the case of GOP) or to the left (as in the case of Democrats). Centrist candidates are labeled 'weasels' pushed out.

Joe Lieberman (D), senator from CT, was defeated in the 2004 primaries because he was seen as too hawkish by an increasingly left wing Democratic primary voters. Lieberman ran as independent and snubbed the Democratic primary voters by winning. When Sarah Palin, a dilettante posing as revolutionary, stirred trouble for GOP candidate Lisa Murkowski the latter ran as independent. And according to Alaska rules her name could not be on the ballot rather for an independent the name haS to be written down on the ballot by voters. Imagine voters writing a name like "Murkowski'. She then included the spelling of her name as a chant in her election rallies. She won. But look at the mess that a democracy like the US is when it comes to elections.

The electoral rules governing primaries and how a voter can take part is not uniform. In fact primaries are held according to a myriad rules resulting in wildly varying forms. We have open primaries where a republican can take part in a democratic primary and vice versa, then there are closed primaries where only respective party voters can voters, there are 'beauty contests' where the primary does not count, then there is the famous Texas two-step which is a primary and a caucus combined together and finally the hopelessly outdated caucuses themselves.

In 2008 Barack Obama stormed to a historic victory in Iowa caucuses where Hillary finished a humiliating third. Hillary went on to lose almost all the caucusing sates. She later grumbled that the structure of a caucus is inherently unfavorable to her voters. Caucuses with its speeches and confabulations are long drawn out where Hillary's voters, mostly seniors, could not compete with the youth driven energetic voter base of Obama.  Obama in turn lost many large states by decisive margins to Hillary. Obama lost CA, MA, PA, NY. In the notorious Texas 2 step Obama won the caucus and Hillary won the primary.

The Democrats awarded delegates by representative percentage in each primary. Hence Hillary did not have any big advantage after winning NY and CA on super tuesday. Obama has to thank Jesse Jackson for that. Due that method it was a long drawn bitter fight to accumulate the required delegates to clinch the nomination. In 2012 GOP made that mistake and Romney lost precious time.

Now add to the woes USA's outdated election machinery. Even India has gone completely electronic. America hung its head in shame during the Florida recount fiasco. The word 'hanging chad' became a joke.

The primary system for non-presidential elections is equally muddled and its not dynamic. A primary is meant for a party to choose whom they think is best suited to represent their philosophy. I agree that independents should not be allowed to vote in a party primary. However an independent voter must be afforded some mechanism to ensure who he/she thinks is best to be contesting. An independent voter is now relegated to be able to influence outcome only during the general election where he has to choose between two options that were selected by others.

The debates are a sham. Presidential debates are governed by agreements that two parties agree to. The agreement is based on what powerful lawyers argue on behalf of each candidate. The debate formats are so scripted that there is no spontaneity. The time is so restrictive that one hears only recycled talking points. The debates during primary season are a joke. In Presidential primary debates there are 10 or even more candidates in the initial stage. Its a pickle for TV companies to be restrictive. If they are too restrictive and exclude candidates who perform poor in opinion polls then it would be a disservice to a candidate like John Huntsman. If the TV companies are lenient then we get Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, Michelle Bachmann.

Money and American elections are a vexing topic. Until the Supreme court ruled in the much maligned Citizens United Vs FEC corporate spending was highly regulated. We should note that only corporate spending was regulated. Unions had a free hand in not just raising cash but also in the more important contribution of foot soldiers. Unions favor democrats by a whopping margin. In 2008 unions outspent all the cash spent all corporations put together. Thanks to US Supreme court ruling the playing field was opened for all to spend.

Both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich remained in contention against Romney only because they each had a billionaire backing them up. Though Romney was winning primaries Santorum and Gingrich, with no broad based fund raising success, remained an irritant because their patrons had deep pockets.

I am all for regulating campaign spending but it should be done without favor to unions. Incidentally we should note that in 2008 facing a vastly underfunded opponent Barack Obama broke his promise to accept state funding, and thereby the restrictions that come with it. Obama is the first candidate to refuse state funding since the rules were put in place in the aftermath of Watergate.

If elections are a mess then governing is even worse. Gridlock in Washington DC is a topic that gives many the headache. When the US was formed the small states feared being steam rolled by the large states in the Congress because the number of representatives is proportional to population. A compromise was stuck. The senate, the upper body in the bicameral legislature, would have just 2 senators from each state irrespective of size. Hence Delaware and California have 2 senators each. Senators have sweeping powers to hold up bills, deny presidential appointees confirmations etc. Many house bills die in the senate. That is good and bad.

Congressional districts are highly gerrymandered. Today the number of congressional seats that can be called swing seats is far dwindling. Thats bad for democracy.

Do I despair for American democracy? Not yet. An erstwhile friend, a member of Tamil Sangams, incensed by my many criticisms of Tamil society and India asked me "what about a senate candidate in US who made despicable comments on rape". Her question was "why don't you condemn those as eagerly as you condemn failings in India". I told her that this blog was already work in progress. But to answer her question that candidate (actually two, Rick Atkins and Richard Mourdock, both GOP) lost their leading positions and were trumped in the hustings thanks to their barbaric remark. What more can I ask of a democracy?

As a student of philosophy and history I am not a big enthusiast of philosopher kings. Ordinary men make mistakes but if the system weeds them out and continuously reforms itself I am ok with it. This is the system which converted Robert Byrd, a KKK member, into a great senator.

As much as Washington DC is gridlocked the local governments are vibrant and that is the hope for America's resiliency. As the Economist magazine pointed out, America is being re-invented at the local level.

The 24 hour news cycle is also contributing to the vitiated political climate. Richard Mourdock, GOP senate candidate, said on CNN "compromise is when they (Dems) agree with us". Sarah Palin crowed, mindful that it will be replayed in TV a lot, "we are not the party of no. We are the party of hell no". Obama for his part loved to scold everyone he thinks is his opponent on national live TV.

Urgent reforms are needed to make America a more vibrant democracy. Reform the presidential election, campaign finance, lobbying, gerrymandering, filibuster rules and transparency in legislations.

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