Americans go to the polls today to choose a president and a direction for the country to take over the next four years. As always, given the indomitable optimism of Americans, voters are hoping that one party or the other will be given the mandate to solve the major problems of the day. Whoever wins will indeed face considerable challenges. The campaign season has highlighted three major problems: the technical and structural problems in the U.S. electoral system, the profound anti-politics of the electorate, and the current crisis in U.S. foreign and domestic policy.
On November 3, regardless of the outcome of the elections, Americans will wake up to find that these three headaches are still around and have even gotten worse.
The most immediate problems facing the United States are the structural and technical flaws in the electoral system. The technical flaws concern the various voting methods used in different states. Despite the embarrassment of the Florida fiasco in 2000, virtually no progress has been made in fixing these technical flaws. Some states are still using the old-style punch cards that created such confusion in Florida. Other states have switched to new computerized balloting at machines designed by Deibold, whose CEO is a major Republican party donor. Without a paper trail, fraud will be difficult to prove.
These technical problems are compounded by structural ones. Because an electoral college – and not the popular vote – elects the president, certain “swing states” have acquired disproportionate influence. The Colorado ballet this year has an initiative to apportion electoral votes according to the popular vote – a system that already exists in Maine and Nebraska. But shifting the antiquated “winner takes all” system to a far more democratic system of proportional representation is still off the political radar.
A more serious challenge than the hardware of the system is the software of the voters, namely the anti-politics of the electorate. The success of the progressive Internet phenomenon Moveon.org, the large numbers of new voters, and the general hoopla surrounding the presidential elections all obscure that fact that most Americans believe that politics is only a quadrennial responsibility that ends once they leave the ballot box. “Politics” is a dirty word in the United States, and most Americans distrust politicians. The great participatory spirit of Americans that Tocqueville once extolled is increasingly disconnected from real policy making. And Americans remain ignorant of the most basic facts. During the Cold War, a majority didn’t know that Soviet Union wasn’t part of NATO. Just before the war in Iraq began, one in two Americans thought Iraqis were among the 9-11 hijackers.
Neither the Democratic nor Republican party is interested in changing this situation. A quiescent public is easier to manipulate. In any case, politicians prefer to listen to wallets than to citizens.
Although the two parties are not interested in promoting true, deliberative democracy and the flaws in the electoral system rob even informed citizens of a meaningful vote, this year’s election will at least offer voters an opportunity to change the course of U.S. foreign and domestic policy, right? Not necessarily.
By redirecting billions of dollars toward the wealthy at home and challenging the very fabric of international relations abroad, the Bush administration has not simply reversed the limited successes of the 1990s. Its ambitions were much grander. The Bush team wanted to undo the last half-century of progressive change.
Over the last four years, the neoconservatives targeted the New Deal and Great Society programs in order to bring back a much older dog-eat-dog social order. They attacked such cornerstones as Social Security and federally subsidized health care. Their tax policy has contributed to a much more rapid erosion of the middle class.
In foreign policy, they have spent billions on war and only increased the insecurity of the U.S. “homeland.” More importantly, they have sought to unravel the international order created in the wake of World War II. Ignoring the United Nations, challenging other multilateral institutions, pulling out of treaties – this is not so much unilateralism as an attempt to create an entirely new global order with the United States firmly in charge.
Do the Democrats have a different vision for the United States and its role in the world? Yes, to a certain degree. But the Bush crowd has so radically skewed the playing field at home and abroad that the tepid proposals of the Democrats will do little to correct the picture.
The United States has grown immeasurably poorer and more hated over the last four years. It will take more than one election to dig the country out of this deep hole.
Munhwa Ilbo, November 2, 2004