The Challenges For Democracy
Article 1: Winner takes all. Do we want a world in which "winner take all" is the hallmark of democratic representation?
An occassional series.
Copyright © 2004 Dorian Scott Cole
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There is one thing that conservatives can't stand. Change... uncertainty, the unknown, the different, the path never explored. Fear of change brought conservatives to the polls in droves. Fear of terrorist strikes brought many others to the polls. Fear of eroding moral values brought an influencing number to the polls. Fear of perceived Northeastern liberals brought many to the polls. What seemed to characterize the large voter turnout and voting in the 2004 elections more than any other thing was simply fear.
Fear of the unknown is a very normal human condition. Even in the Netherlands, where people consider themselves to be very tolerant of differences, the influx of "different" Muslims to the area is provoking unprecedented opposition that may bring sweeping reforms to limit immigration.
We live in very uncertain times. Terrorists strike at the US seemingly at will. The US is up to its neck in a war in Iraq that is unpopular in the world and to a significant extent in the US. The war threatens to swamp the US financially and tax our military beyond its abilities. People are losing their jobs, their health benefits, their retirement nest eggs, and are finding themselves financially insecure as they raise families or just as they approach retirement. On top of a high divorce rate, the foundations of marriage are threatening to disappear for them altogether as homosexual couples fight for the same recognition and rights as traditional married couples.
The people in the US have had their security pillars shaken. Once there was protection from invaders. Once there was health insurance and affordable medical care. Once there was financial security and stability. Once there were stable moral values, which are being jerked from underneath them. Is it any surprise that they turned out at the polls to put a halt to this?
The news media is full of spin and analysis. There is an obvious fear among many US speakers, and even in Europe, that the "religious right" has taken over and demonstrated its power. "Whatever shall we do?" Bush has effectively courted this group, and became the target for their votes. Fear runs both ways.
I was pleased to see that the election had an uncontestable outcome. There was no doubt about who won. But when I saw the narrow majority, 59.3 million to 55.7 million, by which Bush won, I said to my wife, I hope some politician doesn't pop up and say, "mandate!" It wasn't three minutes later that I heard the word "mandate" from someone (the Vice President, I think). Bush soon thereafter stepped forward saying that he had "Capital for his agenda." His plan would go forward. Emphasis on "his."
What characterized this election, in numbers, is that it revealed very wide differences within the American public. There was no 60 to 70 percent landslide that would have meant an overwhelming majority had the same issues on their mind - a mandate. Mandates are strong - commanding. This election, with a puny 3 percent difference, simply lacked that kind of definitive outcome. In a phrase, it sent "mixed messages."
At the moment, it is difficult to get an intelligent sense of what was on voters' minds. The major news media, informative as they are, pooled their efforts by having an independent organization conduct exit polls. The results went directly to the news media, and seem to be unavailable, at this time, to the general public. So what we hear is not the statistics, but the analysis and spin chosen and formulated by the news media.
Note: I have to praise the news media this election for their very helpful fact checks that kept the candidates' messages honest; and for their efforts in keeping close election returns free of premature calls. Most major media went for hours with differences in the States called.
One media outlet interpreted this election's most important issue as moral values and character, such as views on family, same sex marriage, and abortion. We hear about this, we can assume, because it makes audience-catching news. People are upset about this. However, exit polls showed only a two percent difference between the issues of values and the economy. We hear one twist from the President, and another from the media. Is there anyone who has credibility?
Everyone talks about the growing divisions in the US: East against West, North against South, Conservative Fundamentalists against Moderates and Liberals, city people against heartland people, and Democrats against Republicans. These same battles found their way into the books in Biblical times. The President has noted Congressional politics can be very divisive. They were divisive in Ancient Egypt, Israel, and Sumer, too. He was also shown that world politics can be very divisive - he can number world leaders that he can count on, on two hands. He isn't in Texas anymore, and sometimes leadership doesn't mean being a lone star, but creating strong alliances and influencing.
The President has "his" agenda. At the same time, he says that it is his "duty" to represent all of the people. I would prefer him to substitute "privilege" for "duty," and do more than pay lip service to the idea of representing all of the people. My concern is that he will represent only 59.3 percent of the people. My deeper fear is that "his" agenda, that is, tax reform, Social Security reform, and intelligence reform, won't really represent anyone but himself.
Numerous issues were raised strongly in the months preceding the election, and were carried into the voting booth. Terror and Iraq were at the top of the list. The economy, health care, and moral values were things passionately raised and heatedly debated by the country, opponents, and President Bush. Somehow "tax reform" and "Social Security reform" don't sound like these election issues.
Lack of representation is the issue that fostered the American Revolution. Yet this is the very place the political system has gotten us. When one party wins a slim majority, their stance becomes "winner takes all," and they turn a deaf ear to the other party and the people that it represents. In the last four years, the Republicans have prevented Democratic sponsored bills from even getting a hearing, let alone a vote. The Democrats have filibustered Republican bills. Both parties seem to represent about half of the voters. Are their constituents concerns no longer valid? Who represents them when the party in power shuts them out?
Politics has become too dominated by ideology, partisan politics, and people pushing their own agendas. Most of the people (and politicians) are moderates, and have legitimate individual needs that affect their lives, that need to be addressed. The political system should represent a cross section of those needs.
Bush was returned to office because of the large turnout on moral issues. Without that turnout, Kerry would be President. Political and media spin aside, Bush is still walking a very fine line on most issues. Healing wounds and creating groups that can work together to achieve results is one of his biggest challenges. However, Bush is ready to push an agenda that doesn't represent the people, and is notably divisive. I submit that if he pushes his agenda, he will only create more division and end up with four years of wasted effort or very small gains.
Bush needs to do several things:
His first priority needs to be to convince himself and Congress that they must represent all of the people.
Bush's second priority needs to be to drop the ideological stance taken by both himself and the Senate, listen to the people's needs, and find ways to meet them.
He should drop his agenda until he can heal the divisive fighting and get people working together.
He should take to heart the issues of the election:
- Win the war in Iraq, and keep winning the war against terrorism. (Note that it takes having both enough people and a plan in place to effectively guard important places such as museums of irreplaceable antiquities, government records that can convict people, and weapons depots that become free supply stores for terrorists.)
- The economy: Work hard with political, business, and civic leaders across the country to strengthen the economy and make its foundation more solid, so that employment increases in jobs that pay well. Politicians typically have little short term influence on the economy, but the right strategy will have short term and long term effects.
- Health care: Put a task force in place to understand the health care system and find the right ways to make health care available to all who want and need it.
- Education: We are slipping in science, which will affect our economy. People can't afford higher education and prices are rising rapidly. Find out what the problems are, and enable people to get higher education who want it.
- Moral values: Continue leading on moral values as he feels, within governmental guidelines. That is one mandate that the President has, (although I personally don't agree with some of those positions, and I am a person of deep faith).
A final thought: The results of this election confirm what I have pointed out in previous articles (Time For Political Change - Do we want a world in which only the most powerful party wins?). We don't have a two party system, but a one party system. When one party wins, they win "power" and they shut out the other party. So only one party creates legislation. When power is balanced, they often end up in gridlock and fail to get anything done. Neither situation works very well. Politics ceases to be about representing people and their needs, and instead becomes about partisan fighting and ideology.
Other forms of democracy also have problems. For example, in Israel, several parties form a voting block, and that coalition is required to support a candidate. But when one party loses confidence, the coalition falls apart and new elections are required to resolve the situation.
I believe that in the US there should be a third party, a moderate party, that would include the bulk of the representatives. Most politicians and the people are moderates. That group can represent the people and try to find solutions, and listen to the other two minority parties who are more liberal or conservative. A consensus would be much more easily found, and partisan battles would be influential, but not destructive.
The moderate party would not mean that the representatives were not of strong opinion. It would mean that their opinions represented the needs of their constituents.
Note: For those who want to know, I am a moderate and independent.
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