To Be, Or Not To Be
By A.D. Freudenheim

10 November 2002

Along with last Tuesday's election, handing the Democrats a number of harsh defeats and, most critically, the loss of control in the Senate, there has been the usual hue-and-cry about what will become of us Americans. The most typical theme about the election seems a variation on the need for caution. These articles come principally in two forms: Republicans speaking words of caution about not repeating the mistakes of the past, a la Newt Gingrich in 1994 where big promises were made and much less delivered; others come from Democrats (or other lefties) pointing out that in several states the margin of victory was so close that while the Republican candidates may have won, their "winning" hardly speaks to a mandate for the Republican party or their platform.

What pundits and media wonks from both sides refuse to admit is that this whole peacock parade - where the winners posture, and the losers give them a raspberry- is a function of our political system, and one that they all love. The real problem is that our legislative elections have borrowed from the failings of our presidential elections and adopted the "winner-takes-all" approach. In an American presidential election, the votes are not direct; instead we have a poorly-constructed consensus-building plan, designed to make us think that every winner is really a WINNER, and that every loser really lost. (See the links below for more information.)

The idea seems to have been that the head of the executive branch of government needed to be indubitably in control for an effective government to take shape - never mind that it can also prevent the majority vote of the population of the U.S. from actually electing their candidate of choice, as happened with Bush vs. Gore in 2000. Congress has adopted this strategy, not for the elections themselves but simply for how they present the winners, and now every time we have a change in legislative power the incoming party acts as though it has just pulled off the greatest victory for democracy since 1776, while the outgoing party pretends to pout.

No one in government wants to change this because both parties know that this structure rewards them well for winning without punishing them dramatically for losing (Associate Press writer Calvin Woodward wrote a lovely article about this). It also makes election and governance even more difficult for someone who is not a member of either party, which is why there are only three candidates in Congress with no party affiliations - and that, in turn, helps channel money to the two major parties; few people want to support candidates who are unlikely to win and even less likely to fight for their home states.

The winner-takes-all plan also makes for a better public spectacle than any narrow, nuanced approach to government - no one in the media has to think very hard, and they can let our representatives address us with the clear voice of authority they think we Americans like to hear. Few need to bother asking tough questions about how the G.O.P.-controlled Senate will face down a filibuster on controversial judicial nominations. Rare are the voices pointing out that the rules of governance in the House and Senate are so different that the victories mean different things to each part of Congress. We are simply faced with the reiteration of President Bush's own post-September 11th mantra: you are either with us or you are against us. In domestic policy as much as in foreign policy, we push further away from recognizing anything other than black and white perspectives. Shades of gray need not apply.

Now: if you are inclined to believe that the slow pace of change is inherent in our political system, you might be right in thinking that not much will be happen in the next two years. If you are feeling hopeful - or even triumphant - you might believe that this turn of events represent something meaningful for either party, and perhaps you are hoping there will be a great number of changes. My inclination is that say that both of these things are true: much will change over the next two years, and probably not for the better, but by the time the next set of elections roll around I think America will not look so different from how it appears today. That our elected representatives desire to get rid of nuance in governance cannot change the inherently diverse nature of American society or the broad scope of American opinion. Now all America needs to do is remember to vote.

For more information on the electoral process, see:
My election walk-through from 2000 or
The Federal Election Commision's page on this process.
Copyright 2002, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.