Sunday, November 11, 2012

What Americans Do Every Four Years

Americans vote for a leader every four years -- presumably. It may work out that way "on paper", but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, a president is actually elected, not so much by popular vote, but by something called an Electoral College. About 100 Americans actually know what an Electoral College is, and yet 100 million Americans argue about politics every four years, until their common sense falls out. But while the Electoral College system may be part of the complication, it is not really the heart of the problem. After all, the Electoral College has disagreed with the popular vote only three times in 236 years. The heart of the matter seems to lie in a collective anxiety of what freedom actually means.

All in all about 120 out of 195 countries are officially democracies, representing roughly 58% of the world's population. But only 25 out of the 120 are stable and consistent democracies. The rest are considered "flawed" democracies. Which brings our freedom count to about 15% of the world's population. That's about one billion people who can truly sing, "well at least I know I'm free". The fact that there are 24 other free countries out there may come as a shock to country music fans, but such is life. There's a reason why humans thought for millions of years that the sun revolved around the earth. We're just wired that way.

Which brings us back to the matter of freedom. In the U.S. we have essentially a two-party system, open to any other interested parties. Each of the two main parties has a set of convictions about economics, national security, and social issues. They typically add up to ten issues or so, making up the famous "platform". For the most part, Americans tend to vote much more so on a platform than for an individual leader (and/or representatives, judges, etc.). To complicate matters, many of the platform-driven Americans are really only interested in part of the platform, and in some extreme cases they are arguably only interested in a single issue. As well-intentioned as the system is, it does leave you wondering what exactly it is we're electing every four years: a leader or a principle? "Both" is a tempting easy-way-out answer, but it is not necessarily the best answer.

No doubt that having the satisfaction of choosing anything of importance is important. About 50% of the world longs for a taste of that choice, and as many as 85% of the world is not sure whether they have ever had that choice. So why do we American voters feel so dramatically anxious every four years? Could it be that we're living vicariously through our principles? The fact is, for every issue on a platform, many Americans already have the freedom of choosing to live up to that particular issue. But it’s never easy, and like anything else in life, it often comes at significant cost. 

So we do what we can to survive or prevail, then we anxiously hope that the majority of Americans agree with the rest of our principles. But with each day that brings an election closer, our hope turns to demand. And there's the problem: we're free to arrive to our principles by choice, but we demand that others agree with ours immediately. 

What we Americans do every four years is realize that it's time once again to confront our convictions, and be challenged in a major way by more than 50 million people. Then we take it all very personally, to the point of distortion. Yes, there are party-line policies that eventually go through, and they do have a real impact on many people's lives. There are social injustices that call for government to intervene and make right. But every time an American utters the words "our way of life", he/she should try substituting "our" for "my" as an honesty-check. Every time a politician says "the American people have spoken", he/she is talking about half of voting Americans -- at best.

Dissent is part of the democratic process. Not understanding that it is, or how to live with it is an unfortunate misunderstanding of democracy -- and a threat to our destiny as a relevant nation.

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