The Pretense of Democracy

San Francisco. September 2009.

Election 2012 has been four (or more) years in the making, but we’re about to, mercifully, call it history. It’s not wrong to say that it has mostly been a referendum on President Obama. But this election, perhaps more than usual, has also been a referendum on democracy. What have we learned?

The most obvious takeaway is that Cyndi Lauper was right: money does change everything. It might take till the next election to count it all up, but we’ve known for many months that 2012 will go down as the most expensive election—ever. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that, if you include all of the outside money, it will have cost about $5.3 billion, which is about three times the amount for 2008.

If money is speech and inequality is greater now than at any point since the American Founding, then it’s not a stretch to say that political equality too is at an all-time low.

The other Grand Lesson involves the intransigence of the two-party system. There were several qualified and serious candidates on minor party tickets. Jill Stein (Green Party), “Rocky” Anderson (Justice Party), and Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party) were for all intents and purposes shut out of the election. And the failure of Americans Elect to find and run a viable third party candidate through their online convention was also an awful blow to democracy. (And if you are only now hearing of these candidates, then congratulations: you have successfully demonstrated the problem.)

It’s no fluke that Hal Draper’s 1968 essay on his reservations about supporting LBJ has been making the rounds of late. When considering the prospect of a second Obama administration, thoughtful progressives and humanitarians might want to reflect on his time in office—most notably, his fetish for drones; his inability to reign in the too-big-too-fail banks; doing little to nothing about housing; not pushing for single-payer or even a public option as part of health care reform; his “all of the above” energy policy, which means supporting “clean” coal and hydraulic fracturing; not closing Guantanamo; his willingness to let domestic political calculations overwhelm his concern for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict; and presiding over the unconstitutional imprisonment and “cruel and inhumane” treatment of alleged Wikileaks leaker, Bradley Manning. Calling Obama “evil” is pretty harsh, even it’s the lesser of two. But no one should be faulted for taking their conscience into the voting booth.

At the state and local level, Democrats and Republicans have done yeoman’s work fixing election laws to secure their hold on political power. According to the Cook Political Report, fewer than 50 of the 435 Congressional districts were considered “competitive,” and in an average year, about 70 incumbents run unopposed. The amount of money being poured into politics means that the barrier for entry will be even higher in future races.

In terms of policy, we were again reminded that women matter — a lot. The country (Mitt Romney, above all) wanted to talk about jobs and the economy, but women’s issues were surprisingly prominent, mainly because Republicans can’t seem to cure themselves of their Hoof-in-mouth Disease. To review: Todd Adkin (R-MO) maintains that women’s bodies can somehow repel the sperm of their “legitimate” rapists, Joe Walsh (R-IL) denies that a woman could ever die in childbirth, and Steve King (R-IO) can’t say that contraception should be legal. The most recent furor involves Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who suggested that a baby conceived during a rape is a “gift from God.”

Anti-abortion installation. Miami Book Fair, November 2009.

We can’t be surprised that the gender gap between the parties continues to be an issue for Republicans. However, we might wonder why guys pushing this kind of brainpower would get any votes at all—from either sex. Men don’t have vaginas, but we do have wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and nieces who need our support and understanding.

Immigration matters, too. For this go-round, the Republicans did everything but propose a ban on salsa to establish their anti-immigrant bono fides. Meanwhile, Obama was busy extending work permits to young and educated immigrants, a policy that could affect as many as 800,000 people.

The difference between the parties in tone and vision on this issue might have determined the election. In 2000, 35% of Hispanics voted for George W. Bush; in 2004, that rose to over 40%. The Party seemed on its way to broadening its aging, Caucasian base. But Mitt Romney is on pace to get 33%. Not only is the figure going in the wrong direction, but it’s a smaller percentage of a larger population. Indeed, there has been a 43% increase since 2000. By 2050, Latinos could be 29% of the population in the U.S.

With demographics (and in some instances, science) against Republicans, it’s no wonder that the when and how of voting has become so politicized. There have been attempts in 34 states to pass laws that could disenfranchise voters. It’s a shut-out-the-vote strategy—mainly using “voter ID” laws to as a response to impersonation, a brand of fraud that is highly inefficient and, consequently, very rare. Yet the Brennan Center for Justice estimated that about 11% of eligible voters do not have a valid photo ID, which could make them ineligible to vote.

In some states, reformed felons find it easier to get a gun than to cast a vote. And when we get to the voting booth, with all of the untested electronic mechanisms, lack of oversight, and partisan chicanery, we can’t be sure that our votes will even count. The United States remains one of the few democracies that lacks national standards for ballot design and voter registration and eligibility, which becomes all-too obvious, as it has in the last two elections, when the race is tight.

One of the most encouraging aspects of the election was the debates. Normally nothing more than soporific joint appearances, it’s for good reason that George Will called the second debate between Obama and Romney the best presidential debate he’d ever seen. (It would have been even better had the questioners watched it from home, too.)

The downside was that we had six hours of debates where immigration, gun control, and abortion rights only made cameos. Quite disturbingly, it was the first debate since 1988 in which there was no mention of climate change. The drug war was also, perhaps predictably, absent. Making the final debate about foreign policy in an election where domestic issues are at the fore was rather anti-climactic—and rather purposeful, we might assume.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, truth has been a casualty of the campaign. Politifact lists 45% of Obama’s statements as “true” or “mostly true,” while Romney scores a paltry 31% on the same measure. The incentive for lying, changing positions, and lying about changing positions must far outweigh the what’s gained from being truthful, decent, and forthcoming. From a voter’s perspective, being undecided (or altogether indifferent) between the two main candidates might actually be a sign of enlightened virtue, not ignorance or disengagement.

Enthusiasm has waxed and waned on both sides at different times and for different reasons: for example,  take Romney’s 47% video and Obama’s lackluster performance in the first debate, which seem to be the two most pivotal moments in the campaign. In the end, we’re probably going to see turnout very similar to 2004, when a scant 55.4% of the eligible voters went to the polls.

Popular government requires full and informed participation as much as it requires fair and competitive elections. It’s a hard case to make that we should be satisfied with how we fare in either respect. All in all, it’s pretty clear that the most basic work of democracy is not done.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit

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