The United States of America, beacon of hope and enlightenment throughout the world, advancing the cause of liberty and democracy through countless somewhat questionable overseas conflict – but do they practice what they preach?
So what is democracy?
At its most basic, it is the governance of the people, by the people. It is characterised by free and open elections, free media, and separation of the legislative, executive and judicial powers. Democracies can have different flavours. Socialist leaning countries (eg: Scandinavian countries) tend to have democracies where the government plays a big role in society, while liberal democracies (eg: USA and increasing Australia) have systems where the government plays a minimal roles. There are also several different ways of organising electoral processes, all of which influences the character of the government, as does the balance of constitutional (USA) or convention (UK) based legal systems (Australia uses both). But all of this should probably be the subject of a future article.
Do the people rule America?
At first glance, it seems so. Americans vote for everything – presidents, local members, city leaders, judges, lawyers, police chiefs. Some of this can be highly questionable (do you really want a judge whose decision may be influenced by the fact that he is about to face an election contest?)
But consider this: voter turnout for Presidential elections usually hovers around 60%, while for mid-terms (electing members to the senate and congress) is drops to 40%. This means that only half the population of USA contributes the choosing of the leaders.
Are the elections fair?
What makes a fair election? At its most basic fair means one vote per person.
And then there is the electoral college. A system that seems overly complicated. Voters vote for someone to represent them in the electoral college. A winner-takes-all system means that often an entire state’s votes are given to one candidate, regardless of whether they only received a majority by 1%. Then these mysterious representatives choose the president. On four occasions, they choose the candidate who didn’t receive the most votes (most recently in the Bush vs Gore election 2000). This doesn’t seem particularly fair.
Are the elections open?
Theoretically yes, anyone can run for president in the United States. But you also have to pay for your campaign. Hillary Clinton is planning to fundraise $2.5 billion for her 2016 campaign. So that pretty much puts becoming president out the reach of normal people.
Is this necessarily a bad thing?
Well consider the following list of presidents:
- Ronald Reagan 1981-1989 (Vice President – George Bush Snr)
- George Bush Snr 1989-1993
- Bill Clinton 1993-2001
- George W Bush 2001-2009
- Barak Obama 2009-2017 (Secretary of State – Hillary Clinton)
- 2017- most likely either Jed Bush (Republicans) or Hillary Clinton (Democrats)
So, is this a democracy? Or two competing dynasties that we swap between every few elections? You decide.