Friday, November 23, 2012

Is This Any Way to Run a Democracy?

There has been much in the news worthy of commentary in the far-too-long since I’ve written here: a number of worthy Curmie nominees, some political specifics (the Benghazi kerfuffle, the Hamas/Israel showdown, etc.). But most of all, there’s the election earlier this month. I’ll try to get to some of those other topics over the next few days or weeks, but I know where I have to start.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time analyzing the results themselves, which could be described as a rather predictable but thorough ass-whipping by the party that has lost its soul over the party that has lost its mind… or, rather, over the party that has lost its mind as well as its soul. The Democrats put forward some pretty sketchy candidates of their own, but neither party has nominated a presidential candidate so completely mendacious and two-faced as Mitt Romney in at least my lifetime… still, who was the alternative?

Newt Gingrich, who is at best a caricature of the smart and savvy (utterly unethical, but smart and savvy) Speaker he once was? Rick Santorum, whose only saving grace is that he might actually believe some of the nonsense he spews? Ron Paul, who has a handful of good and interesting ideas but is from another planet on too many issues to be taken seriously as a contender? One-time leader Herman Cain, who was slightly less qualified to President than someone chosen random from the phone book? Certifiably certifiable Michele Bachmann? Or one-time “sure thing” Rick Perry, who proved to be too incompetent even for Republicans in any state where he doesn’t have a political machine beholden to him?

The good news is that the likes of Romney and Allen West and Todd Akin lost. Indeed, there was a pretty good house-cleaning. And marriage equality won in four out of four states in which it was on the ballot, either positively (specifically legalizing) or negatively (refusing to pass a constitutional amendment against it). But Bachmann squeaked out a re-election and idiots like Tom Coburn and Louis Gohmert coasted to victory. And a fresh new crop of morons, headed by Texas’s own Ted Cruz, will be descending on Washington, DC and on state capitols over the next few weeks.

What I really want to consider, however, is not who won, but what it means. Specifically, do the Democrats have a “mandate”? Short answer: sort of.

Certainly November 6 was a better day to be a Democrat than a Republican. But President Obama’s re-election was hardly a landslide. Yes, a difference of over 100 electoral votes is pretty impressive. Candidate Romney took precisely one, one state (North Carolina) that anyone considered anything like a tossup two months before the election. He took one other state (Indiana) that Obama won in 2008. That’s it. And when the conservative pundits emerged from their fact-averse bunkers to assure the Fox News-watching sheeple that “their” candidate (whom they actually hated nearly as much as they did… you know… the black guy) would win by a “landslide” (here, here, and here, for example), they meant something precisely on the order of the 100+ EV victory Obama actually achieved.

Still, Mr. Obama barely eked out a popular vote majority. Votes are still being counted in some jurisdictions, but it looks like the President will get a little less than 51% of the popular vote to Mr. Romney’s 47.5% or so, with the remaining votes divided among Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, et al.. Yes, that’s about a 4 million vote difference, but it falls well short of my definition of “landslide,” which would involve a 10-point difference. Obama’s victory margin was roughly a third of that.

Moreover, Obama lost ground in a host of states: he won by less or lost by more in 46 states and DC relative to his performance against John McCain four years ago. And whereas McCain was less than an ideal candidate and chose a certifiable idiot as a running mate, he was still more experienced, more intelligent, more principled, more charismatic, more populist, and in general less of a plutocratic jackass than Romney. That doesn’t exactly add up to a full-throated endorsement of President Obama.

What really did break for the Democrats was the legislature. Yes, the Republicans maintained control of the House. With a couple of races still up in the air, it looks like a comfortable 235-200 GOP advantage, give or take a vote or two. Trouble is, Democrats actually got more votes: about a half a million more votes, to be a little more precise. Why the disparity between the number of votes and the number of those elected? In a word, gerrymandering.

This isn’t (just) a screed against evil Republicans. The excellent analysis by Adam Serwer, Jaeah Lee, and Zaineb Mohammed at Mother Jones shows that Democrats aren’t above a little… erm… massaging themselves, as evidenced by Maryland and Illinois. But there’s relatively speaking more manipulation by Republican governors and state legislators than by their Democratic counterparts: a function of opportunity rather than relative perfidiousness, no doubt. The seven states highlighted in the Mother Jones piece that were gerrymandered by Republicans all voted for Obama at least once; six voted for him twice. Yet all have majority Republican House representation. Pennsylvanians, for example, cast about 60,000 more votes for Democratic candidates than for Republicans. Their Congressional delegation? 13 Republicans and 5 Democrats. Coincidence? Justice? Honest representation? I think not. Slimebag politicians more interested in their party than in their constituents? Oh, yeah.

In the Senate, the Democrats really cleaned up. Without equivocating about the two “independents” who caucus with the Democrats, the Democrats defended 23 seats compared to only 10 for the GOP. And the Dems actually gained seats. They replaced the squirrelly Joe Lieberman with “real Democrat” Chris Murphy, regained Ted Kennedy’s seat with populist favorite Elizabeth Warren, and—thanks to the GOP’s nomination of the moronic Richard Mourdock—flipped Dick Lugar’s seat in Indiana. Honest-to-God independent Angus King replaced retiring Republican Olympia Snowe. The only bad news for Democrats was Bob Kerrey’s inability to hold Ben Nelson’s seat in Nebraska… but Nelson’s was never a reliable vote, anyway.

Where does all this leave us? With a President who claims a mandate despite getting less than 51% of the vote against a terrible candidate. With a Speaker who claims a mandate despite losing the popular vote. With a clear statement only with respect to the Senate, but with that body saddled by inane filibuster rules and personal privilege nonsense that allows a single obstructionist to derail, well, virtually anything.

With an arcane and anti-democratic Electoral College system that skews proportional representation: there are about 677,000 Californians per electoral vote, vs. 209,000 Vermonters per electoral vote. Yes, that’s more than a 3:1 ratio. Worse, there is no incentive for Barack Obama to care in the slightest about my vote because I live in Texas, or for Mitt Romney to care about the votes of my high school friends who still live in New York. Worse still, the resulting over-emphasis on places like Ohio and Florida leads not merely to an inundation of political advertising in those states, but to a level of pandering to special interests that ought to be unacceptable even in our all-too-venal political system: would we even be talking about crap like “clean coal technology” if it weren’t for the fact that a few thousand votes in southern Ohio might actually tip a national election even if the rest of the country decides otherwise by literally millions of votes.

Finally, fraud has a greater chance of mattering. Flipping 100,000 votes wouldn’t have made any difference in the popular vote in any election since 1960. Flipping the right 100,000 votes—in Florida in 2000 or Ohio in 2004—would have changed outcomes. Thus, the claims of the Anonymous (?) folks that they prevented Karl Rove and his nasty little minions from stealing Ohio for Romney are… well, they’re a lot of things, including a little more plausible. True Believers like Thom Hartmannare are convinced that’s why Rove was so smarmily confident on Fox News on election night: that he thought (incorrectly) that the fix was in. (Of course, Hartmann is convinced the 2004 election was stolen, too.) At best, the Electoral College helps to erode the confidence of the public that election results are accurate. At worst, we get a President and a Congress whom most of us voted against.

What’s to be done?

When They Make Me Tsar ©:
We do away with the Electoral College, or at least circumvent it.
We eliminate the arcane rules of the Senate, especially but not exclusively the filibuster.
We pull re-districting from partisan control.
We overturn the legalized anonymity part (at least) of the Citizens United decision.

Can all this happen? It must. Because the status quo is well short of a democracy.

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