The Guardian

The Guardian November 22, 2000


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

So that's Democracy

As the US sought to convince the world that the turmoil in Florida 
really was "democracy in action", people in other parts of the world were 
quick to offer help and advice.

According to Agence France Presse, a top aide to Zimbabwe's President 
Robert Mugabe suggested that "maybe Africans and others should send 
observers to help Americans deal with their democracy", adding that 
"perhaps now we have reached a time when they can learn a lot from us".

The South African daily The Star was of a similar mind: 
"International observers should be put in place" because "the United States 
must join the established democracies". Ouch!

An editorial in South Africa's weekly The Mail went mock-serious: 
"It is a shameful reflection on our continent that, in the US's hour of 
need, we were not there beside our American brothers and sisters to help 
and advise where we could."

Back in the USA, AFP also reports that State Department spokesman Richard 
Boucher was asked at a press conference "whether Washington, which has 
recently been forceful in calls for the Organisation of American States 
(OAS) to take an active role in election reform in Peru and Haiti, thought 
the group might be able to play a role in this case [in Florida]".

Boucher sniffed: "I'm not going to entertain the idea here."

Meanwhile, the Indian paper The Asian Age could not resist rubbing 
it in: "This alone should trigger a post poll debate about the validity of 
electoral colleges and whether the US should not just switch directly to a 
popular vote like the great democracy of India", the paper wrote.

And for bad timing, the US Embassy in Beijing has to take the cake. On 
election night they hosted an Embassy "do" to show off Western democracy in 
action to an invited audience of 2000.

They handed around bagels and cream cheese while the guests watched CNN's 
live coverage of the Presidential vote and an Embassy staffer in an Uncle 
Sam suit wandered around explaining how the Electoral College system works.

Of course, in the end it didn't work, and the guests went home still not 
knowing who had won the US Presidency. But then, so did the candidates.

Ever diplomatic, the Chinese Foreign Ministry commented: "Every country 
must decide which election method it should use according to local 
conditions." Having said which they presumably all fell about laughing.

In Russia, too, officials were acutely aware of the US propensity for 
lecturing other countries about democracy.

Alexander Veshnyakov, the head of Russia's Central Election Commission, was 
able to point out with some pride: "Our presidential elections are 
conducted in more [of] a democratic fashion and are more easily understood 
by voters."

Veshnyakov figures in a joke currently doing the rounds in Moscow: It seems 
the Election Commission chief was sent to the USA to help the yanks out of 
their electoral mess. As a result Vladimir Putin won, with Bush and Gore as 
runners up.

They're such cynics, those Russians.

* * *
Or maybe this is democracy
Greg Coleridge, who heads up a Quaker social action organisation in Northeast Ohio, writes "It is estimated that this year's presidential and congressional elections cost about $3 billion. "Corporate contributions/investments in 1996 outweighed labour investments by a factor of nine to one at the federal level. "When it comes to corporate contributions/investments, state and even municipal elections are different only in the scale but not in kind. "The perversion of the political system is so severe that several Internet users tried to sell their votes for President on eBay, fetching as much as $10,000 before the on line auctioneer cancelled the bidding", Coleridge said. "A second site, Voteauction.com, promised to collect votes by absentee ballot, verify and then mail them to the appropriate locations. "`The election industry is spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an attempt to influence the presidential election', organisers were quoted in a statement." If Bush does win, thanks to rorts like Florida barring black ex-prisoners from voting, it won't be the first time the big business candidate got elected despite receiving fewer votes than his opponent. As Greg Coleridge says: "For more than 150 years, corporations have been perverting national political conventions, federal campaigns and candidates. It was the railroad corporations that brokered a deal which sent Rutherford B Hayes to the White House over Samuel J Tilden in the 1876 election, despite Tilden having received more popular votes." As long ago as 1896, corporate largesse was so much a part of the election process that it was actually systematised according to a formula based on the size and wealth of specific corporations. From the early 1900s to Watergate in the '70s there were attempts to restrict or regulate corporate domination of US electoral funding. What these "reforms" produced in the '70s was the "Political Action Committee" or "PAC". Corporate money that could no longer go directly to a candidate went instead to the PAC that worked for that candidate. Neat, eh? "Corporate PAC money has exploded on the [US] political scene", says Greg Coleridge. "Add to this corporate `soft money', which is unregulated direct contributions/investments to political parties for `party building' activities and `independent expenditures' which are funds used for advertisements that are supposed to be unrelated to campaigns, and you have a huge problem." You said it, Greg. It's a problem that's exemplified in this exchange quoted in the Cleveland Free Times earlier this year from outside the Republican Convention: DELEGATE: What exactly were they protesting? REPORTER: The influence of money in politics, mostly, DELEGATE: Isn't that naive... Money drives everything! Everyone has an agenda, and it takes money to run an agenda. REPORTER: How could people without money influence the agenda in the same way as corporate contributors? DELEGATE: I agree that contributors get perks, but that's democracy. REPORTER: Perhaps it shouldn't be that way? DELEGATE: Fiddle-dee-dee!

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