April 24, 2008

The Hobson's Choice of the Democrats

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party means well, and they've proposed some very fine Americans over the years as presidential nominees. Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and so forth. In a British parliamentary system, these forward-thinkers would have risen to the top of a Labour or Liberal Party and, as its titular leader, have become Prime Minister. They could have used their terms as Prime Minister to ameliorate some of the excesses of a constant suzerainty of far Right ideologues like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush: restoration of civil liberties, attention to the needs of the lower and middle classes, a reining in of excessive military spending in favor of domestic needs.

Unfortunately, these guys had to run for President in the United States, and none of them (with the possible exception of Bobby Kennedy) had a chance. The reason for this is painfully clear, although it's hard for the American Left to accept. The electoral college system, installed by the Founders so long ago as a compromise between federalist liberals and the states'-rights conservatives, destroys the one-person, one-vote concept, awarding a disproportionate value to the vote in very conservative but sparsely populated Red States. For one example, California has 36 million residents and 55 electoral votes, equal to one vote for every 654,000 residents. Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi have a combined population of about 12 million but 30 electoral votes, or about one vote for every 400,000 residents. What happened to those disenfranchised quarter million people? Didn't the Sons of Liberty say something about taxation without representation? As a direct result of the Electoral College, George W. Bush was able to lose the popular vote by over one-half million votes yet place himself in position for appointment to President by a conservative Supreme Court. After his appointment, he was able to run as an incumbent. Since Al Gore was never President, America went bankrupt, sold itself to foreign creditors and destroyed the Earth's atmosphere. These little words in the Constitution sometimes mean a lot.

Presidential candidates don't waste much time in California. It leans Democratic, at about a 55-45% angle, and all its votes go for the Democrat, year after year. But a cluster of hard Red states in the Dixiecrat South easily cancels that out. States that are waaaaaaay over-represented by electoral votes (such as Wyoming, 515,000 population, 3 electoral votes = 1:171,000) add to the Republican haul. So elections get decided by Ohio and Florida. That's actually what the American presidential elections are about now, these two purplish states that tend to be Republican but might go Dem if things get really shitty in the U.S. and A (as Borat said).

Barack Obama obviously has problems with states like Florida and Ohio. For one thing, there's the crypto-racist vote, or "Bradley effect," named for Tom Bradley, the African-American candidate for California governor, who led in the polls on election day but lost handily to George Deukmeijan, an uninspiring Republican who had the distinct advantage of paler skin. Racists responding to pollsters say one thing in answering questions and another in voting in the booth. This effect was clearly at work in Ohio and Pennsylvania; a fortiori, in the Dixiecrat states, the usual Republican Southern Strategy will be given a boost if Obama is the candidate in the fall, and Ohio and Pennsylvania have already shown they prefer a white person. In addition, Obama will have a peculiar problem in Florida because of his Muslim middle name and indirect, several-degrees-of-separation connection to Louis Farrakhan, which will cause him to lose some of Florida's otherwise Democratic-reliable Jewish vote. If Barack can't win Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida (and he probably can't), then he can't be president.

(Okay, maybe we're a racist country which tortures people for no reason, but we're a country also with a very rich, very thin slice of plutocrats who wear flag lapel pins while investing heavily in hedge funds which make their money by betting against American currency and short-selling the ability of average Americans to make their mortgage payments, thus reaping billions when all those Ohioans and Floridians are turned out onto the street. Where they will have no health coverage and the public transportation, naturally, sucks. But I will brook no criticism of this, the greatest country on Google Earth.)

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has a Karl Rove-like grasp of the nuances of the American electoral scene and has chopped, stuffed and contorted her psyche and very soul to appeal to just enough electoral votes, she thinks, to win the general election. She voted for the Iraq war when she thought that was the way to go, for free trade when free tradewinds were blowing, and managed to be the one Senator who skipped the Bankruptcy Reform vote, thus preserving her embrace of Big New York Banking while retaining deniability with the "little people" she says she champions, when she and Bill are not hanging with their true peeps out on Martha's Vineyard and in the Hamptons. Her absolute phoniness is so palpable, so patent, that the Bosnian sniper story gained traction precisely because the citizenry was so poised to believe she'll say and do anything to embellish what is, after all, a pretty mediocre record as a populist. Her forced, 24/7 toothy smile, her dissociative lurches into fabulism, all grate on the common people. When the Republicans go to work on her more serious characterological lapse, her cashiering from the Watergate committee because she hid relevant precedents in her office and concocted a brief pretending that no such precedent existed (which a lifelong Democrat, who fired her, will attest to), then John McCain, who isn't very honest either, will look like Honest Abe.

The real, underlying problem, which Democratic activists tending toward the liberal side (the Kucinich partisans, the Great Society people) don't like to admit, is that the American electoral system does not work in the one nationwide election we hold in this country, the choice of a President and Vice President. This is the reason that Republicans have held the White House for about 20 of the last 28 years, with the exception of a preternaturally talented Democrat who ruled from the center right, Bill Clinton, and he was put in office by Ross Perot, who drained away 19% of the conservative vote (Clinton won in 1992 with 43% of the popular vote). The Southern Strategy took hold as soon as Lyndon Johnson put the finishing touches on the Civil Rights bill. Nixon exploited it, Reagan and George W. Bush perfected it, and it's going to persist for a long time to come.

I have to get my head around the idea of John McCain choosing two more Supreme Court judges. That will finish off the high court as an instrument of justice, and access to abortions will become a matter of state elections. The regressive, strictly-pro-business approach of the current Court will gather force.

As Jack Balkin writes, America needs a Constitutional Convention to revamp the electoral system and to convert our present, fractured method into a parliamentary/prime minister approach. This would encourage the development of numerous political parties which could form governing coalitions, and break the dualistic gridlock of modern Congress and President-With-A-Veto. The problem, of course, is that wholesale amendment to the Constitution requires the agreement of all those same, over-represented Red states, and what are the odds of that? If you lived in Wyoming and knew you could cancel out all those crazy West Coasters with a vote worth about four times as much, would you give up your leverage? It's not an optimistic thing to acknowledge, but this is the most fascinating aspect of the American political system: It cannot work and it cannot change. Although I talk about it, I also realize, at a deep level, there's no point in talking about it anymore. Only awful, unprincipled, cynical candidates can possibly thrive in such a situation. Did Jefferson & John Adams see that one coming?

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