"American Primary System Fails to Impress Europeans"


Deutsche Welle, the English language on-line news site, reports that intelligent Europeans who study our political system essentially think the way we select candidates for office is, well, nuts.

National elections in Europe often last only six weeks and campaigns are publicly financed. That makes the details of the United States' prolonged primary season, the winner-takes-all Electoral College and campaign financing groups particularly murky waters for Europeans.

"Quite frankly the American democratic system is atavistic," said Frank Unger, an expert on US politics and a professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute, which is part of the Freie University in Berlin. "It's outdated. It doesn't really reflect democracy in a modern sense."

I think he's being kind.


[image from blog.kir]

The Deutsche Well article also states; "In parliamentary systems, people vote for political parties, which in turn decide who will fill leadership posts. Unger said he feels the US would be better off if it moved to a proportional system similar to what is used in Germany, where parties get a number of seats in parliament based on their votes."

While it's true that the American system is personality driven, the faults of the European system are that it is ideology driven. The parties decide internally who will fill posts, and these decisions are made outside of the process of the election cycle, which is why the cycle runs only 6 weeks. They spend much longer posturing internally, outside of the public eye. Does that sound more democratic?

In my experience, feeling inadequate in the face of European "intellectuals" is ridiculous. The stakes in European elections are much lower. The levers of power are no more accessible to European citizens through their elections than they are in the US. Burt the power available to the winners via the US system is immense. European criticism of the US system is naive, and usually misses the entire point of American democratic tradition.

There is nothing democratic about our "system" today, and what is at least as problematic is the fact that it has nothing to do with the pursuit of competence. It's about money.

Having money and corporations choose who governs us and what our laws will be does not seem to me to be more democratic than voting for political parties, representing genuine policy choices, which will then choose who will represent and legislate those popular choices.

There’s nothing democratic about a scheme in which most of the demos declines to participate (many for reasons which I’m more and more inclined to share), and in which those who do participate are only able to register a preference for one groomed candidate over another, each one advanced by big money and already fully-vetted and approval-stamped by the most powerful corporations.

By the way, the suggestion that a well-informed critic of what we continue to be told is the American political and Constitutional genius must feel "inadequate" to other critics is an insult to me and to any thinking fellow citizen. But more importantly however, it's totally irrelevant.

It is an intellectual habit of mine, acquired shortly after reaching the age of reason, to regularly try looking at myself and my world from a distance. In this case I was musing about the fact that most Americans, unfortunately including those who really do have power, are too narrowly-focused and provincial to be able to look at themselves, and the fortunate world they take for granted, with any objectively. To continue operating in vincible ignorance is no virtue for a free people or its representatives. I might have offended sensibilities less had I suggested instead that we imagine trying to explain our electoral process to a visitor from Mars.

As for the practical outcome of the American tradition of anointing what you, many others, as well as the entire American media operation persist in calling "winners" in some horse race-like competition, I can offer no better comment than to point to the current occupant and his entire administration. But you may argue the exception proves the rule (I never understood that expression). To that I would reply that one look at the current miserable rank of presidential office seekers: This is a nation of three hundred million people and this is the best our process can do?

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Published on January 4, 2008 6:34 PM.

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