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U.S. Democracy -- A Need for Reform?


by Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK


America is now in its election season -- and until November will dominate the political arena of the entire world. While America has many strengths, recent elections have shown the need for political reform to empower the participation -- and renew the enthusiasm -- of the American people.


I have worked in the United States, and know the American people. They are a fine and decent people, and I have many close friendships with people across the country. However, as an external observer of their body politic, I have heard and seen disturbing trends. These trends signal the need for political reform.


Given we are now moving into the final stretch of the U.S. election season, The Law Journal UK thought it appropriate to invite Americans to provide their ideas on political reform. As a friendly foreigner, in this article I am taking a non-partisan approach in suggesting problems and improvements to the U.S. system.


Let us start first with the strength of the United States. The United States has grown in a short time into the most powerful nation in the world, and a free-market democracy that has attracted immigration from around the world. The social system of the United States has been a large factor in this growth -- the fact that your life, your development, your success is not tied to your place at birth (or before birth) in society. Americans do not realise how many countries, including European countries are governed by your position before birth, and your heritage in the dominant tribe (Anglo-Saxons, Frankish, or Teutonic) of the country. People of all backgrounds come to America for the liberty and freedom, not tied to their ancestry.


There are strengths on the political end as well. The American Revolution broke with the past, and allowed the creation of the American Experiment -- a political system based on 'we the people' -- not government defined by the divine right of Kings. Although there were democracies before 1776, after 1776 it became -- and has remained -- the dominant ideal of people everywhere. Even Communist countries in the Cold War justified their actions by saying that their societies, by promoting equality, were inherently more democratic. Never mind the fact that they were also brutal and dictatorial.


Yet there are now problems in the American political arena. The time to address them is now, in the US Presidential election season. As I see it, here are the problems pointing to the need for reform.


First, the long, continuous election season. No other country needs such a long election campaign. Canada just finished its election campaign -- which took all of 35 days! Anwar Sadat, the late Egyptian President, when asked if peace in the middle east could occur in a US election year, just laughed, saying 'every year is a US election year'. The Presidential election campaign takes years; which is followed by elections for Governors, Senators, and Representatives to the Congress every November. There is literally no cooling-off in the political arena -- there is always the next election. This results in America and Americans becoming obsessed and overly partisan with politics. People define themselves -- and other Americans -- by their political party, not by their common citizenship.


Second, the poor voting turnout and a feeling of helplessness. Even though Americans are obsessed politically, paradoxically the turnout at the polls is very low. I asked one American while on a flight in the U.S. why there was such a poor turnout at elections. The response was telling -- "you may feel empowered -- but we don't -- the decisions are already made by those who rule" . No sense of empowerment. No sense of an ability to change things. I discussed this problem in a previous article on Participatory Democracy for the People in relation to all democracies.


Third, a system that only allows mandates for the winner -- and allows no probationary period or middle ground if the voters are uncertain. Back to the recent Canadian election. The Liberals, under their new leader, Paul Martin, had a history of three landslide majorities. However, this time Canadians did not trust the Liberals as the result of a scandal -- yet feared that the opposition Conservatives would destroy the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as the national medicare and social safety net. The result -- a minority Liberal government. That is, the Liberals won a plurality, but did not obtain more than 50 percent of the seats in Parliament, necessitating working with other parties to govern with no mandate. Canadians are largely pleased by the election result -- they didn't take to any of the leaders, so they gave none of them a mandate. Yet there is still a working government. 


Now back to the U.S. election of 2000. Clearly, there was no mandate for either the Republican (Bush) or the Democrat (Gore). Yet there had to be winner with a mandate -- so the Supreme Court, dominated by Republican nominees, effectively chose Bush. Therefore, the voter wish that no one have a mandate was thwarted. There is no middle ground, no ability to allow someone to govern without a mandate. I was actually on the phone with an American friend in Chicago at the exact moment Gore conceded the election. That friend made a frightening statement - "for the next four years I have no President". The problem was, you couldn't argue with him. A no-mandate election was forced into a mandate -- no middle ground.  The parliamentary system of Canada or the UK is not the only choice -- the French system of run-off elections is a strong possibility. In that system, if no candidate in the first round wins more than 50 percent of the popular vote, the top two candidates compete in a second round.


Fourth, elimination of the Electoral College selection of the President. The Electoral College, in which all the electoral votes of a state go to the candidate with the most votes, creates distortions and questionable mandates. Al Gore had more votes that George W. Bush -- yet Bush had more electoral votes, making him the President.  John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 had almost the same vote total -- yet Kennedy won on electoral votes. The problem?  The voter's choice (or non-choice) is not reflected in the Electoral College, creating disillusion and non-acceptance of the election result. A candidate could win with just a plurality -- say 47 percent of the vote in a three-way election (read the Ralph Nader effect of last election on the Democrats) -- yet get all the electoral votes.


Fifth, replacement of impeachment with less traumatic means of replacing a President. In a Parliamentary democracy, if the Prime Minister has lost the confidence of the country, he can be replaced as First Minister by his party.  Yet the only way to force a U.S. President from office is impeachment, traumatising the country with a public trial. No wonder no President, other than Richard Nixon by resignation, has been forced to leave office by impeachment. The net effect is that the President is beyond control during their term of office.


Sixth, separation of the President's powers into those as head of government from those as head of state. With the current system, an attack on the President -- especially with regard to foreign affairs -- is viewed as an attack on America, thereby being unpatriotic. Hence, no one dared question Bush during the early stages of the Iraq situation.


There is another effect -- since there is no concept of "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition", and an attack on the President constitutes disloyalty, those who attack the President are, by necessity, driven to the political extreme of that disloyalty to the country. Hence, Michael Moore attacks his President and country in France. These condemnations by Americans outside their country is known by non-Americans as a particularly American phenomenon -- and makes people such as the writer of this article uncomfortable, since these attackers of America then demand that the country in which they are speaking condemn America. Just as non-Americans don't want the U.S. government to tell them what to do, neither do they want American extremist dissenters to order them to condemn the United States.


Another impact of the unpatriotic effect of dissent is that constructive suggestions for improvement of America are deemed disloyal. What is disloyal, is not wanting to improve your country -- dissent shows that you have pride in America and want the reality of the country to match that pride.


As for preventing dissent -- I am amazed by American radio talk show hosts who do not allow anyone to call in to disagree with them. They simply spout their views, day in -- day out -- with not one person bringing them to task. Or if they allow a caller, any disagreement is dealt with by cutting off the call. That is sad for Americans whether the host is on the left or the right.


My recent articles, for example Bush, Iraq and American Democracy , have focused on the need for U.S. democracy to return to their ideals. Hopefully, we will see a more positive America.


As a non-American friend of the United States, I invite our many American readers -- and indeed all readers -- to provide their input on reforming (or the need for no reform) of the American political system.



Your thoughts?


Brian Risman


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