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Keith Rankin: Premature Congratulation?

Premature Congratulation?

16 November 2000

Who'll be inaugurated as president of the United States in January? Should we care? George Bush junior was congratulated as the winner more than a week ago. But it may be a while yet before we can be sure, given the time that the American legal system takes, and given that the US was not really prepared for an election which required a truly accurate vote count.

The best thing about this election is that Americans are having to think about the difference between democracy and the political theatre that has hitherto passed for democracy. The worst thing is that most Americans will be more sure than ever that their individual votes do not count, and that therefore there is little point in voting. What's the point of voting for a candidate (such as Al Gore) who could well lose despite scoring more votes than his opponent? Further, why should Americans accept as president a candidate who cannot command 50% of the vote?

American democracy is drawn from the classical Athenian model, itself based on a somewhat exclusive concept of citizenship. The most important check on popular democracy in the American constitution is its ability – through the electoral college - to override the popular vote if an inappropriate candidate prevails. (NB Microsoft Word's grammar check insists that "electoral college" should be capitalised. That shows just how sacred the indirect voting method is!) A side effect is that the electoral college may override the popular vote by accident, as appears to have happened this year.

The existence of the electoral college as a safeguard appears to have led to a lack of care in the design of the remainder of the electoral system. First- past-the-post voting is questioned less in the USA than in the few other countries that use it, presumably because the anomalies of the electoral college overshadow those of single-ballot non-transferable voting.

The real story of the US presidential election is that neither candidate scored enough votes to claim a popular mandate. The more usual way to resolve this kind of situation is to have a second ballot, with only the two leading candidates standing. By allowing Ralph Nader's and Pat Buchanan's votes to transfer to Al Gore, it would ensure that one candidate – almost certainly Gore - would receive the endorsement of a majority of electors. The alternative way to ensure a majority is of course through Australian-style preferential voting. Further, a voting system that requires majority voter endorsement would render the electoral college superfluous. Dangerous radicals don't get 50% of the vote.

The net effect of its electoral college and its first-past-the-post voting is that the USA has arguably the most entrenched political duopoly – the most closed of closed shops - in the "free world". Two almost indistinguishable parties vie for the illusion of power. Occasionally, despite itself, a Kennedy or a Clinton usurps office, only to be assassinated or impeached. More likely the president will be a Harding or a Reagan, malleable as putty in the hands of the ruling establishment.

Americans revere the 'founding fathers' who declared independence, fought the British, and then wrote the constitution. They will not change their system; their foundation myths are just too entrenched. It is probably enough that they have been reminded of how awkwardly their system works, or doesn't work, when put to the test.

The United States' split personality, even today, draws on the philosophical differences between the two most important of the founding fathers. That political schism can be summarised in three words: "Jefferson versus Hamilton". Jefferson was a physiocrat, who believed that economic success derived from the land, from the free citizens' largely self-sufficient attachment to their freehold land. Hamilton, on the other hand, was a devotee of industrialisation as the route by which America might make its mark on the world.

Alexander Hamilton, arguably the dominant author of the constitution, was young, anti-populist, born out-of-wedlock in Jamaica to a woman of no social standing. A military high-flyer in the War of Independence, he became Secretary of Finance while in his mid-thirties. His 1791 "Report on Manufactures" remains to this day the seminal tract of economic nationalism; the blueprint for industrialisation through import protection that the Union eventually followed. Hamilton, whose writings were strongly influenced by his French 'anti-physiocratic' counterpart (Jacques Necker) became the father of American big business; of corporate America and hence of the globalisation of American business. His Federalist Party did not survive, but, reincarnated as the Republican Party, became in the late 19th century the party of the visible hand of American capitalism.

Thomas Jefferson, in direct contrast to Hamilton, was a blueblood, a man of high birth, a Virginian aristocrat. Yet he adopted the politics of freeholder populism. Taking his philosophical inspiration from Necker's bitter rivals in pre-revolutionary France, Jefferson opposed both industrialisation and the use of government intervention to accelerate economic development. His Republican Democrat Party later became the modern Democratic Party.

In 1804, Hamilton, still in his forties, was killed in a duel, at the hand of Jefferson's vice-president, Aaron Burr. (Burr had actually been Jefferson's opponent in 1800. The result in the electoral college was a tie. Jefferson gained the casting vote, with Burr becoming vice-president.)

Now, nearly 200 years after Hamilton's death, both parties contain Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, corporatists and individualists, nationalists and libertarians. Just as these two founding fathers could not be neatly cast as left-wing or right-wing, so the parties cannot be neatly categorised. There is however, a tendency for Jefferson's party to adopt a somewhat Hamiltonian flavour.

American political life is dominated by public theatre, by the trappings of popular democracy. Underneath, American politics hasn't changed much in 200 years. Take the Microsoft antitrust lawsuit, for example. Bill Gates represents the Hamiltonian tradition of corporate business success, while his prosecutors represent the Jeffersonian tradition of freedom from corporate power.

It probably doesn't matter much who will become president in January. The president is a figurehead; albeit a figurehead with significant reserve powers. The president represents the public face of American governance; the face of contrived unity. The real politics remains that of the big guy versus the little guy; of corporate versus citizen power.

We can congratulate the winner, as President Clinton has done, whoever the winner in the electoral college may turn out to be. Tweedledum, or tweedledee.

© Keith Rankin 2000

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