Are John McCain and Barack Obama the products of a broken political system?

I continue to be fascinated by the United States’ political system.  As a political system, it was designed to work within the confines of an 18th century world.  Nonetheless, it seems to be entirely broken.  How can it be efficient to spend $1 billion (and more) just to come up with two alternative candidates that are then presented to voters. 

In essence, John McCain seems unelectable – clearly he’s 72, had many health scares, has ‘a bit of a temper’ and wants to start a new four-year job that, usually, looks to be an eight-year job if it all looks good at the halfwaymark.  Although he’s a ‘maverick’ republican he seems to have toed the line more frequently than most ‘mavericks’ would expect to.  The Republicans too seem to have been hijacked by fundamentalist ideologues, which is a shame because there are more pragmatic reasons for following conservative policies than simple religious alignment.  Sarah Palin is a nod to the religious right and fundamentalists without the power of critical thinking.  She also demonstrates the old adage that a ‘vice-president doesn’t help you, but they sure can hurt you’ by starkly demonstrating McCain’s powerful lack of judgement in selecting her to be his running mate. 

Barack Obama, it seems, is a good candidate with good oratory skills and a magnetic presence.  He seems to be genuinely intellectually curious and furthermore appears to be making decisions pragmatically rather than on the basis of ideology.  He has also demonstrated good judgement with the selection of Joe Biden, a genuine presidential contender on the world stage who strengthens Barack Obama’s weaknesses. Nonetheless, Barack Obama is of an African-American background (although clearly not a product of the country’s slavery history, being the son of a Kenyan) in a country that only relatively recently openly speculated whether a Catholic would be allowed to become President.  Barack appears to have run a fantastic campaign, but given that John Edwards has been shown to be a flawed candidate, Hillary supporters seem justified in being a little bitter that Hillary’s not at the top of the ticket.  Barack also cannot hide from the lack of experience, which the world must fervently hope can be addressed if he wins the Whitehouse, as it increasingly seems likely he will do.

Both remarkable candidates – one leaving his run a bit too late, the other starting it a little too early.  John McCain a little younger, without Sarah Palin and George W Bush to weigh him down, would be a fantastic president.  Barack Obama with a few years’ more experience would, combined with his current strengths, be an unstoppable candidate.  I do wonder in the case of Barack though whether, if he makes early errors, he will sabotage his long-term career. 

Is the US political system broken?

It most certainly is – see these flaws:

  • It takes eighteen months and at least $1 billion for both parties to run primary campaigns and presidential for some eighteen months to decide on two candidates.  The candidates that are selected have to be the ones with the deepest pockets, not necessarily those that are the best for the country. 
  • The candidates have to zig and zag during primaries to get the votes from people that vote in the primaries, although clearly this process appeals to registered voters of the relevant party – the true believers.  The process ends up selecting a candidate who appeals to the party base, and given the level of ennui and apathy these days such a candidate by definition will likely have trouble appealing to voters in the middle ground.
  • It’s a huge distraction to everyone involved.  In Australia, we have a system where, if we don’t like the leader, a party-room spill is called and by morning tea the next day (as was the case with Brendan Nelson) there’s a new leader.  None of this eighteen months palaver – you’re unhappy with the leader, you call the vote, and start in a new direction (or reaffirm the old one).  Eighteen months is far too long a process for people to be distracted.  Ask how effective in their roles Senator Barack Obama, Senator Joe Biden, Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Joe McCain have been over the last eighteen months. 
  • You vote on the first Tuesday of November?  Clearly the founding fathers had no concept of a weekend (understandably) but who can take a day off work to vote on a Tuesday?  This alone biases the turnout (see next point).
  • Non-compulsory voting means that ennui and apathy win the day.  To win the popular vote, you need to get slightly more than half of the people who vote to vote for you.  In the last election, you needed to get 28% or so of the people to like you enough to vote for you.  Hardly a mandate when voting seems to be so difficult (people seem to wait 45 minutes minimum to vote, and it’s not uncommon to  wait four hours – e in Oz there would be lynchings).  To win you need to get enough people out of their couches and voting – which means your policies need to probably be divisive and clearly enunciated to get people in the streets.
  • Electoral colleges do not equal democracy.  Surely if you have more people voting for you across the country, it means you’re the president – you are there to represent the nation as a whole.  As it is – people focus on the ‘battleground states’ and the states with big voting allotments and the ones that are ‘in play’ – recalling that you need to pursue policies that motivate those people to come out and vote.  Policies will end up with unhealthy doses of pork rather than ones that are good for the nation.
  • Fixed four-year terms.  One letter:  W.  George W Bush has been a lame duck president for too long, apparently fixated on ideology and unwilling or unable to deal with the Democrats in congress.  He still has three months to go in his term.  Given that there has been eighteen months of politicking, and George has been effectively sidelined and ineffective in that time (since the Democrats took Congress in 2006), the largest most ‘democratic’ country in the world cannot afford to be asleep at the wheel in that time.
  • And another thing – voter fraud (ACORN anyone?), dodgy voter registration processes (Georgia throwing out newly registered voters on the basis of poor data matching with the result that a highly energising candidate who encourages people to vote who have never voted before is penalised), and dodgy tabulation machines (Florida?  I’m looking at you), pork barrelling with earmarks, riders and lobby groups (any law ever passsed by congress), and Supreme Court justices deciding who is the winner (2000 election).

It all adds up to a broken political system which ends up with broken political candidates and a broken world view.  The US will not retrieve itself from the poor situation it is in without addressing these flaws.  The financial system that has now earned its own three-letter acronym (‘GFC’ standing for ‘global financial crisis’) is a direct result of this broken political system. 

That is all.

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