Democracy Lessons for the USA, December 2000

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(1185 word count )
© Hazel Henderson, December 2000


As the US presidential election battle dragged to its murky conclusion, political commentators from around the world have offered helpful advice. Here are my reactions as a voter in the State of Florida.

The humorous digs at the USA’s “holier than thou” grand-standing are justifiable. Many are sick of U.S. moralizing and our election-monitoring of others’ democracies and elections. For too long, the USA has presented the “indispensable super-power” image, with little regard for the backlashes created around the world. Indeed, as I travel in many other countries, I see a new “ugly American” myth in the making.

Many see the US as a spoiler – of  such treaties as that on landmines, the International Criminal Court, nuclear non-proliferation, the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty, the Kyoto Protocols to address the planet’s changing climate – all of which were signed by the overwhelming majority of nations. The USA has often found itself in the company of a few unsavory regimes, like those in Iraq and Sudan. Exacerbating the issues ,the US still tries to throw its weight around at the United Nations, while we are still the biggest  deadbeat owing over $1 billion in back dues.

Our overweening manner – strong-arming other countries with sanctions, trade retaliation and endless jawboning – has resulted in counterproductive reactions. Arguably it has kept Castro in power in Cuba, and strengthening Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez domestically and internationally, while bolstering his new leadership role in OPEC.

Yet the U.S. public, shown in most polling data, has been consistently against this “globocop” role in the world. In the presidential election fight, we saw this disconnect, also visible in many other issues. Majorities of U.S. adults also feel the disconnect with Washington and the political candidates over health, education, the environment, energy and much of U.S. foreign policy.

U.S. democracy is under scrutiny as never before. The world watched Florida, an example of all the reforms we need in the U.S. democratic system. First, we need to make sure that all poorer counties and precincts have new voting machines, at least as good at counting votes as those in better-off areas. We must be more vigilant about encouraging wider voter participation, with user-friendly ballots and procedures while punishing any intimidation of voters.  The indecisive US Supreme Court at least may lead to clarifying standards for judging “voter intent.”

More important will be to finally get the curse of money out of U.S. politics. We see its malign effects, distorting issues with excessive advertising – none of which is permitted in many democracies. This was the most expensive presidential election in U.S. history.

Both campaigns were rife with excessive partisanship as the party volunteers jockey for the spoils of victory: jobs, consultancies, contracts and other favors. Both campaigns were rigidly directed by media handlers, spin-doctors, narrow polls and focus groups.

This produced the “me too “approach that kept both campaigns fixated on a few narrowly-cast issues the media handlers thought would “sell well” with voters. Scripted statements repeated various tax cuts, prescription drug benefits for seniors (a new bonanza for drug companies), changing the Social Security retirement system and other well-ploughed privatization schemes, including school vouchers. All this clouded, more than clarified such complex issues.

This left out millions of voters concerned with the growing concentration of corporate power over their lives, the fate of some forty million people uninsured and denied access to healthcare, as well as those worried about gun control, the environment, and the persistent gap between the rich and poor, unresolved racial injustice, the death penalty and the two million in prisons, over fifty percent of whom are racial minorities.  These voters had nowhere to go but to the small Green Party its widely-trusted candidate, Ralph Nader, who had been kept out of the presidential debates. Al Gore, with his 300,000 vote lead nationwide and 267 electoral votes (3 short of the 270 needed to win ) would have won overwhelmingly if Nader had not run to air the deeper issues. Yet Bush public relations kept calling for Gore to concede.

The commercially-dominated mass media in the U.S. bear an enormous public responsibility.  The U.S. needs global, independent media coverage from around the world, if the U.S. electorate is to push for more fundamental reforms. The U.S. two-party political system does not work. Most U.S. voters are not registered as Republicans or Democrats, even though these two parties have monopolized the politics and seized the electoral process, the presidential debates on mass media and have dominated the money game. As many as 40% of U.S. voters are independent and abhor the constant, acrimonious gridlock as Republicans and Democrats dominate the air waves and immediately polarize every issue.

The dysfunctional binary logic of “yes – no”, “either – or”, “win-lose”, right – wrong and Republican versus Democrat derails the more nuanced, in-depth public debates so badly needed. Here, the USA can take a hint from Europe, where many countries have multi-party systems and more proportional representation in their legislatures. This allows all sides of issues to be aired – not just polarized opposing views. As a result, such issue-based elections (rather than those dominated by personalities and parties) usually lead to coalition governments with clearer mandates. Consensus government between Republicans and Democrats is a sham ,and will only perpetuate their duopoly on power in the poisoned atmosphere of the next four years.

The US presidential race became a two-party, personality-driven mud-wrestling contest – that sucked in the supposedly independent judiciary. Irreparable harm was not done to either candidate or party. Instead the damage was to the impartial reputation of US courts – now politicized and devalued in the public eye. On prime time, voters saw the Democrat-dominated Florida Supreme Court fighting the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court on supposedly constitutional matters which appeared as merely partisan favoritism to Bush or Gore.

The dogfights over counting the ballots, time deadlines and standards were as suspicious as the voting machines themselves. Even their manufacturer, as well as Florida and Texas law agreed, only hand counts could settle tight races.   Yet, the Florida vote count will be revealed by the media – creating embarrassment and further contention. People in the USA could not understand how Canadians could complete their six week election and count 13 million votes in four hours – while the USA lagged so far behind technologically.

Will all this lead to reforms in the USA including revisiting the Electoral College method of indirectly electing presidents? Who knows?  At last, everyone knows that the USA is more a republic than a democracy, and that its founders did not trust the people to elect  presidents directly. There is now widespread awareness of the deficiencies of US-style democracy: the partisanship at all levels, the unresolved issues of race and equal justice, as well as the sheer inefficiency, inaccuracy, lack of ethics and stupidity this election has exposed. The US public’s new recourse is to the court of public opinion – now worldwide. The globalization of mass media and the Internet means that the whole world will continue watching and judging. In the interest of all democracies – this is good news.

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Hazel Henderson is author of Creating Alternative Futures and Beyond Globalization. See