The process of putting forth opinion pieces into the public space for debate is an important part of journalism, but typically the selected essays are within a certain bound of what we may call the ‘main stream’. From time to time, and more frequently of late, we find major publications putting into the public space opinion pieces that are so far from the center of normal discussion that they foster emotions of objection, or even anger, and foment arguments amongst the readers. We have today just such a piece presented in the New York Times, an article entitled “The American political system is broken” by Mehdi Hasan.
This article is so misguided in its thinking that it demands a response in an attempt to set things right. What makes it so interesting is that I happen to share the writers’ opinion as far as the premise: I do believe that the American political system is broken, but the reasoning behind the remainder of the article is fundamentally flawed.
We will start from the top:
Mehdi Hasan is a British broadcaster and author based in Washington. He is the host of “UpFront” on Al Jazeera English.
First we recognize that the writer is not American, but an outsider, which is all well and good, but does give us an understanding of his perspective. I am happy to have outsiders discuss our political system, but hopefully they too will understand that they are on the outside, and we all know where we stand. Next we see that the writer is based in Washington, which means that the writer is in the bubble. Finally, we see that the writer is a host on Al Jazeera, not exactly the most objective source of information in the world today. So three strikes already, and we have not even started on the opinion piece, but in the interest of fairness, we might as well let him get up to bat.
So we go to the piece:
Consider the following scenarios: What if Venezuela held a presidential election and President Nicolás Maduro claimed victory with fewer votes than his main rival? Or if Russian liberals won the most votes in the country’s legislative elections but failed to secure the most seats in the Duma? Or if Iranian authorities tried to prevent members of the country’s largest minority group from voting?
Can you imagine the howls of outrage from the White House press secretary? The pious calls from the State Department spokesman to respect the will of the people and protect minorities? Yet all of these undemocratic travesties occurred. Here in the United States, in front of our noses.
Much has been written since Election Day about the need to resist the “normalization” of racism and misogyny. Less has been said about the “normalization” of democratic dysfunction, the signs of which are all around us.
The main point of the article is that his side lost and he now wants to gripe about it. So he sets up the article with a few straw men that he can attack. This is all standard debating tactic. Let us proceed on to his arguments:
Take the popular vote. Sorry, Americans, it’s just not “normal” for the candidate who came in second to be declared the winner of the race for the second time in the space of a mere 16 years. In 2000, George W. Bush was elected the 43rd president of the United States despite winning about 540,000 fewer votes than his Democratic opponent; in 2016, Donald Trump has been elected 45th president despite trailing Hillary Clinton by 2 million votes.
The writer clearly is still rubbing his wounds from the Bush v Gore loss in 2000, but that was sixteen years ago, so one would think that those scars would be grizzled and thickened by now. Not so, apparently, as the writer bewails that this is ‘just not “normal”’. Actually, we have a system: the electoral college. This system has been in place for well over two hundred years and has served us well. It is only after losing the game that he now wants to complain about the rules. We could go into a long discussion about the benefits and potential downfalls of this system, but the heart of the reasoning for this system is that we are a set of united states with different interests, resources, population, etc.
None of the other Western democracies have anything comparable to the archaic U.S. electoral college — which Trump himself once dismissed as a “disaster for a democracy” and which Americans across the political spectrum have been consistently in favor of abolishing — and therefore have not experienced anything similar over the same period. In the United Kingdom, for example, the last time a political party won the most seats in parliament while losing the popular vote was in 1974. Before that? 1951.
Here I will simply paraphrase: ‘It’s not fair! That’s not how things work at my house! Mommy?’
Take campaign spending. The United States continues to spend more on elections than any other country on Earth, with the 2016 race for control of the White House and Congress costing a record $6.8 billion. For comparison, consider India: With a population almost four times that of the United States, the price tag for the 2014 Indian parliamentary elections was almost $2 billion less.
Consider also the 2016 Senate race in tiny New Hampshire (population: 1.4 million), where an astonishing $120 million was spent by the two main candidates and their supporters. By contrast, in the U.K. (population: 64 million), where the 2015 general election has been described as the most expensive British election on record, the combined spending of all U.K. political parties reached … $60 million.
Every time the ‘progressives’ lose they start complaining about money. George Soros’ pockets apparently do not run deep enough. For comparison, the money spent making the Marvel Comics movies has been about $5.6 billion dollars. Ask yourself which is more important. Actually this campaign was remarkable for how little money mattered. We are starting to move beyond standard campaign spending on television advertising. The technological innovations which have connected us to ‘social media’ have created an entirely new phenomenon. Information, like water, is being spread as if it were a tidal wave crashing across the country and now we do not need to rely on a few spigots to obtain our supply. The ‘mainstream media’ who have controlled the water supply to date are in a tizzy after the deluge and do not know what to say. Forget it, Jake, its Chinatown.
Only in the United States is money considered “speech” and corporations classed as “people.” Most other democracies recognize the latter position in particular, to quote former U.S. Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens, as undermining “the integrity of elected institutions” and the “cause of self-government.”
This is a canard. Money is money and speech is speech but to get speech disseminated to the people takes microphones, cameras, and transmitters, and those cost money. The two are intertwined. Whoever said it was a problem to have more speech? I mean if you have amplifiers drowning out my speech like Bill Clinton and Janet Reno did to people in Waco, Texas, then we might have a problem, but for the most part the more speech that is out there the better. The problem is that all of the ‘progressives’ political power is not based on intellect but on emotion, and the more we talk about things the more likely we will diffuse all the emotional drama and then the ‘progressive’ agenda will fall apart.
Take turnout. The United States falls far behind most other developed democracies, coming 31st out of the 35 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). How many Americans are aware that more of them stayed at home on Nov. 8 than voted for either Trump or Clinton? Or that, despite the closeness of the race, turnout fell from 58.6 percent in 2012 to 58.1 in 2016?
Compare and contrast U.S. voter turnout with recent rates in OECD member states where voting is compulsory, such as Australia (91 percent), Belgium (87 percent) and Turkey (84 percent). “Of the five highest-turnout OECD countries in recent elections,” noted a recent Pew study, “three have laws requiring their citizens to go to the polls.” Few Americans are aware that the state of Georgia, in its pre-independence 1777 Constitution, made voting compulsory and “subject to a penalty.” Is it time for the United States to invoke the Georgia precedent?
People who are engaged in the politics of this country will vote. People who are not may choose not to vote. Again we come back to a question of personal choice. I would prefer that people who know nothing about the candidates nor their positions not vote, but everyone has a right to vote in our system.
Take voter suppression. It looks like U.S. politicians across the country have mastered the dark art of denying certain citizens their right to vote. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, 15 states had new voting restrictions in place for the presidential election as “part of a broader movement to curtail voting rights, which began after the 2010 election.”
Consider the swing state of North Carolina. On the eve of the election, a federal judge said she was “horrified” by the “insane” process by which people were “being purged” from the voter rolls. In July, a three-judge panel ruled that the state’s 2013 voting law could only be explained by “discriminatory intent” and “hinged” on a concern that “African Americans … had too much access to the franchise.”
To be clear: Republican politicians have spent years trying to prevent black people from voting. To quote one longtime North Carolina Republican strategist: “Of course it’s political. Why else would you do it?”
Now that we have finished the appetizers, we can get to the meat. What in fact we are finding is that politicians have long kept ineligible voters on the rolls. Dead people, people who have moved, and people who have multiple residences fill up the voter rolls with ineligible or duplicate entries. Is this intentional or fraud? Well, no – for the most part. If you have ever performed an internet search on yourself, you will likely have found a plethora of partial information with old addresses and phone numbers long forgotten. The ‘Motor Voter’ laws have put millions of people onto the voting rolls. Keeping voter rolls clean can be tedious work, but there are also advantages to keeping extra numbers on the voter rolls if you want to pad a vote count. Just stack up an extra set of ballots there, they are real voters I swear.
So we have now started to push back with some reasonable thinking. Why not just have people identify themselves when they come to vote? Then you will not have a problem with fraud anymore (cough). But joking aside, voter identification is very reasonable and a way to try to reduce the likelihood of shenanigans. At my polling place voters lined up very orderly and everyone showed their ID. Not a big deal. But supposedly there is this large population of oppressed African-Americans who do not have IDs. I guess they can’t buy beer. Would somebody, please, show me one of these poor lost souls? I would be willing to drive them personally to the DMV to get their free identification card.
We do not have a national ID card and I certainly would not advocate having one, but if you would like to vote it is very reasonable to ask that you have some sort of picture identification. The argument that asking for identification is suppression does not hold water. Anyone who cares to vote can. If there are problems with any individuals who have been ‘purged’ from the rolls for some reason, they may cast a provisional ballot and we can sort it out for each case. We do not have voter suppression, but in the real world there are people who think that they can mark a few extra ballots in somebody else’s name and get away with it.
To be clear: there are no black people that a Republican politician has stopped from voting.
Take gerrymandering. The practice of redrawing the boundaries of electoral districts to secure party-political advantage is neither new nor exclusive to the United States. Yet the difference is that gerrymandering in the United States is actively encouraged, to quote Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris, by “leaving the processes of redistricting in the hands of state politicians, rather than more impartial judicial bodies.”
Democratic systems that show little evidence of gerrymandering tend to be those that recognize the blindingly obvious connection between an impartial election management body and an impartial election process — Australia, for example, has the Australian Electoral Commission, Canada has Elections Canadaand the U.K. has four boundary commissions, all of which are either independent or operate at arms-length from the various executives and legislatures.
In the United States, however, the Republicans, who currently dominate state legislatures, have perfected the practice of gerrymandering, pulling off, in the words of investigative journalist David Daley, “the most audacious political heist of modern times.” Republican dominance in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, notes Daley, are a result of “maps that were drawn after the 2010 redistricting.”
I don’t like gerrymandering either, but it is the system that Democrats mastered for years to control the system. The problem is that Democrat policies have failed so badly that people have stopped voting for that side. Now the Republicans are in power, and the writer does not like the tables being turned. I am not opposed to some form of commission for redistricting, or even coming up with another way of selecting our representatives. Politicians will be politicians, and we have the Lord’s grace to comfort us.
Oh, my, my I have forgotten my manners. By name and affiliation I am to assume that the writer is of the Islamic faith, and may not understand grace. And here we come to one of the rifts that our multicultural world demands attention. We are a secular nation because we have given people the freedom to choose what religion, if any, that they want to follow. I suspect that most people don’t even put that much thought into it. But our Western societies share some Judeo-Christian values that are not necessarily, (although I believe them to be) universal. The values of fairness and justice should be held dearly, and despite all the chatter and alarm that is filling the ‘info-space’ I believe that they are.
Is this really what we define as democracy? Or is this, to quote the president-elect, a “rigged” system? Rigged not against Trump and the Republicans but against the poor, against ethnic minorities, against Democrats but, above all else, against basic democratic norms and principles and pretty simple notions of equality and fairness?
This isn’t a time for denial or deflection. The American political system is broken. Far from being the “world’s greatest democracy,” to quote President Obama, representative democracy in the United States seems further hollowed out with every election cycle.
And here we find the fundamental flaw in our writer’s essay. This is the core of the problem. No, I say, this is not what we define as democracy: this country is a representative republic. I am very sorry if you do not like our system, but to use a trite phrase that goes back to John Locke and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, it is what it is. And a democracy it is not, despite Barack Obamas’ amateurish attempts at philosophy. The writer moans about the state of the system, and there definitely has been a rank stench emitting from the cesspool that is Washington, but the results of the recent election are not the problem; more hopefully, they will be the cure.