This article was last updated on June 18, 2022
A few years ago, a local newspaper in a small Massachusetts town where I then lived published a letter from a female resident. The honorable lady attended, with her 10-year-old son, a meeting of the town’s School Committee and was profoundly impressed with the genuine democratic nature of the proceedings. She was especially happy that her son could observe firsthand how democracy worked in this country, "as opposed to some other countries where elections are decided with the help of a machete," she wrote. I wish the newspaper could give me this lady’s email address (they naturally wouldn’t because of privacy concerns) so I could ask her for a list of the countries "where elections are decided with the help of a machete."
We Americans are justifiably proud of our democratic institutions, and this sentiment comes to a boiling point every other November when we elect our legislative representatives and executive officers. True, in the weeks immediately preceding the elections, we grumble that too much money flows into the process and that instead of discussing "issues," candidates hit each other with negative campaign ads. But the morning after the election, we marvel that a transition of power took place in a peaceful and dignified manner. Without the help of a machete, that is.
We are also obsessed with all things electoral, a passion that can only be rivaled by our love for sports, fast food, and sex. Fueling this obsession is a small army of well-connected folks who make a good living helping candidates run for office: campaign managers, political and media consultants, and pollsters. After all, if the cost of the 2010 midterm congressional elections did exceed $3.7 billion, as reported, there are real people out there who took this money to the bank.
We are also good at inventing criteria by which the democratic nature of elections could be measured. The most prominent of those is "unpredictability": we believe that the less we could predict the results of a given election, in the U.S. or abroad, the more democratic this election was. (To an extent, of course: if the results of an election turned out to be too "unpredictable," the election might not have been democratic at all. That’s what happened in the Palestinian legislative election in 2006: we pushed for this election on the assumption that Fatah would win.
Yet when Hamas prevailed, we refused to accept the outcome.)
Judging from the "unpredictability" point of view, the 2010 midterm congressional elections were highly undemocratic. Long before the elections, it became abundantly clear that President Obama and his Democratic Party were up for a sound defeat. The majority of pundits predicted, well in advance, that while the Democrats would retain control of the Senate, their majority there would be reduced to two to six seats. (It will be six.) However, in the House of Representatives, the Republicans were projected to win big and take over the House with a solid majority of anything from 45 to 70 seats. (It will be 50+ or so, as some races still remain undecided at the time of the writing.)
Or, could anyone doubt that all nine incumbent Democratic members of the House from my home state of Massachusetts would get re-elected? Well, only if you live on the moon without internet connection… The only intrigue (sort of) unravelled in the 10th congressional district where both candidates, the Democrat Bill Keating and the Republican Jeff Perry, were so equally bad that the voters couldn’t decide, until the very end, whom they disliked more. They ended up choosing Keating, though. Surprise! And I personally never doubted that the Democrat Deval Patrick would be re-elected as Governor, which he was. (Does this make me an enemy of democracy in Massachusetts?). By the way, a Rasmussen Reports poll released on September 28 showed Patrick leading his Republican opponent, Charlie Baker, by 47%-42%. Patrick won the election by 48% to 42%. So much for "unpredictability"!
Granted, elements of unpredictability were on display last week too, but they had little to do with democracy; rather, they reflected the fact that we elect our representatives in single-mandate districts. Had we used party lists, as the majority of developed Western democracies do, the outcome of any given election might have been immediately clear after conducting a couple of general polls. But when you have to "predict," as we do, the results of each of the 435 House elections, then 30+ Senate races, then 30+ governor races — the outcome is always "unpredictable." And this sits very well with our "election lobby," the folks who organize and then "predict" hundreds of elections at the federal and state levels that we hold every second year. (And then there are always "special" elections.) Take this "unpredictability" from them, and then what? Do you expect these guys to give away all the money they earn and start looking for real jobs?
And yet, the incredible amount of money we spend on elections is only half of the problem: after all, ours is a rich country, is it not? The real problem is that upon arriving in Washington or state capitals, our (re-)elected representatives show no interest in the business of governing; instead, they immediately begin preparing for the next election. Thus, in a remarkable for its honesty statement, the Republican Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, confessed that “The single most important thing we [Republicans in Congress] want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” And this is from the top political leader of a country that is in the middle of two wars!
Challenges facing our country are complex and, unfortunately, can’t be comfortably tackled into two-year election cycles. Compounding the problem, as it always happens upon implementing any serious reform, things tend to get worse before they get better. As a result, a party in power is pummeled by impatient voters at the next election, which in our country are permanently around the corner. Worse, politicians prefer do nothing and let their opponents commit political hara-kiri. (Enter machete?)
Unless we dramatically reform our electoral system — in particular, by holding less frequent elections — our political process will be perpetually stuck in the idle mode of fancy, wasteful, and, ultimately, meaningless, election games.
Elect me, elect me not.
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