Describing the political system of a country like the United States of America people tend to indulge in superlatives, ‘the greatest democracy’ and the like. In India, we are frequently regaled with descriptions like the ‘largest democracy’ in the world perhaps in deference to the number of voters taking part in the polls or whatever other criterion is made available to indulge in such superlatives. When the US and India get referred jointly, be it on the occasion of leaders of the two countries meeting or the two countries cooperating on one or the other issue, it is time to get into hyperboles like ‘the greatest and the largest democracy’ getting together. This is all right as media rhetoric or self-denuding satisfaction. This is however, not to underestimate or belittle the positive democratic contents in the American or Indian polity, which have to be protected and built upon. But rhetorical statements are not always wholly true. To determine whether a country is the greatest or the largest democracy, certain moot aspects that characterize a democracy has to be assessed in depth.
Whether a country is democratic or not cannot be assessed by legal and constitutional trappings alone. The extent of economic and social equity is the major indicator. We are not, however, dealing with these aspects for the present. We are only considering what goes behind the veneer of constitutionality and rule of law.
Now that the ‘great democratic’ event of the US presidential elections is to take place on November 2, 2004, it is good enough a time to delve into some aspects of the ‘Great American Democracy.” No doubt there are many bright aspects, but the areas that are grey are too many and too fundamental for comfort. We propose to delve precisely into some of these grey areas that make the claim of America being the greatest democracy suspect. These are aspects that continue to trouble many democratic minded Americans themselves — those who repose immense faith in the basic tenets of the American Constitution as well as those who envision a much broader and expanded rights for different sections of the people and building of a society truly equitable and just. Many political observers, both from the Left as well as the Right of the political spectrum have been critical of the existing system in the US as a ‘tyranny of two parties.’ To them the argument that the Democratic Party is liberal and the Republican Party conservative, is meaningless semantic exercise.
DOCTRINE OF ‘MANIFEST DESTINY’
Often one finds the two parties fiercely arguing on trivia but acting in unison to maintain the supremacy of America as the only super power and its inherent right to dictate to the rest of the world what it considers to be right and appropriate. This is nothing but reiteration of the doctrine of ‘manifest destiny’ that was propounded in earlier times. Both the Democrats and the Republicans believe in America’s right to interfere in the affairs of other nations and practice this belief sometimes on the sly and at others brazenly.
The war of occupation against Iraq despite opposition in the UN from its own allies besides other nations is one such blatant exercise of this right to dictate to the rest of the world. The so-called doctrine of pre-emptive strike is dangerous to the sovereignty of other countries and so is the claim of regime change under whatever pretext. The display of arrogance of power by the US and its interference in other countries’ affairs through wars of aggression or through subversion is well documented in history.
Such blatant disregard to democratic norms and civilized behavior is not confined to America’s foreign policy alone. Even in its internal policies — in its policies towards different sections of its own people, blatantly undemocratic aspects are manifest. Quite frequently in its policy of favoring big business and other vested interests both parties are seen to act in unison with at best few individual exceptions. Undemocratic and anti-people policies often get approved in the Congress in what is described innocuously as ‘bipartisan’ approach. It was this humbug of bipartisanism that saw the Congress approving the war of aggression against Iraq as it did the inhuman sanctions against that hapless country earlier. Such bipartisan approach is visible equally in frowning upon democratic dissent, breaking trade unions, depriving workers of their jobs, reducing the minimum wage to record low, depriving ordinary people of their basic needs such as medical care and other welfare measures while at the same time giving tax concessions to the corporate entities and the rich.
In recent times in the name of the fight against terrorism, every norm that distinguishes a democratic society is being violated, including constitutional guarantees. The enactment of the Patriot Act recently, is one such instance in point. Under this infamous legislation many of the constitutional rights and guarantees hitherto considered sacrosanct could be violated with impunity by the State and its agencies. This includes the rights under the First Amendment and others consisting of a clutch of fundamental rights and civil liberties of citizens. This undemocratic attitude is exhibited more crudely in dealing with immigrants.
Such intransigence is revealed in other important international issues as well. The selective approach to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and of the International Covenant on political and civil liberties, refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on environment protection, and more recently its refusal to subject its military personnel to the International Court of War Criminals are some of the more glaring examples. Withdrawing American support for the Climate Change Treaty, the ABM Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty are some of the other examples. America is now working on two new and more destructive nuclear weapons, which it threatens it might use first.
SCANDALOUS ELECTION — 2000
In the last presidential elections in the year 2000, the manner in which the Supreme Court stole the verdict and handed over the Presidency on a platter to the present incumbent George W. Bush — who secured less popular votes (as much as 500,000) than his Democratic Party adversary — speaks volumes about its credentials as the greatest democracy. As many as an estimated 10,000 votes were not counted in the state of Florida in counties considered the opposition candidate’s stronghold. This election shenanigan was ‘managed’ under the supervision of the President elect’s brother Jeb Bush who was the Governor of that state. People have heard of hijacking and rigging of elections in different parts of the world. The US itself and its loud media have commented adversely on falsification of elections in other countries. But nothing stood in comparison to this monumental election fraud in America. So much so, one of the dissenting judges of the American Supreme Court, Justice Stevens himself stated to the effect that it was not clear who actually won but the electoral system had lost!
DUBIOUS SYSTEM OF ELECTORAL COLLEGE
The system of Electoral College that could annul the verdict of the popular mandate of the voters is a fraud in itself. The Electoral College system has become so scandalous that The New York Times itself came out with an editorial on August 29, 2004 under the caption: "Abolish the Electoral College." The stinging editorial stated: "The Electoral College got a brief spate of attention in 2000, when George Bush became president even though he lost the popular vote to Al Gore by more than 500,000 votes. Many people realized then for the first time that we have a system in which the president is chosen not by the voters themselves, but by 538 electors. It is a ridiculous set up, which thwarts the will of the majority, distorts presidential campaigning and has the potential to produce a true constitutional crisis. There should be a bipartisan movement for direct election of the president." This was the third time since the American Civil War that the president ‘elected’ was a candidate who lost the popular vote! The New York Times went on to say: "This shocks people in other nations who have been taught to look upon the United States as the world’s oldest democracy. The Electoral College also heavily favors small states."
Any system where the majority does not rule and every vote is not equal is a slur on democracy. This system gives weight to number of Senators and House Representatives form the states, which could result in a swing state however small in terms of the number of voters to decide the fate of candidates irrespective of the popular mandate. It is a skewed system of winner takes all under which whether a candidate wins by a wafer thin or huge margin of popular votes he/she bags all the Electoral College votes. It is a system where in reality 538 electors constituting the Senators and House Representatives and not the people themselves elect the candidate. In the event of a split vote of 269 Electoral College votes for each candidate, the issue would go to the House of Representatives for a decision. What is the role of the people — the actual voters in this scheme of things: nothing!
Redistricting is another dubious method adopted to swing the election if it is felt that the existing delimitation is not favorable to the party in power. As early as in 1986, the Supreme Court held that partisan gerrymandering such as mendacious redistricting "could offend the Constitution if they were bad enough." But the decision has largely remained academic and has not served to check excesses. The party controlling state legislatures merrily continued with the practice. Last year such partisan restructuring in the state of Texas was completed in favor of the Republican Party that controlled the state legislature ignoring the protests.
SUPREME COURT CONNIVES BY DEFAULT
This year when such redistricting involving partisan manipulations in favor of the same party took place in the state of Pennsylvania, the issue went to the Supreme Court. The case provided the opportunity to enforce the same court’s meaningful observation in 1986. But the honorable judges strangely skirted the issue.
The Washington Post in an article dated May 1, 2004 stated, "Writing for a four-member plurality, Justice Antonin Scalia declared that, contrary to the 18-year-old precedent, political gerrymandering cases were not even a proper subject for judicial consideration. No court had ever articulated a clear standard, he argued, to determine when normal politics in redistricting becomes impermissible. And that suggests that the search for a stable, coherent principle of law is fruitless and should be abandoned."
The judges were clearly shuttling the issue to be resolved politically. The opinion given by the same court in 1986 was conveniently given a short shrift. Justice Scalia and his fellow judges did not bother to explain how a problem created deliberately with partisan political intent could be set right within the system. This involved a clear case of misuse of legislative majority to perpetrate something that was patently political gerrymandering "that could offend the Constitution if they were bad enough" (Ibid), as per the 1986 version of the court. The Washington Post further comments: "Which politicians after all, are going to give up their safe seats in the interest of systemic reform? … Which party leaders are going to forsake a stronger caucus in the interest of more competitive elections? The argument for judicial vigilance is at its strongest in cases where the political process itself is encumbered." The dissenting judge Justice Antony Kennedy however, opined that though there was no possibility that a political solution might emerge immediately, one might in the future. He therefore refused to override the 1986 precedent. That means a case could still come up against partisan gerrymandering. This at best is a consolation that a future case could arise, but does not provide any tangible solution for the present. In the meantime, such sophisticated rigging of election would be continued merrily.
SYSTEMIC CHANGES REQUIRED
The remedy lies with the people — the voters themselves. This redistricting device cuts both ways. So, well meaning supporters of both the parties have to come together and try to force necessary systemic changes that make such rigging of elections even before the process commences well neigh impossible. They have to build public opinion and articulate their opposition strongly. The Congress that has the power to force state-level changes must be pressured to do so.
The Washington Post succinctly writes: "Long a blight on American elections, redistricting has gotten wholly out of control in recent years. With sophisticated computer programs, politicians can draw lines to maximize precisely their party’s representation and minimize the other’s. The result is sham legislative elections in which fewer and fewer seats are competitive and moderates of both parties get squeezed out of office."
DISENFRANCHISEMENT OF FELONS
Disqualification of felons from voting even after they have served their term is something repugnant. The Western democracies including the US boast of their penal system as emphasizing correction and rehabilitation. This is the only civilized way. There are millions — an estimated 4.7 million — more than 2 percent of the adult population disqualified from voting. Under-trials too get debarred at times. The maxim ‘deemed innocent until proven guilty’ that distinguishes civilized societies scarcely applies here.
There is racial prejudice too in display in this. According to a report in The New York Times dated July 11, 2004, "13 percent of black men have had their votes taken away, seven times the national average." Disenfranchisement of felons has been crude and chaotic to say the least. There is no uniform pattern in all the States of the Union. There is huge scope for subjectivism as well, as happened in Florida in 2000.
In the Presidential election 2000, secretary of state Katherine Harris ensured elimination of suspected felons in a very controversial way that removed a large and unestimated number of eligible voters from the rolls. In the ensuing Presidential election on November 2, 2004, state officials are widely reported to be conducting further purges of eligible voters in a way that will not stand scrutiny. As things stand a reported 47,000 voters who may or may not be felons are expected to be axed from the voters’ list in Florida alone. The Miami Herald wrote that many of them might have been listed as ineligible by error as the list included many whose voting rights have been restored by the state’s clemency process. The secretive nature of the whole exercise makes it all the more controversial and suspect.
In the 2000 Presidential election, valid votes cast by legitimate voters were rejected on the ground that their names resembled those of registered felons! Votes from poorer districts remained uncounted. It was a strange instance of justice that a time frame was given for counting and votes that could not be counted with in the time specified because of the mischief of the state authorities, were just not counted at all.
Election law varies according to states in respect of disenfranchisement of felons. The lack of uniformity makes the exercise all the more controversial. The New York Times in an article dated July 21, 2004 candidly admitted: "American democracy is diminished when officeholders and political parties, for their own political gain, try to keep people from voting." It is strange indeed that even after four years during which the controversy of not allowing eligible voters to vote and not counting votes polled, nothing worthwhile by way of electoral reforms has even been attempted!
NO INDEPENDENT ELECTION COMMISSION
It is strange for the election of the highest office of the President of the United States of America — the jost powerful office in the whole world — there is no independent central election commission. It is the secretaries of state of different states who operate as election officers. Katherine Harris who was the secretary of state in Florida decided as the top election official which candidate won Florida in 2000 after annulling voting rights of many and after failing to count thousands of votes. The American political system does not even blush that she also doubled as co-chairperson of the Florida Bush-Cheney campaign! But many Americans feel troubled and shamed by this.
This year again, such blatant partisan politics is continued as if with a vengeance. Though Katherine Harris’ successor in Florida has kept away from campaigning, other secretaries of state who are chief election officials in different states are not deterred in doubling as Republican campaign managers. In the important swing state of Missouri, the secretary of state occupies a "top position in the Missouri Bush-Cheney campaign. In Michigan, another battleground state, the secretary of state has signed on as co-chairwoman of the Bush-Cheney campaign, and has been supporting an openly Republican voter registration drive." (Article "When the umpires take sides" in The New York Times dated March 29, 2004)
PRIVATIZATION OF ELECTION MACHINERY
Perhaps the jost controversial aspect is privatisation of the election process. Private companies are seen to play an increasing part in the election administration. Invariably these companies are the very same that contributed liberally to one candidate or the other, obviously the one who has done the jost favor. The manufacturers of the voting machines have compromised their credibility. For example the CEO of Diebold, a leading electronic voting machine manufacturer is a leading fundraiser for re-election of President Bush. Another example is Accenture, a company that prepared the data-base for Florida in 2000 and is now busying itself for a similar role in Pennsylvania, is a major donor for both political parties, obviously giving twice more to the Republicans than to the Democrats, according to media reports.
The scandal involved in faulty voting machine would put to shame a backward third world country. When it happens in the US, which boasts of being the country from where modern technology originates, one must immediately suspect that there is more than what meets the eye. There is no standardization of the voting machines. In the last elections in a state like Florida the outdated punch card system was used. The controversy regarding defective voting machines continues to rage even as the country prepares itself for another Presidential election.
What is America if not a true democracy? This is an important question. Ralph Nader, an independent candidate in the Presidential elections calls the American system a ‘duopoly’ meaning that the two major parties, the Republicans and the Democrats monopolize the system and keep all other political persuasions away. And, as he says, both represent not the ordinary people but the big interest groups — the corporates, the big farms, and the like. The oil and the armaments industry are the dominant patrons of the political life in the country and in turn they get patronised by those in political power. In their interest the country would even be led to aggressive and interventionist wars. Iraq is only the latest example.
Nader rightly asks the question as to why people and parties of other political persuasions are not given space and enabled to operate. We may as well ask why is it a socialist party or a communist party cannot freely operate. Nader or for that matter any third candidate is called a spoiler as it would happen, he or she would cut into the votes of a dominant candidate and in the process lead to the election of the opponent; invariably, the Democratic party gets affected as happened in 2000. But the moot question is: is there any difference between the two dominant parties in so far as the ordinary masses are concerned? With shades of difference both represent the same constituency of the rich, the corporates, the financial behemoths, the big farms and other vested interests. Often they operate in tandem in the so-called spirit of bipartisanship in the Congress and outside.
Election by minority of the voters: Invariably, a President (and so are other elective posts) gets elected by a simple majority of minority of voters actually voting out of the total electorate. In the last Presidential election just around 51 per cent of the electorate cast their votes and President Bush was elected on a minority of the popular votes polled! This indeed is intriguing democratic process. Moreover, as already said, there is no room for other political persuasions. How can plurality of opinion that is often emphasized as the quintessence of democratic ethos develop and flourish when any view outside of the two dominant parties gets squeezed out? There is no escape from this unless a provision for second preference in voting is introduced.
Frequently the political system in the US is described by proud and reputed Americans themselves as a plutocracy meaning the government of the rich and the vested interests. It was President Calvin Coolidge who once said: "The chief business of the American people is business." Of course it is not that of the American people as such. Business is the business of the American government and the vested interests. The frequency with which the roles are changed in the American political and corporate world is mind-boggling. The magical spin cycle apparatus, ‘the revolving door’ keeps on revolving overtime even as captains of industry and the once lobbyists metamorphose into persons with political authority and vice-versa, all the time encashing favors done in one while in the other.
This is America of today and it is a far cry from the Linconian definition of democracy as being: "government of the people, by the people, for the people." It is this country that claims to be the fountainhead of democracy that wants to export to other countries ‘freedom and liberty’ by persuasion or by coercion.