Monday, 31 December 2007

Parties, Primaries, & Presidential Politics

There is both good and bad in the way we select our nation's chief executive. The dominance of two political parties, a rather weird primary system, the influence of money on the process, and an electoral college system in lieu of a direct popular vote all seem to fly in the face of democratic ideals. We could do worse, but we could also do much better.

It is rather disquieting to realize that here, over a year away from the installation of a new president, an event in Iowa is likely to profoundly shape the prognosis for many contenders' chances to vie for that office. Those of us who do not live in early primary states can rightly question why a supposedly democratic process gives disproportionate influence to the citizens of a couple of relatively less populated states.

Now, I have nothing against Iowa or New Hampshire, and I would not characterize the primary process as tyrannical in the same way that radical thinker, O. T. Ford, does in his essay on the matter. Nonetheless, he raises a serious issue, and I do think we would do well to challenge the notion that these two states should retain their special status in perpetuity. And yet, there is actually something I like about this process. By "de-nationalizing" this small piece of the election, we are afforded an opportunity to observe the candidates ability to appeal directly to voters in settings where the pundits, the parties, and the Madison Avenue image-makers, take second fiddle to ordinary folks in town halls and public meetings.

As the essay author points out, Iowa and New Hampshire are not terribly representative of our nation as a whole, but there are some positives worth noting. Both generally score well when states are ranked in measures of quality of education. (Example 1 / Example 2) Looking at Iowa, we see a state which has an exemplary method, using an independent commission and strict rules, for drawing Congressional boundaries, thus avoiding the political gerrymandering which is rampant in most states. And Iowa does have a wholesome, middle-American image which lends to a belief that its residents will serve as reasonable evaluators of the presidential contenders. Still there is something fundamentally undemocratic about a process which puts the power to winnow our field of candidates in the hands of the citizens of the same handful of states each and every election year.

Most Americans who are familiar with our electoral college, can't help but be struck by its anti-democratic nature, and the effective disenfranchisement of minority views in non-competitive states. Again it is the citizens of a handful of states which are regularly competitive between the two major parties who get most of the attention, and hence have effectively more leverage in getting their agendas prioritized in Washington. There are mechanical and constitutional arguments for retaining the electoral college, but really it's downright archaic, weird, and unfair.

There is no constitutional basis, however, for the party system, the primary system, nor the influence of money on politics. Our elections do provide a mechanism for the voting public to keep bad leaders from retaining power indefinitely, and in that regard we should be grateful that puts us in better stead than the people in many of this world's nations. Even when evidence of institutional fraud suggests that close elections may have been incorrectly swung to the benefit of the ruling party of one state or another, so far it seems that fraud is insufficient to swing the outcome of a race which is not already close. Sadly, however, being able to oust one's leaders is not enough, when there is not a sufficiently democratic process in place to give us all a real voice about what the alternatives might be.

We are fortunate in these United States to be able to openly discuss the need to further democratize our process. We will be more fortunate still if we can move beyond discussion and actually implement improvements in spite of the political inertia which stands in their way.