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Our Elections are an Affront to Democracy

In Defense of None-of-the-Above


Obama v. Romney, the latest iteration of the quadrennial Coke v. Pepsi (or, at best, Target v. Walmart) sales campaign that our presidential elections have become, will have cost some six billion dollars when all the figures are added up.  That kind of money buys a lot of mind numbing hucksterism and dumbing down.

It is something to marvel at, much like the dumb obstinacy of Congressional Republicans or the stupidity of the GOP rank and file.  In its sheer awfulness, it almost rises to the level of the sublime.   In comparison, the willingness of leaders of labor, environmental, feminist, latino, LGBT and other progressive constituencies to cut Obama and his fellow Democrats endless slack is merely pathetic.

Our elections are also an affront to democracy and, indeed, to any plausible plan for regulating collective endeavors in a sensible way.  Can we do better?   Of course, we can; this isn’t, as they say, rocket science.   It isn’t even elementary arithmetic.  But how to get from here to there — there’s the rub.

I would propose a simple solution, involving only minor tinkering with the way we already vote: namely, that we make it possible to vote for “none of the above.”  At present, the only way to do anything like is to vote for a third party candidate or not to vote at all.  Both are reasonable, though ineffectual, choices.   But voting for “none of the above” would be better by far.

It is a simple solution, and it is doable — because the problems that call for a solution are transparent and all but impossible to deny.  In these respects, they differ from most human causes of human misery.

This is why problems involved in getting from here to there in this case, though hardly trivial, are simple compared to those encountered in most aspects of economic, social and political life.

It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that the fundamental problem motivating the development of modern social theory in all its many forms, its Marxist variant included, was precisely to account for the nearly insurmountable resistance of existing institutional arrangements to obvious improvements.

In this case, the obstacles are comparatively easy to overcome.  But sometimes they are not, and sometimes those cases superficially resemble the case at hand.  The literature on “utopianism” offers many examples:

In times and places of intense philosophical creativity – Athens in the fourth century BC, England and France from the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the nineteenth centuries – a handful of visionary thinkers concocted accounts of what they took to be ideal political arrangements.

For the most part, their purposes were philosophical; not practical.  To be sure, accounts of ideal political arrangements were usually formulated with a view to shaping the political culture.  But they were not intended to guide political practice.  It was widely understood that translating visions of ideal arrangements into a political program was a fool’s errand.

If efforts to implement utopian visions were more feasible there would be many more examples of utopian writing than there are.  It is fairly easy, after all, to tell plausible stories about how things ought to be.  Working out the implications of one or another proposal or taking account of likely but unintended consequences can be difficult.   But almost anybody can imagine institutional arrangements that are better than the ones we have.

Improvements that leave basic structures more or less intact are especially easy to imagine – because there are fewer long-range implications or unintended consequences to consider.

If we confine attention to political institutions only, it is particularly easy to imagine improvements of all kinds — from superficial changes to radical transformations.   At times of exceptional political fluidity, it is even possible to implement a host of improvements all at once.

The 1787 Constitutional convention in Philadelphia was such a moment.  It is telling,
however, that the authors of the document that emerged from that founding moment were not much concerned with ideal political arrangements.

As representatives of the merchant and planter elites that had rebelled successfully against British rule, they wanted, above all, to concoct a federal system that would join the formerly rebellious colonies into a single state.  For “pragmatic,” if not exactly principled, reasons, they deemed union a preeminent value, just as Abraham Lincoln would some four score and seven years later.

Because the several states had different economic systems – some based on slavery, some not – and because they differed substantially in population and size, the institutions the founders contrived resulted, in the main, from compromises undertaken to secure unanimous consent.

To be sure, many of our Constitution’s writers subscribed, in varying degrees, to democratic ideals, but they could hardly agree on institutional arrangements that implemented those ideals except in a few respects.  They therefore limited the franchise to white male property owners, and contrived ways of electing Senators, Presidents, and Vice Presidents indirectly – the former through state legislatures, the latter through the Electoral College.

By now, most of those non- or anti-democratic features of the institutions they concocted are gone.  Except for convicted felons (in many states), all adult citizens now have the right to vote; and we elect Senators directly.

But the Electoral College is still with us, which is why, in the current election, all the attention is on the handful of so-called battleground states.  Voters elsewhere are effectively disenfranchised.

De facto disenfranchisement is a problem further down the line as well.  The legislative chamber that is, by intent, the most democratic of all our federal institutions is the House of Representatives.  But Congressional districts are often so gerrymandered that there are few Congressional districts where, if the incumbent is running, he or she is not sure to win.   And in instances when there is no incumbent, the odds are usually good that the party that holds the seat will continue to do so.

And so, while nearly everyone has the right to vote, most votes for most offices, especially at the federal level, are, in practice if not in theory, sham gestures only.  Even in those rare instances where voters feel they have someone to vote for, not just against, the political influence they exercise is practically nil.

This works for elites.  It works horribly for the rest of us.  And because of America’s weight in the world, the bipartisan bellicosity of its political class, and the disproportionate environmental harm its capitalist enterprises cause, it works badly for almost everyone else on earth.

The situation calls for far-reaching, even revolutionary, changes, but, to improve on what we have, there is no need for anything radical.  It would help just to abolish the Electoral College and to institute real public financing of elections.  And if we must have debates, let them be real debates, and let any candidate on enough state ballots to have a mathematical chance of victory participate.

Changes like these would bring our elections up to the level of other self-identified democracies.  Would anyone gainsay the value of such a modest improvement?  Probably not, but getting from here to there is still no easy task.

It is not hard to figure out why. There is no need to invoke sophisticated social theories or to assess problematic and contentious hypotheses.  The explanation is obvious.   The obstacle in the way of making our elections as democratic as those in other “democracies” is our duopoly party system.  Democrats and Republicans collaborate to keep democracy out.

My candidate this time around is Jill Stein of the Green Party.  But it was clear from Day One that she had no chance whatever of breaking through the duopoly system enough even to offer voters like me a chance to do more than cast an insignificant protest vote.

Even Ralph Nader only got 2.74% of the popular vote in 2000 – and that was in a time of prosperity, before George W. Bush had shown his true colors and before the Tea Party has turned the GOP into a party of the hard right.  It looked then to all the world that Nader was intervening into a contest between a hapless tweedledee and an even more hapless tweedledumber.  And still he couldn’t come close to the five percent threshold for federal funding in subsequent elections.

Sadly, the Third Party route is almost certainly hopeless.

Decades ago, it was thought that party bosses in smoke filled rooms were the problem, and therefore that breathing life into the primary system would strike a blow for democracy.

Instead, relying on primary elections introduced other pathologies at the same time that it changed outcomes hardly at all.  Think of the Democratic presidential candidates of recent years: Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and Barack Obama in 2012.  Would party bosses have chosen differently?

The one anomaly is that Hillary Clinton lost in 2008.  But she came close to winning, and the party establishment got somebody as good or better (for them) in her place.

On the Republican side, there haven’t even been any anomalies — just George Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney.  The pillars of the old GOP got their way despite unrelenting pressure from the useful idiots they recruited into their fold, and notwithstanding the fact that they long ago lost control of their party at the policy level.

Worthwhile improvements are obvious; everyone knows what they are.  But they are also out of reach, and barring unforeseen and unforeseeable changes in circumstances, it is only likely to get worse in the years ahead.

But there is one avenue for improvement that is seldom contemplated, and that would surely be helpful; and, unlike more obvious changes, this one may even be feasible.  That would be to make “none of the above” a ballot choice.

Democrats prefer Obama to Romney, but this is because they fear Romney, not because they love Obama.  Given a chance, who among them would not vote for “none of the above,” if it were clear that that option was not, like voting Green or not voting at all, a futile gesture?  A few diehard Obamaphiles perhaps, but nobody else.

On the Republican side, millionaires and Mormons might vote for Romney over “none of the above,” but the morons on whom Republican victories depend would surely gravitate in overwhelming numbers to “none of the above” as well.

The reasons would be different, but the outcome would be the same: any party that does its part to field Obama-Romney choices would be sure to lose.

However if “none of the above” were a ballot choice, primary voters or, for that matter,  party bosses in smoke filled rooms, should they ever come again, would have a powerful incentive to choose candidates that appeal to their respective bases, not to those vaunted “independents” who drag our elections into the dead center of a political spectrum already skewed far to the right.

Two-faced Romney-like creatures would no longer stand a chance.  This would be a highly desirable development in its own right.  It might even tear the Republican Party apart at last, severing the billionaires and millionaires from the rest.

But the real gain would come on the Democratic side.   Attempts at rectifying the blight from within — Dennis Kucinich’s runs for the presidency for example or, before that Jesse Jackson’s — were always as hopeless as Third Party runs.  This is one reason why there was no dump Obama movement in 2012, though the situation surely called for it.

If “none of the above” were an option, the selectors would have no reason to fixate on what they take to be the middle ground.  Quite the contrary, they would have every reason to nominate a candidate whom their base could enthusiastically support.

It might seem that this is as much a non-starter as the more obvious improvements that now lie beyond reach because the powers that be would never stand for it.  I don’t think so.  Since ballot access is determined on a state-by-state basis, it would only require changes in a few states to make a difference.  It wouldn’t require a coordinated national campaign.

Surely, what is impossible at the federal level should be possible in one or more of our not always very united states.  There are fifty chances, after all; not just one.

And as long as the voting public remains more or less evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, neither party would dare lose even just a few states to “none of the above.”

Admittedly, it is a far-fetched idea.   But desperate situations call for desperate solutions; and an indefinite perpetuation – or intensification – of this wretched status quo surely qualifies as desperate.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).