Sunday, October 24, 2004

Electial Dysfunction

Our free and open political system is something that is ingrained in us from kindergarten onward. Starting at that early age, we’re all taught about citizenship, the concept of one person, one vote and the superiority of the democratic process. And in the main in this country, it has worked remarkably well. For sure, there have been some bumps along the way, from the civil right challenges of the 1960’s to the court challenges of the most recent presidential election. But while India can claim the crown as the largest functioning democracy, no other nation can claim an over 200 year track record of peacefully replacing our political leaders in a general election.

That being said, I think it’s fair to say that regardless of your political persuasion, you can’t help but be tired and disgruntled by this year’s exercise in democracy. Certainly the events of the last few years have lent an air of gravitas to the proceedings, and in turn taken a certain amount of the fun out of it. But the shift simply can’t be due to the fact that the stakes are so high and the issues so divisive. Look at where we’ve come from: the nation was equally torn in the past during other critical periods, from civil rights to Vietnam. Yet, somehow we muddled through those crises, and didn’t descend into an off-Broadway farce as it seems we have on this occasion.

Blame it on any numbers of factors. To be sure, the candidates themselves have abused the system, all while proclaiming its sanctity. The fourth estate has professed its impartiality, while meantime advancing its own agenda. And we the public surely have to bear some of the blame, for communicating so little and so poorly what we really want from our elected officials, and then wringing our hands when they take us where they want to go.

Still, in this national soul searching exercise, where Jon Stewart on Comedy Central is the most reasonable voice in the process, one has to wonder. And it’s led even the most optimistic among us to wonder about any number of aspects of the whole arrangement.

For instance, take the realization from both parties that the Electoral College system effectively disenfranchises half the voters in any given state. Actually, it’s not that people are unable to vote. Rather, in a winner-take-all system, the views of those whose selection sides with the minority are effectively rendered mute. And that means that the only voters who matter to the candidates are those in the so-called swing states. So the folks in Indiana, Virginia or Nebraska have seen nary hide nor hair of Bush or Kerry. Conversely, the contenders have spent so much time in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida that all four of their children would qualify for in-state tuition.

Nuance is one thing. Changing your positions you learn new information is also acceptable. But I guess that both candidates forgot that with the internet and videotape, it’s not so easy to change your stripes, and yet insist you haven’t. Both have been caught in contradiction after contradiction, from Kerry’s famous, ”I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” to Bush’s, “I never said I don’t worry about Osama bin Laden.” Love may mean never having to say you’re sorry, but politics appears to mean never being able to admit that you made a mistake.

No doubt that visuals are a powerful tool in our image driven society. And so it was important for Kerry to be able to stand toe to toe in the debates with the President, and look like he could be one himself. But do the Democratic strategists really think that taking time out of debating the issues to put their man in a camouflage outfit, and have him walk through a corn field on a wild goose chase is going to sway sportsmen to his side of the table? I guess so.

On a recent business trip to Atlanta, I had an off night and didn’t feel like sitting in my room. So I found a nearby bar, and settled in to watch the baseball playoffs. The open seats next to me were shortly occupied by two gentlemen in business suits. They ordered, and then focused their attention on the screen as well. While not intending to eavesdrop, I couldn’t help but overhear them conversing in German. And while I am completely mono-lingual, it was obvious that one was trying to explain the game to the other.

I politely interrupted and offered to help out if needed. Not that I’m that big a fan, but if you grow up on these shores you generally have the basics of the game down. And so I tried to explain tagging up and what a ground rule double means and what a knuckleball was. All was well, until there was a lull in the action, and I chanced to change the subject, and asked them about how the election was playing in Europe.

They looked at me and sadly shook their heads. How, they wondered, did we get ourselves into such a mess? Here we have the most powerful country in the world, with the most amiable and intelligent people, stuck making a choice between two marginally different candidates who say everything and nothing at the same time. Don’t citizens cringe in their homes, and demand change and accountability and action and leadership? Can’t we do better?

I nodded sheepishly, agreeing with them, offering no answers. We can blame no one but ourselves. Walt Kelly, the writer of the comic strip “Pogo,” famously penned the line for an Earth Day poster in 1970, "We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us." Never has it been more true. We can lament all we want the failure to address the issues, the pandering to this special interest group and that, the bitter partisanship and unwillingness to compromise. But the bottom line is that we get what we vote for.

Marc Wollin of Bedford will vote because it’s his responsibility, not because he thinks either side has the answers. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.