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Stateside with Rosalea: Galloping Gertie

Stateside with Rosalea: Galloping Gertie

By Rosalea Barker

One thing you have to say about the president: he sure knows how to rub people's noses in it. No sooner does a poll come out saying that the most likely voter against the recall in California is a female African-American PhD from the Bay Area than he appoints someone who meets those criteria to be in charge of rebuilding Iraq. Well, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, former Stanford University provost, I wish you all the best. I'm sure you know as well as anyone how to deal with any difficulties you might encounter because of your gender and race.

I'm writing this in the early morning of the California recall election. However it turns out, this election exemplifies contemporary democracy in the United States. Like a beautiful suspension bridge, US-style democracy is anchored at either end by the federal and the state constitutions, which counterbalance the incredible forces the suspension wires - spun from the wishes of millions of voters - must withstand. But, like the modifications to suspension bridge design that followed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge disaster, it's time for some changes here as well.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge (nicknamed Galloping Gertie because of its rollercoaster-like behaviour) eventually shook itself to pieces when the side-to-side motion that had been set up by a strong wind resulted in vortices of wind being created in a kind of slipstream above the bridge's surface. Those vortices amplified the wind, amplifying the wobbles, thus creating more vortices and amplifying the sequence still further.

Engineers subsequently found that the problem was the solid steel girder underneath the roadway, which blocked the wind instead of letting it flow freely as an open truss would. The lesson for US-style democracy is this: a rigid electoral system based on outdated thinking about who is participating in the political process is causing the rollercoaster effect of close elections, and in every new election those effects are amplified.

If my poetic little foray into political analysis is not to your taste, a recent book by Glen Browder, former Alabama congressman, might give you pause for thought. In The Future of American Democracy he offers what he calls an "unconventional analysis" and a "provocative assessment of distempered American democracy". He is not just a politico but also a scholar, so his views are being taken seriously in some quarters. This California recall election, he says, exemplifies his - and many other peoples' - theories that a fundamental shift has taken place.

We are having this election because of the tension between the country's 18th-century republican model of democracy and the more modern notion of direct democracy by the people, adopted enthusiastically by some states in the early 20th century. That tension can also be seen in issues like California's battle with the federal government over medical marijuana, and Alabama's battle over whether a statue of the Ten Commandments can sit in the foyer of its Supreme Court.

The eventual outcome, Browder says, of the unthinking, incremental stumbling that is now taking place in a country rife with a philosophical civil war is "the American Federation". It is not the best outcome, he says, and suggests instead that conscious steps be taken to create "Trans-America" where people will have more of a stake in government and the federal government will not be continually acting to contain the centrifugal forces of modern technology and thought that are always trying to spin the power out to the states.

I fear that some people think the only way to stop those forces is to use an equal and opposite force - by having the federal government interfere more and more in the states' affairs: the equivalent of giving up on the whole suspension bridge idea and returning to a design that relies on close-spaced anchored buttresses and is built of stone.

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