Musing on US Citizenship – D. Hamilton

Musing on US Citizenship.

In the recent presidential election in France, over 80% of those eligible to vote, did so. 93% of the voting age population were registered. Hence, about 74% of all eligible adults voted.

By comparison, in the US registration was 73% of eligible adults. The percentage of adults eligible is somewhat depressed compared to the total adult population by the removal of voting rights for prisoners (over 2 million US citizens), past felons and the high number of undocumented immigrants (estimated 12 million). Of those remaining eligible, 67% voted in the last presidential election, the election that draws the highest turnout. Hence, no more than 49% of total adult population actually voted in that election, probably less, and less than 2/3s of the comparable percentage in the French election.

US Congress has 535 members – 435 in the House of Representatives, 100 in the Senate. All are members of either the Democratic or Republican parties except 2 independent senators, both integrated into the Democratic Party caucus.

French National Assembly has 577 members. All are elected from relatively small local districts. As a result of the recent parliamentary elections, 88.7% of the new National Assembly members will belong to the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (46.4%) or the Socialist Party (42.3%). But at least 17 other parties won one or more seats. The fourth largest party with 15 seats (down from 22) is the French Communist Party. “Other left-wing parties” also won 15 and the Greens won 4. The once powerful extreme rightist National Front was shut out, gaining only .1% of the vote. There is also a French Senate, but it is relatively powerless.

Obviously, the French system favors diversity. The US system does not.

The significance of the results of this French parliamentary election depends on the pre-existing status of each major political party and the pre-election expectations created by pollsters and media. In this election, the expectation was that the “blue tsunami” of newly elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy, would continue, bringing a super-majority to Sarkozy’s UPM party. They already had a big majority they hoped to expand on the coattails of the new president’s momentum. It didn’t happen. Instead, the Socialist Party, even with publicly divided leadership, made a comeback and the far-right National Front failed to win a single seat. Sarkozy’s party (which can no longer truly call itself “Guallist”) still commands a healthy majority, but it was significantly diminished. The UPM lost 45 seats to 314, including the defeat of one of Sarkozy’s most powerful ministers, Alain Juppé. The Socialist Party gained 36, rising to 185.

It would appear that a significant number of French voters decided for the balancing benefits of divided government. They put a brake on Mr. Sarkozy’s plans only weeks after his presidential victory. Two years ago, these insightful and independent French voters blocked passage of a European Constitution that would have enshrined the rights of neo-liberal capitalism over people. Every major party supported its passage except the Communists. It failed regardless. A comparable example of US voter independence is unimaginable.

In Houston last week, there was a special election for one city counsel seat. Democrat Melissa Noriega won over her Republican opponent. The turn out was 3%. In the Dallas mayoral race the same day, the turn out was “surprisingly high” at about 13%. Turnout percentages for French local elections are exponentially higher.

Why is voter participation so much higher at all levels and more independent in France? One, the French system encourages it. All French elections are held on Sunday’s when the most people are not working. When you are able to vote for several parties that actually have a chance to win, you feel more empowered. The US system discourages it. US presidential elections are held on a Tuesday by virtue of a law intended to depress participation. Choices are very limited and it’s winner take all. Money dominates largely by defining who is a legitimate candidate and limiting the range of the acceptable. Hence, for many voters, why bother? That reasonable response is the purpose of those who define the systems inner workings.

But that’s only the beginning. Actually, the processes which have intentionally eroded the citizenship of the US population manifest most importantly is the purposeful transformation of citizens into consumers. The prevailing credo is “he who dies with the most toys wins”. Lifestyle choices are taught to be much more important than political choices and apolitical in themselves.

The democracy practiced in the US is an increasingly atrophied and enfeebled version of democracy’s potential. Its performance is surpassed consistently by other political systems, especially in Europe and Latin America. The factors that lead to this decline are becoming more powerful and will exacerbate the process over time. US democracy will likely collapse altogether at some future crisis point.

Unless countervailing forces are written into law, a lack of economic democracy invariably undermines the potential for political democracy. Political power in the US is another commodity. A political system under the control of an economic elite caters to its economic interests, worsening the degree of economic parity and thereby further eroding the level of democracy within the system.

David Hamilton

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