Alice Embree :
Democracy and the frog in the well

If our democracy makes your eyes glaze over,
Chile offers a refresher course on the possibility
of change.


Vote Frog! Drawing from Character Design Class.

By Alice Embree | The Rag Blog | October 1, 2015

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
binomial system.

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.]

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3 Responses to Alice Embree :
Democracy and the frog in the well

  1. richard jehn says:

    Can frogs drown? Thank you for this gentle reminder about how much work we have to do, Alice.

    • monte mckenzie says:

      yes, they can. Frogs, that is!
      oil production is the monster being saved and extended everytime an American turns the key on that gas guzzler to fetch a loaf of bread or ??? at the store 5 miles away. I have actually watched one of my healthy neighbors drive their car 100 yards to their mailbox at the road in front of their house daily, and another who drives to the post office 5 days a week (roughly 15 miles round trip because he doesn’t want to put up a rural mailbox…Someone might see what he was getting in the mail!
      “google” miles driven per yr. and accidents per 1,000,000miles and the deaths and injuries etc then calculate the cost of insurance and losses and lives and pollution in cleaning up and disposing of the junk and law suits etc all for a private car to get to the mailbox and grocery store and for some … to work! every spring I get mad when I se that jerk on television telling people to “feed it, feed it”, referring to their lawn of course, Americans put more fertilizer on their lawns than the country of India uses on all the crops grown to feed their country!
      If that wern’t bad enough Americans put more water on lawns than on crops! even when there is a water shortage. google that also. see the water wasted on lawns!
      I know of a subdivision 30 miles from us that fines people for not watering and cutting their lawn! I haven’t cut a lawn now for 5 years except to cut it for hay once a year, I’d do it twice if we ever got enough rain to raise a midsummer crop. We don’t get enough from june till November to raise a vegetable garden without some weekly watering from the well. Our garden is 90% of our food for the year…we do buy coffee, tea, sugar, exotic spices not grown in WV & dry those that do grow here. We are mostly self sufficient even in our seed saving for crops we depend on as well. We make cheese several kinds and butter etc just look down the dairy counter and we get it all from our cow. We give away more eggs than we use but we eat chicken 25 or so weeks a year,so we have an electric brouder to hatch 25 to 50 chicks each year. We have a small flock of sheep and deer are a nuscence so we butcher and bottle those meats as well as vegies. Most of our neighbors no longer try to raise gardens like the old days.. every family had a big garden and usually a small grain crop as well. They watered from the well using a well bucket or hand pump. now everyone has an electric well pump. but not much garden and those that have one infrequently freeze or bottle up the proceeds ,just eat it in season and buy food the rest of the year. America can do better, we can be free of all fossil fuel use by 2025 at the least! We can switch to mass transit. or electric cars and only those who have to have them for providing services like first responders and critical services. No jobs should work more than 35 hours a week. leaving time for growing food and volunteering for the community services . all this would eliminate most of the need for oil wasting recreation … From my farm to the river it’s 2 miles walk a good exercise to go fishing on a sunday afternoon. And if all those other changes had been made… maybe the water in the river would be fit to drink like when my grandfather used to go fishing on a sunday afternoon.
      To get free of coal & oil we need to develop all known geothermal as well as build thorium salt reactors and communities like mine should have biogas and solar electric generation.
      Communities that have really mountainous enviornments, should have solar and pumped hydro. all this is technology at least 5 years old and most is older not rocket science… our large geothermal units would be the basis for industry making all this stuff and we should start a new concept of “efficiency evaluation”, that considers all aspects of costs from basic manufacturing to recycling as well as maintence during a utilities useful life. LCE “life cycle engineering”; rethink all needs and services so that nothing is duplicated and nothing that is in fact a utility would be duplicated…all insurance types are useless except to make money for a few and need to be considered utilities and treated like that just like sewer and water. all basic services food heathcare etc. are “utilities” and need to be universally free & equally available in our post war economy.
      I see that my measured space for comment has nearly expired and my… “longwinded comment” space available is over… I’m not egotistic enough to think I’m the only person arguing like this… Noam Chomsky,Chris Hedges, Jill Stine, Joe Stigletz, Rich Wolf, and many others!
      In 1933, Rosevelt, utilizing a purely socialist philosophy made changes that let capitalism survive till it again ran itself to obilivian. Capitolism’s a failure and humankind cannot afford the waste generated by the peak and bust cycle of satisfying human needs, has to stop! Some system “call it whatever you like” that puts best practice engineering as the guideing principal for least cost satisfaction of all human wants & needs as the gold standard of wants and needs satisfaction. Others will say this differently and it will be just as valid. HOWEVER! All human endevors must be analyzed to satisfy at the least cost of resources all human wants and needs while supplying them to all, as equally as possible. That would produce a world utilizing the fewest resources for the greatest needs satisfaction. Whatever that economic system came to be named, is what we must develop to survive.

  2. Philip Russell says:

    There’s a movement to correct the craziness of the electoral college, which can be done without amending the constitution. Since states can determine how their electoral votes are apportioned, all states have to do is declare the following, “This states’ electoral votes all to to the candidate receiving the most national votes nationally.” Such a statement is accompanied by the provision declaring that the above allocation will only become operative when states with a majority of the electoral votes adopt it.”

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