It’s a stretch to say that the U.S. electoral system is broken, but it’s hard to argue that it’s running on all cylinders. Democracy only works if the people have confidence in the system’s fairness. So by that standard, American democracy works—but there are some serious cracks in our democratic structure.
For example, consider the Minnesota Senate recount between Norm Coleman and Al Franken. The race was close on Election Day, so a recount was needed. Fair enough. But the recount is still going on, and will continue into the new year.
And sadly, the recount’s length isn’t due to careful, take-your-time thoroughness. It’s length is due to controversy, challenges, and disagreement, which guarantees that the losing party will feel cheated. And it will have reason to—much of the debate revolves around missing ballots, found ballots, and improper ballots; and whatever decisions are made will be very much open to criticism.
Whatever happens, half of the people of Minnesota will feel cheated. And that’s never good for a democracy.
Norm Coleman will probably win (though Franken nurses a slender lead right now). If he does, he will rejoin a Congress in which an increasing number of members seem to be elected either a) because of their last names, b) because of their money, c) because they have incumbency.
George Bush is probably the best example of political nepotism, given that he more or less came out of nowhere to become governor of Texas and then President. Hillary Clinton is another; she would have been wholly unknown had it not been for Bill. Jesse Jackson Jr., Elizabeth Dole, Ted Kennedy, Bob Casey Jr., Jay Rockefeller; individual accomplishments notwithstanding, it was their heritage that was their first qualification.
The “last name” phenomenon is very apparent when one examines the frontrunners for the Senate seats to be vacated by Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. Hillary may very well be replaced by Caroline Kennedy, whose sole qualification for office seems to be that she’s a Kennedy. Joe Biden’s replacement will probably be a seat warmer so that his son Beau can take over the family seat in 2010. And the frontrunner for Barack Obama’s seat was Jesse Jackson Jr., until the Blagovich scandal erupted.
Those politicians who lack name recognition often compensate by spending massive amounts of their personal fortunes. Mitt Romney (who also has name recognition) is probably the best example of this; John McCain (who married a beer heiress) is another. Barack Obama is too—he made a great deal of money from his writing career.
McCain and Romney are the most spectacular examples, but every major 2008 presidential candidate was rich. (Obama is a millionaire, and he was one of the poorest of the lot). And it’s the same in the Senate—it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find a Senator or Governor who lacks a large private fortune.
Senators have to be rich, due to the limits on private donations required by campaign finance laws. Campaign finance reform was supposed to limit the power of money in politics. Instead, it made it almost impossible for anyone without independent means to win, since anyone who can’t afford to finance at least a portion of his campaign is almost out of the running before he starts, since a few wealthy donors can no longer help finance a campaign. So it falls on the candidate himself to do so (at least until he gets his fundraising machine up and running).
A good name and money are big advantages for getting power, but incumbency is the biggest advantage of all. It’s almost impossible to defeat a member of the House, and difficult to beat a Senator. Even in the Democrat dominated 2008 election, 96% of the House of Representatives kept their seats.
Gerrymandered House districts help incumbents, as do congressional perks. Incumbent Congressmen get public financing equal to about $1.5 million in the form of franked mail and staff support, while challengers must make do on their own.
And their own is none too good, again thanks to campaign finance laws limiting individual donations. This ensures that candidates spend massive amounts of time fundraising, time which an incumbent Congressman can spend doing other things (or increasing his fundraising lead). And since the incumbent always has superior name recognition, a built-in fundraising advantage makes beating an incumbent nearly impossible.