Issue 247 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

US elections

Democracy in America?

Anger at the electoral stalemate in the US is about much more than which lacklustre candidate occupies the White House. Reports by Lindsey German and
Sam Ashman
Gore and Bush: both losers in the US election
Gore and Bush: both losers in the US election

Imagine a country where there is no national election procedure, and where in each region the system is open to abuse from local politicians and political officials. Imagine further that one particularly contested area is controlled by the brother of one of the national candidates, and where various voting procedures are controlled by his cronies. And imagine that a large minority of the population--already disaffected and marginalised from much of the system--finds itself harassed and disenfranchised in many instances. Sometimes this disenfranchisement is for nothing more than having a conviction for a drugs offence. In such a country with such a flawed election procedure there would be calls for international UN observers. Maybe the US would even talk of intervention to protect democracy.

Not this time--because this is the United States of America. And behind talk of 'the land of the free' and 'the world's greatest democracy' lies the sordid truth. A democracy which despises the poor and which deems that the only choice on offer should be between two millionaire big business candidates shows an equal contempt for the actual electoral process. Voting systems are complicated, erratic and confusing.

In the disputed election in the southern state of Florida, where George Bush's brother Jeb is governor, ballot papers were produced in such a way that many of those who intended to vote for Gore found themselves inadvertently voting for extreme right winger Pat Buchanan instead. In parts of the state there was much evidence of harassment and discrimination against blacks. One 67 year old was persuaded to vote for the very first time by a local radio station DJ, only to find that he was harassed by police when he did so. There were many stories of blacks and Hispanics needing extra identification in order to be allowed to vote, of being told that they would have to stand for hours waiting. Such were the scandals that the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) is preparing a dossier of complaints.

Nor is this consigned to Florida--there have been similar stories from across the US. In city after city people have turned out to protest at the denial of democracy and to demand a fairer electoral system. An election with no winners hardly sums up the still disputed results. Bush and Gore are virtually identical in terms of votes, just as they are in terms of policies. Yet this result represents much more than political stalemate. It exposes the bankruptcy of the US two-party system, with both candidates obediently following the dictates of big business, and terrified that those like Ralph Nader who pursue a different agenda will garner any support. Perhaps more dramatically, it has exposed the sham of US democracy, supposedly the finest in the world but in reality deeply corrupt and flawed in every major respect. The tale since the elections has been one of growing outrage at a system which has proved incapable of giving a voice to a very large number of people.

Jesse Jackson leads a protest in Florida
Jesse Jackson leads a protest in Florida

Race and class

Part of the outrage lies in the possibility of George Bush gaining the presidency even though he was a loser in terms of the US popular vote. This is only possible because of the electoral college system, whereby actually voting for the president is taken from the hands of ordinary people and given to representatives of each state. The system was set up in the 18th century by the 'founding fathers' of the US in order to protect the slave-owning states. When the vote is close, as this year, it is perfectly possible for the disjuncture between the popular vote and these electoral college votes to give the loser a victory. The electoral college has been described by journalist Christopher Hitchens as 'America's dirtiest and least-known secret...designed to keep the rabble from picking the president'.

If issues of class are central to this particularly elitist system, issues of race keep recurring in the questions surrounding the elections. It is clear that in parts of the country blacks in particular are routinely discouraged from voting. This year black turnout in Florida was up--turnout from 13 percent of the population was 15 percent, up from 10 percent in 1996. Part of this was a drive to get minority voters to the polls, but part of it was also in protest at Jeb Bush wanting to end affirmative action (positive discrimination) programmes in the state. However, all sorts of obstacles were put up to blacks being able to exercise their democratic right. A particularly grotesque one is the ruling whereby all those with a non-violent drugs conviction are disenfranchised--even after they have served any criminal sentence. It is estimated that 13 percent of adult black men are prevented from voting on this basis.

There is, however, a more general inequality in the US electoral system--the alienation of many of the poorest and most oppressed from the whole system, and therefore from voting. On any assessment, the better off are more likely to vote at all. Barely half of the total population did so this year in an election acknowledged as a close race. Large swathes of minority and working class voters did not do so. Those who did vote were much more likely to vote Democrat, but they were also--in Florida at least--more likely to see their votes spoiled than Republicans. The proportion of spoiled ballot papers in Florida appears to be higher this year than in previous years. The three largest counties where there have been recounts--Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade--are big counties which accounted for 30 percent of the total state vote but 40 percent of the spoiled votes. Since they were big majority Democrat areas, this hurt the Democrats more. Even in Republican voting counties, the highest proportion of spoiled ballot papers occurred in strongly Democrat areas. In Overtown, Miami, where Gore won 99 percent of the votes, a full 11 percent of votes were spoiled.

The class bias of the vote exists in most capitalist 'democracies', but it is intensified in the US by a number of factors, not least the two-party system itself. Although more poor and black people vote Democrat, the party has no connection to workers and nothing to distinguish it from the Republicans. Americans are faced with no choice in elections, which is why so relatively few take part in the election process. That is why the Ralph Nader candidacy was so important in exposing the sham of the two-party system, and why he has incurred the wrath of the liberal establishment of the Democratic Party and their counterparts on the Blairite wing of Labour. Nader has been accused of losing Gore the election, but in reality Gore was quite capable of doing so himself. After all, he lost his home state, Tennessee, and was unable to motivate the supposed natural supporters of the Democratic Party in a period of boom--conventional wisdom from political pundits was that he could not lose. In addition, if Gore loses it will be because of the electoral college. And whatever the complaints now from the Gore camp about the electoral system, the two main parties have long presided over this undemocratic and corrupt state of affairs, and have been prepared to divide the spoils between them. One of Nader's successes has been to expose the lack of democracy at the heart of the US.

Weak government

For his pains, he has been bitterly criticised, especially by the left Democrats (in a way that the Republicans rarely criticise Pat Buchanan, even though the same arguments could be levelled at him). It is symptomatic of a rotten system that any challenge to the status quo is not seen as an extension of democracy but an attack on it--truly the view of an oligarchic ruling class. But Nader's greatest crime in the eyes of these people is that he articulates the hidden truth about a deeply divided and unequal society where, despite incredible wealth for the few, the mass of people feel less well off. Nader also symbolises to many the anti-capitalist movement which has developed since Seattle a year ago. His vote--and indeed the whole electoral stalemate--are the product of political upheaval and discontent which are spreading.

The outcome of the election is still in doubt as we go to press. It has raised the issue of the electoral college, ballot-rigging and voter fraud in a way that will lead to calls for constitutional change. But the turmoil around the election will go much further, coming on the back of the post-Seattle movement. Many had already begun to draw the conclusion that we are denied democracy through the existing institutions--the result will only deepen that feeling. And it leaves a very weak government whoever finally comes to office. The stalemate leaves both parties with the need to compromise on policies and a degree of constraint around issues such as foreign policy. The instability in the system is now reflected in its political institutions--and that can only be good news for the growing movement against capitalism in the US and elsewhere.

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