It has often struck me that the 'first past the post' system of electing representatives for a parliament is probably the worst way to determine who goes to any legislature. Why? Put simply, because it inevitably means that the 'winner' represents only those who voted for him/her. If one is lucky enough to have a constituency MP who believes he/she is there to fairly represent ALL their constituents, it can work. The example of the Rev Ian Paisley comes to mind. He was a superb "constituency" MP, who received, listened to, and tried to assist everyone who came to him, regardless of their allegiance to Rome, Republicanism or anything else. Sadly, all too often the Party ideology overrides the interests of those who do not support an MPs particular ideological position. This is when, in a real democracy, some effort is made to compromise. In a system where the emphasis is on a choice between two parties to govern, and a range of small parties who are little more than a distraction, compromise is often the first casualty.
I have noted with some irritation, our media prattling on about the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to 'compromise' with their opposition. I'm irritated by this precisely because they are one of the major reasons for the polarisation in British politics and in the US. Frankly, I find the fact that Britain currently has a coalition in government healthy. They are having to listen to other perspectives and trade off policy decisions against their partner's 'wish list' as well. Looking back at the history of government in the UK, some of the best periods of government, some of the most stable, have been during periods of coalition. The 1930s are a prime example. A government of "National Unity" governed the country out of the Depression and through most of the second World War. As Josephus reminded me, the Labour Government that took power before the end of the war lost no time in rushing through a programme of "nationalisation" immediately they took power - with some near disasterous effects for those fighting in the Far East, which Labour more or less "forgot" about.
The US currently has probably the most extreme example of a "polarised" government, and what is missing from the media reports here is that the "government" of President Obama doesn't have a majority in both Houses of Congress. Even before the 2011 election, when they did, by a slim margin, control both Senate and Congress, the margin was so slim they often depended on the handful of "independents" to pass their Bills. Nor is this the first time - despite media outrage at the GOP - that Congress has brought about a "shut down" of government. In the last thirty years this has happened 17 times - 15 of those because the Democrats refused to pass budgets for Republican Presidents. Josephus' commented that in a democracy the first past the post system dictates that the "gvernment" is formed by whoever ends up with the most seats in Parliament - and that is where the American system differs dramatically from the UK. The election of the President does not depend on the number of direct votes cast by the people, but on the number of "electors" each State elects favouring one candidate or another. The election to Congress is more like the UK system with each Congressman representing a constituency and elected by a "majority" of voters in that constituency.
The Senate tends to be determined by whether a State is "Democrat" or "Republican" and very few outsiders break through that. So how "democratic" is that system?
Again, as Josephus reminded us a few days ago, the US Congress deals with thousands of Bills each session and it is impossible for them to read each one - so they use a system of "committees" who draft the legislation, sort it all out, then bring it to the House, commend it or condemn it to their colleagues and a vote is taken. Enough "Ayes" and it becomes Law, too many "Nays" and it fails. All without the majority of those voting on it having had any input, or, frequently, without having much more idea of what it will do, or how it will impact people, than the "spin" put out by its supporters. That seems to me to be a major weakness in the system, and a major cause for polarisation and dispute.
At the heart of the current dispute is the "Obamacare" Bill, divisive and hotly disputed from start to finish. It is over a thousand pages in length, was rammed through on the eve of the election in 2011, and got not a single Republican vote in either House. So to accuse the GOP of being disingenuous now is a little off the mark. Not one of their objections or amendments were adopted by the drafting committee, indeed, that committee seems to have gone out of its way to avoid any form of compromise. Some of my American friends are furious about the shut down, but they are equally furious, worried and deeply disturbed by the way their Medicare premiums have been hiked, the conditions of their policies changed and the long term impact this will have on their employment and finances.
Interestingly the Bill was challenged in the US Supreme Court, and the Court ruled that it was within the Constitutional remit of the Federal Government because it is a tax. Yet President Obama's government is adamant that it isn't a "tax". How does the Court rule that it is, and therefore Constitutional, while its proponents argue that it isn't a tax? It seems to me that this is just one of the things wrong at the very heart of this dispute.
President Obama won a majority in the presidential race, he did not win majorities on the Senate or Congress. The Democrats control the Senate because three Independents were elected in place of three GOP Senators, and the GOP have a small majority in the House of Representatives. The Senate and the Representatives face elections next year, so, in part, those dispute is playing to the gallery of the elctorate and it can still backfire badly on both Parties.
We, outside the US system, are also not aware of the fact there are a number of court cases in progress concerning voter fraud. One woman has recently been jailed in one such case, proudly boasting that she voted no less than twelve times. How is this possible? The answer exposes yet another polarising dispute - in Democrat controlled cities and States, there is no voter ID required. In other words anyone can walk into a Polling Station, claim to be a voter and vote - as often as you like apparently if some of the court cases are to be believed. In Republican controlled States and cities, voter registration and voter ID is required, so there is a measure of control. However, then we hit "electronic voting" and voting machines that punch the ballot paper ... and plenty of arguments over both of those.
As Josephus said, in the first past the post system, whoever has the majority wins, and rules, but, and this is where I think the people in the US need to think long and hard, if there is fraud, polarisation and doubt as to the validity of an outcome - you have a house of cards and it will collapse eventually under the weight of fraud, distrust and mismanagement. History abounds with examples - but, like certain UK politicians, the fashion these days is to "not do history".
Ben Franklin and all the other Founding Fathers would, I think, be appalled.
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