Elect Me, Elect Me Not

A few years ago, a local newspaper in a small Massachusetts town where I then lived published a letter from a female resident.  The honorable lady attended, with her 10-year-old son, a meeting of the town's School Committee and was profoundly impressed with the genuine democratic nature of the proceedings.  She was especially happy that her son could observe firsthand how democracy worked in this country, "as opposed to some other countries where elections are decided with the help of a machete," she wrote.  I wish the newspaper could give me this lady's email address (they naturally wouldn't because of privacy concerns) so I could ask her for a list of the countries "where elections are decided with the help of a machete."

We Americans are justifiably proud of our democratic institutions, and this sentiment comes to a boiling point every other November when we elect our legislative representatives and executive officers.  True, in the weeks immediately preceding the elections, we grumble that too much money flows into the process and that instead of discussing "issues," candidates hit each other with negative campaign ads.  But the morning after the election, we marvel that a transition of power took place in a peaceful and dignified manner.  Without the help of a machete, that is. 

We are also obsessed with all things electoral, a passion that can only be rivaled by our love for sports, fast food, and sex.  Fueling this obsession is a small army of well-connected folks who make a good living helping candidates run for office: campaign managers, political and media consultants, and pollstersAfter all, if the cost of the 2010 midterm congressional elections did exceed $3.7 billion, as reported, there are real people out there who took this money to the bank.

We are also good at inventing criteria by which the democratic nature of elections could be measured.  The most prominent of those is "unpredictability": we believe that the less we could predict the results of a given election, in the U.S. or abroad, the more democratic this election was.  (To an extent, of course: if the results of an election turned out to be too "unpredictable," the election might not have been democratic at all.  That's what happened in the Palestinian legislative election in 2006: we pushed for this election on the assumption that Fatah would win.  Yet when Hamas prevailed, we refused to accept the outcome.) 

Judging from the "unpredictability" point of view, the 2010 midterm congressional elections were highly undemocratic.  Long before the elections, it became abundantly clear that President Obama and his Democratic Party were up for a sound defeat.  The majority of pundits predicted, well in advance, that while the Democrats would retain control of the Senate, their majority there would be reduced to two to six seats.  (It will be six.)  However, in the House of Representatives, the Republicans were projected to win big and take over the House with a solid majority of anything from 45 to 70 seats.  (It will be 50+ or so, as some races still remain undecided at the time of the writing.)

Or, could anyone doubt that all nine incumbent Democratic members of the House from my home state of Massachusetts would get re-elected?  Well, only if you live on the moon without internet connection… The only intrigue (sort of) unravelled in the 10th congressional district where both candidates, the Democrat Bill Keating and the Republican Jeff Perry, were so equally bad that the voters couldn't decide, until the very end, whom they disliked more.  They ended up choosing Keating, though.  Surprise!  And I personally never doubted that the Democrat Deval Patrick would be re-elected as Governor, which he was.  (Does this make me an enemy of democracy in Massachusetts?).  By the way, a Rasmussen Reports poll released on September 28 showed Patrick leading his Republican opponent, Charlie Baker, by 47%-42%.  Patrick won the election by 48% to 42%.   So much for "unpredictability"!

Granted, elements of unpredictability were on display last week too, but they had little to do with democracy; rather, they reflected the fact that we elect our representatives in single-mandate districts.  Had we used party lists, as the majority of developed Western democracies do, the outcome of any given election might have been immediately clear after conducting a couple of general polls.  But when you have to "predict," as we do, the results of each of the 435 House elections, then 30+ Senate races, then 30+ governor races — the outcome is always "unpredictable."  And this sits very well with our "election lobby," the folks who organize and then "predict" hundreds of elections at the federal and state levels that we hold every second year.  (And then there are always "special" elections.)  Take this "unpredictability" from them, and then what?  Do you expect these guys to give away all the money they earn and start looking for real jobs?

And yet, the incredible amount of money we spend on elections is only half of the problem: after all, ours is a rich country, is it not?  The real problem is that upon arriving in Washington or state capitals, our (re-)elected representatives show no interest in the business of governing; instead, they immediately begin preparing for the next election.  Thus, in a remarkable for its honesty statement, the Republican Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, confessed that  “The single most important thing we [Republicans in Congress] want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”  And this is from the top political leader of a country that is in the middle of two wars!

Challenges facing our country are complex and, unfortunately, can't be comfortably tackled into two-year election cycles.  Compounding the problem, as it always happens upon implementing any serious reform, things tend to get worse before they get better.  As a result, a party in power is pummeled by impatient voters at the next election, which in our country are permanently around the corner.  Worse, politicians prefer do nothing and let their opponents commit political hara-kiri.  (Enter machete?)   

Unless we dramatically reform our electoral system — in particular, by holding less frequent elections – our political process will be perpetually stuck in the idle mode of fancy, wasteful, and, ultimately, meaningless, election games.

Elect me, elect me not.  


About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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7 Responses to Elect Me, Elect Me Not

  1. chet says:

    Elections are even more predictable in Texas. In 2003 the Republicans – after sweeping every statewide office and chambers – took the unorthodox step and re-redrew congressional districts so that every white Democrat’s district was eliminated (They did not see this as racist). The state legislature resembles a zoo, since footage emerged of how they really count votes. Apparently – in order to vote yes or no – one logs it with a button. It is customary to grab your neighbors button and log their vote, though if you are too slow, someone might reach over and log your vote for you.
    Just thought it was funny that all government in the state would be broken if it were not for the federal government.

  2. Eugene says:

    Thanks Chet,
    This is interesting. And, true, if I decided to touch upon gerrymandering, I would never have finished this post…
    Come back again,

  3. Leo says:

    Harakiri with a machete, that’s too much even for a seasoned samurai to handle:)
    Isn’t it great when a country can still function with two branches of government in gridlock as the US did in late 90’s and likely have to go through that again? Anyhow, perhaps in your post you forget one thing, which is that electorates like to see new faces in electoral races, and in public offices too. Otherwise no amount of spin would bring people to polls. But since you menioned Russia in your piece, there a few fundamental issues that make Russia’s last presidential elections dwarf any predictability in the US you may think of. At the risk of trying to beat a dead horse I won’t repeat them here.
    Without a doubt, the election results reflected the support for Putin & Co. by Russian people. However, nothing was left to chance in that election, which was absolutely unnecessary. In essence, Russian people elected one out of one, just like in
    the Soviet times. I don’t see a values gap between people of Russia and those of “the West”, we’re together on that. But elections like those of 2008 were an insult to one’s intelligence.
    Now, compare this with the “unpredictability” of elections in the US. There may be strongholds in certain districts that make elections in those districts predictable, but outcomes are not shoved down people’s throats beforehand. You may choose to argue that Russia is in flux, that it was important to maintain Russia’s governability, to hell with democracy. Well, I would agree with that if we were talking about an Ataturk-like “enlightened despot” pushing through aggressive reforms from above. Is it really the case in today’s Russia?
    All the best,

  4. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Leo,
    It’s funny: once, for a change (and contrary to what you say), I didn’t even mention Russia in my piece, and yet I’m called again to defend Russia’s conduct. Could it be that I spoke of my home state of MA, and you, somewhat Freudistically, decided that I meant Russia?:) And why not? Both are essentially one-party states.
    I thought that we largely settled the issue of election “predictability” in Russia in comments to my previous piece. These victorious numbers don’t make the Kremlin stronger; in fact, they make it look weaker. I hope that should Medvedev run for re-election, the whole process will be more open and honest, if even perfectly “predictable.”
    But I’d like to take an issue with your assertion that Russians are electing one of one. Let me ask you a question: is there “another” one? What I measn by that, the pecularily of Russia’s current political situation is that in the late 90s/early 2000s, it had largely solved one big important question: capitalism vs socialism. The strenght of the Communists in the 90s was not because of “more democracy” in Russia; their strenght was in real public support for their socialist agenda. But Putin beat them at the polls in 1999 and then skillfully incorporated their social agenda into UR’s program.
    My point is that Russia is yet to formulate its next “big question”, and until it does, there is no one to oppose Putin/Medvedev. Their opposition, both on the left and on the right, has simply nothing to say. (Power of incumbency plus dirty tricks notwithstanding).
    From this point of view, there is indeed not much difference between Russia and MA. Barny Frank wins not because he uses dirty tricks (or because he is an incumbent), but because in his damned ultra-liberal district, there are simply no people who think DIFFERENTLY.
    I sense that this next “big question” is emerging. Framed as “modernization”, it’s actually about a role of state in economy (sounds familiar, ah?). And the recent spike in public activity has nothing to do with supposed Medvedev’s liberalism. It simply is a reflection of a situation when people have AGAIN something to discuss and disagree about.
    Lastly, coming back to the U.S.: I’m a big fan of divided government and only a few years back considered filibuster a pearl of democracy. But something has changed since the late of the 90s you cherish so much. First, the 9/11 — and the new nature of threats to our security. Second, continued aging of the population and growing problems with funding SS and Medicaid. At the same time, our government is getting more and more paralyzed and incapable of getting on real issues.
    I’m not against divided government; I’m against elections every second year that distract the voters and paralyze the government. Let any given government, however divided or united, sit for a while and do something — without going into campaign mode a few hours after elections.
    Sorry for the long rant. Credit your inspiring comment for it:)

  5. Leo says:

    My fault, no Russia (reflexes, reflexes) in your current post, only Massachusets. Surrounded by similarly evil liberal states, there is just nowhere to run for you Eugene!
    Yes, I agree that Russia’s leading opposition figures have nothing new to say, especially Kasyanov. So why disqualify him on a technicality, why not let him lose? On the flipside, did we hear anything new from Medvedev before the elections? Only banalities like feedom is better than non-freedom. His modernization agenda came in later, after considerable time on the job. So, having things to say requires incubation, nourishment, a sizeable forum of receptive audience. As it stands now, Russia is in a chicken and egg situation in this respect. No credible alternative from the opposition, but at the same time limited (if any) opportunities for alternatives to develop and be heard. This hurts Russia’s modernization prospects in the long term.
    I don’t necessarily cherish the late 90’s (although I should, ’cause the grass was greener then). What I meant to say it was amaizing to me that a country as big as the US could still funcion with the branches of federal government at loggerheads. That was then, and I do agree that now we have many more internal challenges and live in a more hostile external environment. Potential damage from divided government will be much greater now than it was in the 90’s.
    Best wishes,

  6. Eugene Ivanov says:

    A real quick on Kasyanov.
    The question is, why did they not let run such clowns like Kasparov and Bykovsky? That’d be a piece of cake. Kasyanov was different. His 2% notwithstanding, first, he was a real professional with a real experience in government that could match that of Medvedev. And, second, he was Putin’s PM in 2000-2004, that is in the very years when some good things, at least economically-wise, happened. That means that Kasyanov could claim credit for things Medvedev was going to claim for himself. In other words, Kasyanov was the only SERIOUS opponent to Medvedev.
    Even quicker on modernization. As I argued in one of my old posts (The tale of two presidents), the modernization impulse appeared already in the late years of Putin’s presidency. I guess Putin had chosen Medvedev over Ivanov because Medvedev looked like a better vehicle for the modernization drive. However, immediately after Medvedev took over, there was the August war with Georgia followed by the crisis. The modernization had to wait.
    Thanks much,

  7. Neveah says:

    Wham bam thank you, ma’am, my quetisons are answered!

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