Friday, November 5, 2010

The Dysfunction of Majority Rule

Something is disturbingly wrong with electoral politics, particularly the two-party, winner take all brand as practiced in my native USA.

I’m specifically disturbed at the way those who win elections by the slimmest margins are so quick to claim clear and unimpeachable mandates and act as though the entire community of the moral and the sane stands behind them, while those who lose by those same slim margins are relegated to the status of the inconsequential.

And this distorting language and behaviour is condoned by the media and by the voting public, as though it were reasonable, as though it had nothing to do with the extreme divisiveness that characterizes the politics of the day. And yet, we, the electorate, bemoan the dysfunction of government and wonder at the excess of partisanship.

This way of mediating disagreements would be considered unreasonable, controlling, arrogant and autocratic in many other areas of our lives. If any reasonably cohesive community of twenty found itself divided eleven to nine of an issue of importance, it would consider itself to be divided, and would seek ways to bring the parties together. The eleven wouldn’t trumpet themselves as champions going forth with a solid mandate. They would recognize that only a slim margin separates them from their opposition, and that a slight shift in circumstance or a change of heart could quickly reverse their standing. But in the current era of national politics, this same margin – 55% to 45% – is treated like undiluted victory for the winners and like humiliating defeat for the losers. The talk is as though the losing position lacks any legitimacy and must give up whatever it is they’ve stood for. And yet, reality proves time and again that this isn’t at all the case.

In 2004, George W. Bush was re-elected as president of the U.S. by a margin of 51% to 49%, following a victory in 2000 in a virtual dead heat (he actually trailed by half a million votes, but won in the electoral college, where it counts). He was then succeeded in 2008, by Barack Obama, who won election by a margin of 53% to 47%, only to then suffer the reversal in this week’s mid-term elections, where overall, Democrats lost to Republicans by a similar margin.

If you follow the media, these represent wild electoral swings, are signs of a bi-polar American populace that swings from steadfastly conservative to radically progressive from year to year. Right wing Bush America was transformed overnight into the liberal, “Yes We Can” Obama nation, and is now suddenly the Tea Party Land.

But we know this isn’t the case. Yes, in our communities we have seen changes of mood, party preference and political priorities. And we’ve seen swings in polls based on reactions to world events, economic conditions, and to policies and politicians and their promises and campaigns. But the friends who were conservative last year are probably conservatives still, and the progressives are likely still progressives. Most of us continue to vote for the party we’ve always voted for. And elections are swung by relative turnout, and by the relatively small numbers of us who actually go through a shift in orientation one or two times during our political lives.

So why this distortion? On some level, it has to do with the manner in which power is delegated. In a two-way race, it boils down simply to which side of that 50% line you land on. In our winner-take-all world, those who finish second are relegated to the role of obstructionists, whatever useful contributions they might make to an honest dialogue, and however circumstantial may be the manner of their loss. But that’s a mentality that sadly will get us nowhere in so far as healing the gaping philosophical rifts that have us polarized. If we can’t – as winners – develop a perspective that honors and respects and seeks to incorporate the contributions and concerns of those we’ve bested, it seems we’ll remain forever on this merry-go-round, on which it’s more important to gear up to destroy one another every two or four years, than it is to govern in a way that serves all.

It’s a senseless world, I think, where two percent becomes the defining piece of the whole, where catering to and winning the “swing vote” becomes all important, where positioning on an issue has less to do with approaching it rationally and effectively than with maintaining protection from attack.

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