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The Poverty of American Democracy
Of Spoilers and Electability
by MATT VIDAL

Is American democracy so bankrupt that pundits and politicians actively and openly encourage people not to vote for the candidate that most closely represents their interests? Indeed. One would think that in a democracy candidates with diverse political programs would be welcomed–perhaps offering distinct choices on substantive issues. Yet progressives and other leftists are discouraged from voting for their preferred candidates.

In the primaries it was "electability" (which surely the skinny little vegan Kucinich doesn’t have, despite consistently offering the most direct and articulate answers in the debates) that should be the key criterion; in the general election it will be the "spoiler" vote–rather than substantive positions–which will be the common refrain against Nader.

But this song is not just the lefty’s blues. It concerns everyone who is dissatisfied with the direction of our country, the increasing consolidation of wealth and power at home, and imperialism abroad. Here are two reasons why.

 

US electoral institutions are atypical among industrial democracies

First, the problems of spoiler votes and electability are not unique to recent election cycles or individual candidates. While these issues have been thrown into sharp relief thanks to polarizing effects of the compassionate conservatism of Bush-the-uniter, they are merely symptoms of a broken system. Maybe rigged is a better adjective, since it works very well for the two parties who crafted it to inoculate themselves from third-party competition. In this case "the system" refers to a very specific set of institutions largely peculiar among industrial democracies to the United States.

The two party system, and the winner-take-all voting system (formally called a plurality voting with single member districts) on which it is based, are not mentioned in the constitution. Rather, the institutions of our electoral system take their current form due to concerted action by the two parties and the capitalist interests they both represent.[1] In the presidential election of 1896, William McKinley constructed a vast machine of wealth backed by Northern Industrialists, easily defeating the populist William Jennings Bryan. The populist movement, with roots in the South and West, was effectively crushed. Students of US political history agree that this election was pivotal moment in American politics, laying the foundation for the modern system of electoral politics by ushering in the dominance of wealth in the political system, the growth of non-competitive legislative districts and substantial decreases in voter participation (dropping about 30% in a single generation). A series of reforms ensued–including requirements for periodic registration, voter qualifications, poll taxes, and literacy tests–assuring that poor whites and all blacks would be effectively excluded from participation in the electoral system. Many of these discouraged potential voters never came back to the ballot box. Today, in terms of PACs, business contributes seven times as much as labor, and ten times as much as all other special interest groups.

The results have been stupendous. In the contemporary US, less than half of the eligible population votes in presidential elections and 95% of the population generally does not make significant political contributions. In federal elections, less than one percent of the population contributes more than 80% of contributions over $200.

In effect, there is a "wealth primary" solidly in place, meaning that only those who are able to raise enough money can run–basically, those who will serve the interests of the wealthy. In cases where those who actually oppose the interests of corporate America and neoliberal globalization, and instead represent the interests of working families and global integration with labor and environmental standards, are able to enter the system, such as Nader and Kucinich, then we hear more about electability and spoiler votes than we do of the alternative political programs.

Buy must we settle for the candidate we dislike least, rather than vote for the one we like most? No. It could be otherwise, as it has been in the United States, and as it is in most other industrial democracies today.

Currently the two major parties receive massive government subsidies, while third parties receive nothing but obstacles. At the legislative level, in a plurality voting single member district (PV-SMD) system like ours each legislative district has only one seat that is won by the candidate who wins the plurality (simply the most, not the majority) of votes. The two parties have the advantage (over third parties) in terms of their entrenched institutionalization in the system, ballot access, nominating procedures, et cetera. In a PV-SMD system, with only one seat per district, the two parties are the only game in town, hence the "spoiler" problem.

In Western European democracies and nearly every other industrialized democracy in the world, electoral rules are based not on PV-SMD but on proportional representation (PR). In the latter, districts have multiple seats and a party gets seats in proportion to the amount of votes it received. If, for instance, a party received 10 percent of the vote in a district with 10 seats, it gets one seat. No wasted votes, no spoiling. This applies, of course, to legislative bodies, not presidential races. But having PR provides an institutional basis for multiple parties, which in turn helps to mitigate the spoiler problem even for presidential races. In the US, nearly all congressional districts were multi-member before the 1840s and many state legislative districts were up to the 1950s. Unfortunately for democracy, the two parties have succeeded destroying multi-member districts and consolidating their duopoly through many other rules and forms of exclusion.

One prominent example of such other forms of exclusion is anti-fusion laws. "Fusion candidacies," formally called plural nomination, allow alliances between parties, and hence would go a long way toward mitigating the problem of "electability" by allowing progressive voices to be heard. Joel Rogers, democratic theorist and legal scholar, explains:

An important fact of American history is that the Constitution also does not limit alliances between parties, of a sort that could, even in a PV-SMD system, provide some equivalent to that which in others is typically provided by proportional representation æ to wit, some serious weighting of minority electoral sentiment. Until the end of the 19th century, "fusion" candidacies were universally permitted and very widely practiced. Under their terms, a minor party could nominate the same candidate or slate of candidates as a major one, with votes cast on its line counting toward those candidate(s)’ total vis-à-vis rivals. This permitted minor party supporters to vote their values without wasting their votes. By voting on their own line, they could declare their real political identity. By combining their votes with those cast on major party lines, they could stay in the main game. [2]

After populist defeat in 1896, Republican controlled state legislatures began passing anti-fusion laws as efforts to institutionally solidify the two-party duopoly began in earnest. Over forty states now have anti-fusion laws and only New York routinely uses fusion.

It should also be noted that a PR system allows the political expression of a much wider range of interests. They have also been shown, relative to PV-SMD systems, to increase voter turnout and provide better representation minorities. In a PV-SMD system, when candidates must join either one or the other party to win, there ends up being as much variation within the parties as there is between them. Ultimately, parties become candidate-centered and non-programmatic, which means parties do not have any basic program for which they can be held accountable. Inevitably the distinctions between them become blurred as they compete for the middle. In contrast, a PR system generates parties that have strong programs (and hence are accountable), with a wider range of choices, leading to a truly competitive political system, allowing a diversity of interests to be expressed and represented.

Democracy doesn’t start and stop at the polls

I promised one other reason why anyone who is concerned with the direction our country is taking should read on, even it they don’t necessarily support the leftist candidates.

Second, then. Anybody but Bush? How about Cheney, or perhaps Rummy, in 2008? The more general point is that we are setting ourselves up for defeat if we focus only on this election. Contrary to what the two-party duopoly would have us believe, democracy is more than the electoral system and its going to take a lot more than regime change at home–though surely necessary and good place to start–to turn the country around.

Our democracy is impoverished not simply because of the electoral institutions discussed above. We should remember that in this, "the oldest democracy in the world," full democracy is in its infancy. Women gained the right to vote in steps in various states, and finally by federal constitutional amendment only in 1920; and blacks were effectively disenfranchised through various mechanisms–such as literacy tests, poll taxes, vouchers of "good character,"–until at least the voting rights act of 1965. The democratization of the US over the 19th and 20th centuries, as with increased racial, gender and economic equality more generally, happened only through sustained, organized resistance and struggle. Long, hard battles were fought in places from the streets to the courts, but all largely outside the electoral institutions.

The lesson here is that it takes organization, resistance, and, indeed, social movements to make significant progressive change. All of these are behind the real victories realized at the ballot box or through legislation. The Bush regime has skewed the terms of the debate so far to the right that even neoliberals like Kerry look progressive. I’m not discounting a tactical choice at the ballot box to help transfer state power away from the maniacs who currently have control. But behind these scoundrels and predators are powerful, powerful interests who are not going away. The connections from those in the White House to conservative think tanks like Project for the New American Century to global corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel run much deeper than Cheney and Wolfowitz. The disregard for democracy among many US administrations serving their capitalist class interests, from Chile in 1973 to the US in 2000 and Venezuela in 2003, is clear.

It is in the interests not just of hard working families the world over, but of our own democracy, that we continue to build and support social movements to create a rich and vibrant democracy, not simply settle for the occasional opportunity to vote; let alone settle for anybody but Bush.

MATT VIDAL is pursuing his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He can be reached at: mvidal@ssc.wisc.edu.

Notes

[1] For a detailed discussion of the historical evolution of US electoral institutions, the peculiarities of and problems with the current system, and the issues and obstacles involved in reforming it, see Joel Rogers, "Pull the Plug," Administrative Law Review 52,2 (Spring 2000). My discussion of electoral institutions draws heavily from Rogers. A version of this articles is available online at http://www.nmef.org/pulltheplug.htm.

[2] Ibid., p. 748.