If our democracy makes your eyes glaze over,
Chile offers a refresher course on the possibility
A frog in the well knows nothing of the great ocean. That Chinese parable is about a frog living within the walls of a well that is told by a turtle of a great ocean. In junior high, I was that frog.
I was taught that democracy had a brand — U.S.A. My government classes explained that democracy had been perfected within our borders. The model was representative government with three branches providing balance — a Senate and a House in Congress, an Executive branch, and a Supreme Court. It was such a brilliant brand that it only made sense that we should export it to the world. And, if the rest of the world resisted, well we also had the most powerful military in the world.
In college, I learned something else. The veil of perfection for this model was drawn back to reveal that African-Americans did not have the right to vote in many places; in Texas, we even had the barrier of a poll tax still in place. I also learned that my elected representatives didn’t represent my view of the war in Vietnam.
Then I heard of another idea of democracy, written about in the Port Huron Statement.
Then I heard of another idea of democracy — written about in the Port Huron Statement — that people should have the right to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. It was, for me, an exhilarating, transformative concept. It emboldened many of my generation to participate directly in changing the world.
We lived by those rules, outside the electoral cycles, outside plaintiff appeals to congressional representatives. We were nourished and forever changed by movements for social justice. Make democracy, not war, could have been on our buttons. In a way, it was. The shorthand for me was Students for a Democratic Society, and the diminutive buttons simply said, in lower case, light brown letters “sds.”
Still, when I consider elections, it is hard for me to shake off the junior high versions of government. This came into focus as I read recent news from South America. Chile is shaking off an electoral system that has existed since the first elections after the military coup. As I read about it, I realized that it is about as hard to explain as the U.S. Electoral College.
Chile had relied upon a complicated
Chile had relied upon a complicated binomial system. Twenty-five years, and five presidential elections, passed after the end of the Chilean dictatorship with the binomial system introduced by the dictatorship. President Michelle Bachelet, now serving a second (by Chilean law non-consecutive) term, pushed the changes forward through Congress.
A spokesman for the Bachelet administration, Alvarao Elizalde, described the electoral reforms this way: “From now on, Congress will represent the social, political, and cultural diversity of the country. Thirty percent will never equal 60 percent ever again, which happened under the unacceptable distortions of the binomial system.”
Chile’s binomial system favored two coalitions, the right-wing Alianza and the center-left Concertación. But, the list-based, rather than candidate-based, system could have bizarre results. Votes were tallied first by list — either for two deputies or two senators. Unless the list with the first majority got double the voting of the second majority, each of the lists got one of their candidates, the one with the highest vote count. A candidate with the most votes didn’t always win, the member at the top of the two main coalitions list won. Third-party leaders were left out even if they reached second place, because their entire list had to come in as second.
Please consider what happens in a winner-take-all system dominated by two centrist parties.
If your eyes are glazing over, if this sounds crazy, please consider what happens in a winner-take-all system dominated by two centrist parties. That’s our U.S.A brand. Third parties are usually precluded from representation. Then, add the bizarre effect of the Electoral College on presidential elections.
Try explaining this to someone from another country. You might find it hard to get past the most important point. “You mean the U.S. president isn’t elected by a popular vote?” You would have to explain that the president and vice-president aren’t elected directly by the voters. They are elected by 538 electors, allocated according to the number of Congressional representatives each state and D.C. has. The winner takes all with two exceptions. Only in Nebraska and Maine are the electors allocated according to the popular vote.
A foreigner might ask, “What are ‘swing states’?” You’d have to explain that those are states where the outcome of the presidential election is very close. Then you could explain that is why presidential candidates concentrate on Ohio more than California, Texas, and New York — the three largest population states.
Are you feeling like a frog in a well?
Well, are your eyes glazing over? Are you feeling like a frog in a well? This is our famous democracy brand. Try to explain it to the rest of the world.
Now deform this democratic brand further by the imposition of “Corporations as People,” e.g. Citizens United. Allow the spigots of the super PACs and super wealth to taint your campaigns. Mix in toxic, sound-bite-addicted corporate media. Let highly partisan state legislatures gerrymander districts. Impose barriers on voting. Explain how winner-take-all bars minority parties from Congressional representation. You will have a tough time explaining, much less imposing this model on the rest of the world.
But, Chile provides a refresher course on the possibility of change. Under pressure from student activists and others, Chile is overhauling their electoral system. The reforms will increase the number of deputies and senatorial seats. The law also calls for gender quotas of 60-4o for candidates. The right in Chile wants a Supreme Court review of the reforms, but they have now passed into law.
Democracy is always a work in progress. We sometimes need to remember to make our way to the top of the well and peer over the edge.
Read more articles by Alice Embree on The Rag Blog.
[Rag Blog associate editor Alice Embree is co-chair of the Friends of New Journalism and a veteran of SDS, the original Rag, and the Women’s Liberation Movement. Alice is a long-time Austin activist, organizer, and member of the Texas State Employees Union.]