Sunday, 9 November 2008

America's Flawed Democracy

The United States has spent most of the new century trying to export its democracy, sometimes by violent means. This democracy, though, is far from ideal.

“Absolutely”, was the answer Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian-born Governor of California, gave when asked whether the ban on foreign-born US citizens such as him running for presidential office should be lifted. Anyone who saw Mr Schwarzenegger’s rousing speech in support of Senator John McCain in Columbus, Ohio, in the closing stages of the election campaign would have been persuaded that this was the man to win the White House back for the Republicans – but he is discriminated against politically.

This effectively second-class citizen status also applies to Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger, who were born in Czechoslovakia and Germany respectively – even though, according to US succession laws, as serving Secretaries of State they were both fourth in line to become President.

Likewise, at the time of the launch of the US war in Iraq no fewer than 38,000 US military men and women were not, in fact, American citizens. Indeed, of the first ten Californians to be killed in Iraq, five were not US citizens: they included the Guatemalan orphan and later US Marine Lance Corporal Jose Gutierrez, who died aged 22 while serving the US in Iraq just a few months after illegally entering America.

They all died for a country that would never allow them to serve as President or Vice President, although many of those killed on duty are awarded US citizenship posthumously. This is the same country that permitted a former Miss Alaska beauty pageant competitor to run for high public office.

As the death toll in Iraq continues to grow, a disproportionate number of those deaths among the American military are of non-citizens who are sometimes referred to as “cannon fodder”. This is because they usually occupy the less protected infantry positions that put them directly in the line of fire.

The reason they sign up for military service may be related to widespread poverty in their communities: since many of them are disadvantaged, the most attractive legal recourse to funds and the dignity awarded by citizenship is to serve in the military. In 2006, the US military was able to meet 105 per cent of its enlistment requirements after it raised cash grants to those who sign up to $40,000, and found that lower and middle-income areas were over-represented in the recruitment.

In addition to these democratic anomalies, the US electoral process is among the most complex in the world. There are primaries and caucuses, electoral colleges, pledged and unpledged delegates and superdelegates and in the end it is quite possible for the person who wins the most votes to lose the election. This has in fact happened, most recently in 2000, when Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate, won half a million more votes than the now outgoing President George W Bush, and yet lost the election. The reason was the so-called Florida fiasco: Mr Bush won a mere 500 votes more than Mr Gore and so carried the entire state, with its vital 25 Electoral College votes. Thus Mr Bush became the “leader of the free world” by winning fewer votes than his opponent.

This is partly due to the Electoral College voting system: in a presidential election, the votes are counted state by state, after which each state sends a number of representatives to the Electoral College, the number being equal to the number of its Senators and Representatives in the US Congress, and therefore roughly based on its population: so California, for example, has the highest number of Electoral College votes, 55, while more sparsely populated states, such as Wyoming, have as few as three. There are 538 electors in the College, so 270 or above is the figure needed to win the presidency.

In Barack Obama’s case the headlines were misleading, with numerous TV stations and newspapers announcing a landslide victory because he won 364 Electoral College votes against John McCain’s 162. To outsiders it seemed as if Mr Obama had won more than twice as many votes as the Republican candidate, but that is not so. Mr Obama won by 7.6 million votes over his opponent – an impressive number, until you realise that the United States is a country of over 300 million.

In the final count, Mr Obama had around 52 per cent of the votes compared with about 46 per cent for McCain. This hardly reflects the skewed percentages represented in the Electoral College, which give the misleading impression that Mr Obama won 70 per cent of American citizens’ votes.

Another drawback of the system is that certain states, such as Tennessee, which has a smaller population than Arizona, is given a larger representation in the Electoral Colleges.

So while there is no denying that America is a democratic country, it is far from the perfect democracy it portrays itself to be. Just ask Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This article first appeared in The National on Sunday November 9th 2008

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