U.S. Government's Undemocratic Elements, Rooted In History, Plague Politics Today

Roundup: Talking About History

Christopher Reed, The Business Times Singapore, 12 Oct. 2004

The United States is always urging other nations to embrace its form of government. But although it is the world's oldest constitutional democracy - formed more than 200 years ago when some important countries of today did not even exist - not one foreign state has ever adopted the American system.

The reasons for this are simple, though they require a knowledge of history. Because the US form of democracy was decided in the late 18th century, important aspects are outmoded today. It is also extraordinarily complicated, so much so that many Americans still fail to understand it.

These citizens were shocked after the last presidential election in late 2000, when it became clear that although Vice-President Al Gore, the Democrat, had 530,000 more votes than his opponent, the Republican George W Bush, the latter was headed for the White House.

This November, a similar outcome is possible, perhaps with the parties' fortunes actually reversed. The final spectacle on Jan 6, 2001, when Mr Gore presided in Congress over the formal registration of his own defeat, exposed another shocker: Americans do not directly vote for their president (in fact the Constitution offers no federal right to vote at all).

Instead, something called the Electoral College had taken over. This was not a group of academic political scientists, but a few hundred loyal party members, or 'electors', from every state but two, who were pledged to elect the president in a winner-take-all final ballot. That was why the election in Florida was vital; its electoral college votes decided the result.

There are deep flaws in this system, and it has been contested unsuccessfully in countless constitutional amendments over two centuries. Twice, in 1800 and 1888, the outcome went against the popular vote, and the result was disputed and critical in 1824 and 1876.

The US was embarrassed by the 2000 debacle, but rarely discussed is something even more mortifying: That the basic reasons for the electoral college are anti-democratic and racist.

The founding fathers invented it to block what they feared as 'mob rule' in choosing the president, but it also functions unfairly due to a reason rooted in slavery.

Only in November last year came a scholarly book devoted singularly to this unpleasant complication. The distinguished historian Garry Wills published, Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power, about the 1800 election and how Thomas Jefferson's victory depended on the nation's population of disenfranchised slaves. Hence the derisory name given him that provided Mr Wills with his title.

Three-fifths rule

In a notorious decision in the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the founding fathers decided that each slave would count as three-fifths of a white person. This was not because they literally believed that's all the humanity African-Americans possessed.

It was instead a compromise fraction to allay threatened rebellion from the less citizen-populated Southern states, by increasing population numbers that counted in each state in the region. This in turn decided the allocation of its congressional representatives - and the electoral college votes to which each state was entitled.

In the words of John Quincy Adams, America's sixth president, it was 'the triumph of the South over the North; of slave representation over the purely free'. Its effects also gave the South disproportionate dominance over much of US political history, even up to today.

The three-fifths rule granted the South greater influence on federal affairs, because not only did it influence presidential elections, but the structure of the senate.

Again, with Southern support, smaller states got two US senators each, the same as the larger ones, despite the latter's objections. So that today Wyoming, with under one million population, has the same number of senators as California, with 30 million. Both of each state's senators are also added to the electoral college vote totals, once more giving smaller states an advantage. Not to have counted the US senators would have brought Mr Gore victory in 2000.

In his book, Mr Wills points out that historians have ignored the three-fifths clause because it directly influenced only one presidential election, but disproportionate Southern political power - based on slave ownership - helped shape America.

For decades slave states held one-third more congressional seats than their free populations warranted. Before 1850, slaveholders also controlled the presidency for 50 years, held the speakership for 41 years, and provided 18 of 31 Supreme Court justices.

This imbalance undoubtedly prolonged slavery as an institution, and it certainly allowed its establishment in Missouri, as well as permitted the expulsion of native Americans from their ancestral lands. Altogether, more than a quarter of US presidents in its entire history owned slaves.

Adams again, in 1843, told the House of Representatives: 'Your country is no longer a democracy, it is not even a republic. It is a government of 2,000-3,000 holders of slaves, to the utter exclusion of the remaining part.'

Not exactly the proud history of a nation devoted to rule by the people, for the people, and of the people; or of one person, one vote. The racist and undemocratic elements of the three-fifths clause continue to influence the US Senate today. By deliberately creating an institution more on the lines of the British House of Lords than a democratic assembly for the people, the senate is today overwhelmingly composed of rich white men.

The senate's own majority is held by members from the 26 smallest states, representing only 18 per cent of the nation's population. It has no black senator and over half of the 100 are millionaires. The nine largest states, containing a majority of Americans and including New York and California, are represented by just 18 of the 100.

This means that these few men - the senate's percentage of women is still well below a fifth - directly control what becomes law in the US. It is, according to American historian and author Richard Rosenfeld, 'a grotesque monument to (an) anti-democratic legacy'.

In an essay calling for the abolition of the US senate, he adds that the institution, 'remains largely a preserve of wealthy white male aristocrats drawn from an entirely different economic class than the people they purport to represent. . . disadvantaging women, blacks, the young, and other groups with smaller percentages of millionaires.'

The combined impact of the electoral college system and the continuing bias towards small, country populations as against large cities, contributes to voter apathy. Less than half of entitled Americans cast a ballot, in many cases because they believe it does not count.

And because of the electoral college requirement, unless they live in a swing state - of which there are only about 17 of the 50 this time - their presidential vote does not indeed count.

Most conservative

Of almost all Western democracies, the US is the most conservative. If its electoral system was fairer, the Democrats would more often have held the presidency in recent decades, instead of increasingly conservative Republicans. Its senate would also be more liberal.

American democracy, it can be argued, is broken, but it will not be fixed. Why? Because the small states have to agree to constitutional changes that would cost them power. They are not about to surrender that.

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