Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Eight election myths you probably believe

Here's an interesting article at Cracked.com about "8 Election Myths You Probably Believe":
Right now is the stage in every American election season when most of us are pretty sure that this whole democracy thing was a mistake. So many terrible ads, so many lies, so many news stories focusing only on the stupidest elements of the process. Why do we even bother?

Well, damn it, we're here to tell you that it's not as bad as you think. In fact, some of what we hate most about the American democratic process aren't flaws at all -- they're actually what make the whole thing tick.

I thought it was interesting. And whatever you think of the arguments there, a little less cynicism about our political process would be nice.

But there's actually a lot to think about in the article - and the opportunity to look at important issues from a different angle.

If Thomas Jefferson wins, "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes."

I'll just point out one of those, #6: "The Two-Party System Is Dividing Us into Opposing Tribes of Extremists."
Choices are nice, but there's one underrated advantage of the two-party system: It makes everyone more moderate. Multiparty systems, as attractive as they may sound, also lead to more fanaticism.

Think of it this way: Say you have a group of 10 dudes who are trying to figure out where to go out to eat. If the town only has two restaurants (a Hooters and a low-rent Hooters knockoff called TitWings), it's easier to get everybody to all agree on Hooters -- you only need six guys to come around. But if there are dozens of restaurants and each guy wants to go to a different one, they're all going to argue at the bar until they starve to death a month later. It's simply easier to bring people together when they don't have that many places to go. So despite how extreme Democrats and Republicans each claim the other party is, ideological polarization is less likely with only two parties.

For proof, look at the Galactic Senate. Or India. Let's just go with India. Multiparty systems foster excessive regionalism, with elected leaders focusing on trivial local concerns rather than larger national ones, the equivalent of that one lone guy who is zealous about eating at Buffalo Boobs despite the fact that it's not even a restaurant.

Funny, but it's a valid point. Remember Strom Thurmond? You may not remember that he ran for president in the Dixiecrats - the segregationist States Rights Democratic Party - in 1948. (Yeah, that was a bit before my time, too.)

According to Wikipedia, he received 39 Electoral College votes (he carried Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina). But the Dixiecrats didn't last long, because they had no chance of winning a majority of Electoral College votes. (Apparently, they knew that, so their goal was to throw the election into the House of Representatives.)

[As an interesting side-note, the South was solidly Democratic back then, so the loss of those four states led to Harry S. Truman just barely squeaking out a victory. Remember that famous headline? The Dixiecrat party was responsible for that being such a close race, because the South was normally a gimme for the Democrats.]

But without the Electoral College system - or something similar - we'd likely still have a Dixiecrat Party. After all, in a straight popular vote election, you'd only have to get more votes than the other candidates. Could a racist political party get more votes, from all across America, than several other parties, all of whom had to split the non-racist vote?

And even if you had little chance of that, multiple small parties could still leverage their power to gain concessions from the eventual winner.

But America's political system is different. It's different from the parliamentary systems common in Europe, too (which also promote multiple parties). In America, to win the presidency, you have to appeal to the majority, not just a devoted minority.

True, that doesn't always keep us safe from fanatics, but it usually does. (We still have to be smart enough to pay attention, which is a big thing to ask of Americans!)

The Dixiecrat Party failed. So did other far-right political parties. Unfortunately, the Republican Party set out to deliberately woo the Dixiecrats, after the Democrats passed the 1964 Civil Rights Bill outlawing racial segregation. And the result hasn't been pretty.

Sadly, the far-right seems to be completely inept at everything but politics. At any rate, they weren't dumb enough to keep trying third parties. Instead, they just took control of the GOP, combining racists and fundamentalist Christians and conspiracy theorists and all manner of other loons.

Nevertheless, because of our Electoral College system, they still have to pretend to be moderate in most ways, because they can't hope to succeed otherwise. If they can fool enough people - as George W. Bush did in 2000 and Mitt Romney hopes to do today - they can win. But normally, extremism is punished at the ballot box (as, hopefully, it will be today).

As frustrating as the Electoral College is, that's a real benefit to our country. As frustrating as just two main political parties can be, a two-party system has a lot of advantages. Just look at places like India, with millions (figuratively) of tiny political parties.

If you think we're divided now, just imagine what it would be like if the Dixiecrat Party - and other extremist parties like it, on both the right and the left - were actually viable in our country!


Tony Williams said...

I have to say I don't see much validity in this argument as far as Europe is concerned - if anything, quite the reverse.

The key factor is the voting system. In the UK national elections, we have a first-past-the-post system which means that whoever gets the most votes in each constituency wins. This tends to favour a few, large parties (we have two big national parties and one smaller one). The policy differences between the parties are relatively small, as anyone who wants to win a majority has to appeal to the middle ground.

In many European countries the voting system allows smaller parties to be represented (typically they have to get at least 5% of the vote), leading to multiple parties. The key characteristic of these systems is that it is highly unlikely that any one will win an overall majority. This means that coalitions have to be created to form a government, which means that the parties have to compromise - almost by definition, they tend to be moderate. Germany is a good example of this.

Of course, where you do get real extremes then you might get a right-wing party in coalition with a far-right one (Israel comes to mind). But overall, the USA seems far more divided politically than the great majority of western European countries, and the politics are far more vitriolic!

Jeff said...


I thought about talking Jody P "off the ledge," but it was too cold and shut the window. :)

But not before I passed along this message to Jody from the "liberals:"


WCG said...

It's hard to compare different countries, Tony. Besides, note that many European nations have a parliamentary system of government which is quite different from America's presidential system.

But most importantly, I think, is that America has always been divided by race. We're an ethnically-diverse nation which has always struggled with that. Currently, there are more non-white births than white (non-Hispanic) births, which is causing white bigots to have hysterics.

I realize that Europe has been seeing more immigration, which is causing issues there, too. But I don't think you realize just what an issue race has been in America, and still is. For all our talk of a melting pot, there has been nothing more important in America than a person's race.

But recently, the Democratic Party has become - not without a real struggle - a tolerant, multi-ethnic political party. The Republican Party has become the fearful reaction to that. I don't think you can compare this to anything happening in Europe, not really.

Plus, you probably see the worst of us, because that's what gets in the news. We see videos of shouting matches, and even fist-fights, in parliaments, too, but that's probably not common, everyday behavior.

Indeed, our biggest problem here in America isn't our political passion, but our apathy. It's hard to get most people to even pay attention.

WCG said...

Heh, heh. That's probably pretty close to what the right-wing does think about liberals, Jeff!