Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

April 21, 2014

Stumptalk: It depends on what you mean

By Phillip J. Chesser
Chronicle contributor

CROSSVILLE — A writer’s headline asks, “Do we really believe in democracy?” To which I answer, “What do you mean by democracy?” For years California has had the purest form of direct democracy, the initiative petition, which people like when it goes their way and dislike when it doesn’t. For example, the recently passed California initiative that upheld traditional marriage, which was supported overwhelmingly by ethnic minorities (blacks and Latinos) but struck down by the court, was liked by some and disliked by others. My educated guess is that the writer disliked the outcome of direct democracy in that instance and approved of the very undemocratic court decision that struck it down. 

Another famous California initiative from the 1970s, Proposition 13, which limited the state’s taxing power, was disliked by big government advocates. Again, I’m guessing the writer was among them. Like many private money fearing reformers, he will insist that both initiatives passed because their alleged corporate authors were supported by corporate big money, which was private money, of course.

To create what they think will be more democratic politics, many reformers favor taxpayer funding of elections. Perennial Presidential candidate and political nag Ralph Nader calls it public funding. But public funding would also favor a select elite, incumbent office holders. If passed it could be properly called the Incumbent Protection Act. By the way, why is money extorted from taxpayers any less tainted than privately solicited money? Is not the government also a special interest?        

Popular notions of democracy come from the Enlightenment belief that people are reasonable and will do the reasonable thing when properly informed (history has shown again and again that this is not true). Even so, men of the Enlightenment like our Founders didn’t trust the unwashed masses. They created a republican government of elected and appointed representatives where the voting franchise was limited to property owning white males, and only members of the House of Representatives were directly elected by the people.

The messy system we now have lies atop years of expanding voting rights to everyone. Today no American citizen is denied his right to vote unless he is a convicted felon. The American election system is more democratic than it has ever been. Still people complain. For example, many say that requiring voter ID unfairly discriminates against certain disadvantaged people. That is a huge stretch. One cannot do much of anything of importance in our country without showing ID, yet requiring it for voting is somehow undemocratic.

Opponents of voter ID say its proponents want to limit voter turnout — yes, they want to limit turnout to legally eligible voters — but one can just as easily charge that those who oppose voter ID do so because requiring ID makes stealing elections more difficult. I find the latter more compelling. Voter fraud has a long and storied history in both rural and big city Democratic machine politics.

After eliminating the influence of private money in elections, reformers also want to eliminate the Electoral College in presidential elections, since sometimes, for example with Bush/Gore in 2000, a candidate can get a plurality of popular votes and still lose in the Electoral College. That doesn’t happen often but it did in 2000, a situation from which Democrats have yet to recover. They complain that an illegitimate (conservative dominated) US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush. They wanted the legitimate to them Democrat dominated Florida Supreme Court to make the final decision.

Eliminating the Electoral College could cause problems greater than it would cure. In an election like 2000 where the plurality was a miniscule 150,000 votes in a nation of 300 million, without the Electoral College, resolution of contested elections would be almost impossible. Whether one liked the outcome or not, the conflict in 2000 was confined to one state, Florida. Had it not been for the Electoral College the contested election would have taken years to resolve because there were reports of irregularities in other states. In a nation as big as the US, think of what enormous efforts it would have taken to recount votes in other states.

By the way, there has never been a public groundswell of support for elimination of the Electoral College, and professional politicians in both parties are noticeably reticent when the subject comes up. That’s because both parties benefit from a system that limits the potential power of third parties. Their overheated rhetoric against each other notwithstanding, Republicans and Democrats dislike third parties even more than they dislike each other.

Finally, I return to the writer. Like many reformers he appears to believe that removing private money from politics and eliminating the Electoral College would produce a better … something. But what would that be and how would it be better? It is as if there exists a hidden but virtuous group of citizens who would, if freed from the constraints of fund raising, emerge to create an electoral system of sweetness and light. But here I’m being generous. The reformer’s true motive is the creation of a system dominated by his folks, his version of the good guys. That way his ideas will prevail.