The missing mid-term mid-ground
|Tiistaina, 2. marraskuuta 2010 3 kommentti(a)||
Americans have a lot of democracy. It is only two years since the hysteria of President Obama’s election, but today Americans are returning to the polls for the mid-term elections. Outside of the US, as well as domestically, the Tea Party with their vehemently conservative and populist views, and some rather eccentric candidates, have captured attention. The rhetoric has become so polarized and at times extreme, that Jon Stewart, America’s satirist-in-chief could attract tens of thousands to join him in Washington DC last weekend for a “Rally for Sanity”, where people turned up with witty signs to declare their intense moderation in response. But what pushes American politics to the level of polarization where those who feel they are the ignored middle would rally to declare this (and have a fun day out with a picnic)?
Senators serve six year terms whilst Representatives in the House serve two year terms, hence every two years certain sections of the Congress take their turn to face the electorate. Additionally at state and local levels, more elected offices come up for election. Finally, certain states take the opportunity of their citizens coming to the polls to ask them their opinions in referendums; in California for example these citizens’ propositions can be added to the ballot if enough signatures are gathered by activists. Today for example, along with selecting many of their politicians, Californians have the chance to have their say on whether they think marijuana should be legalized in their state – along with many other questions.
This of course means that American politics is in almost constant campaign mode. And to campaign well takes money, hence fundraising for campaigns is another constant. And then, not only do politicians have to compete with their rival in the other party (the US is essentially a two-party system), firstly they have to compete within their own party. This mid-term election has shown this viciously with the rise of ‘Tea Party’ who have supported candidates running within Republican primaries. The Tea Party favourites have in many places stood against a Republican backed by the national or local party and won. The primary system is in many ways more democratic than most European systems, where party representatives in a certain election is decided amongst the party hierarchy, not by that party’s supporters in that electoral district. Nevertheless the primary system is one of the important ways US politics is becoming increasingly polarized – both Democrats and Republicans need to appeal to activists and partisans who are most likely to organize for, and vote in, primaries. Hence Republicans tend to get pushed to the right (as the Tea Party has done this year) and Democrats go further left, as organized labour and the “net roots” – young, progressive activists – become central interest groups in helping to select Democrat candidates.
Secondly the media, and in particular 24 hour cable news, pushes the separation further. Fox News is often seen as central to this, although scurrilously partisan newspapers go back to the birth of the Republic. But Fox News is also a business model, and other channels have realized that by identifying with one side of the partisan divide, you can attract a loyal audience. Now other ‘news’ channels are trying to do the same on the left. Even if cable news still does not actually attract particularly large audiences, it helps set the agenda by defining the ‘news cycle’. The White House and Congress are forever having to ‘react’ to stories that were brought to the fore by cable news.
Finally, redistricting is central to how US politics works. Redistricting – the ability for elected officials to draw the boundaries of their own electoral districts – means that in effect, politicians pick their voters rather than voters picking their politicians. Bizarrely shaped districts are created that snake around enclosing certain suburbs but excluding others, all in an effort for the politicians to be able to gain the maximum support by predicting who will vote for them by their socio-economic and racial profile. This means increasing numbers of ‘safe seats’, where the ‘other’ party has little chance of winning. Instead politicians, Democrat or Republican, become captured by their special interests – the supporting groups within their party, again pushing them left or right. With safe seats there is no need to fight for the middle ground.
In California, most attention has been paid to Proposition 19, on legalizing “da’ weed”, but before Californians toke up and chill out, they should consider Prop 20 – the creation of an independent, expert and most importantly – non-partisan panel for future redistricting in their state. With some real competition between Democrats and Republicans, perhaps Californians will find the missing middle ground once again.
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