A poll that will test the whole process

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Today, across the United States, the nature of democracy is at issue. John discusses the American presidential elections, and draws comparisons to European- and other mediated democracies.

It is inevitable that elections will sometimes be too close to call. But there are several reasons why such an outcome is much more likely in the US than in any other democracy. That is the reason the Democrats, unwilling to be outmanoeuvred as they were four years ago, have 10,000 lawyers waiting to contest any close result in Tuesday’s poll.

The US constitution is unusual in providing for an executive president elected by popular vote. In most countries, the leader survives only by maintaining a supporting majority in the legislature. If the result is close, the winner must either seek a broader basis of support or a fresh mandate: there is no other means of establishing a stable government. In such a system, an outcome in which, as in the US, a tiny majority gives the winner complete authority is virtually impossible.

In France or Brazil, the president could, theoretically, be elected by a majority of one. But the mathematical probability of this outcome is insignificant. A disputed outcome is far more likely in the US because the president is chosen by the electoral college rather than by popular vote. Bush won Florida by 500 votes: but it is rare to have a result as close as this in an election where 5m people vote and almost inconceivable that the margin could be as small when 100m people vote. Al Gore’s majority of half a million in the US as a whole was far larger than the number of debatable votes.

And voters in other countries have expressed strong disapproval of the idea that their elections might be decided by lawyers. In the British cathedral city of Winchester, the victor was elected in 1997 by a majority of only two votes in an electorate of almost 100,000. The Conservative loser disputed the result and persuaded a judge that the election should be held again. There was a high poll in the rerun, in which he was defeated by 20,000. Many electors whose personal preference was for the Conservative or Labour candidate gave their support to the Liberal Democrat in order to punish a bad loser. British political parties have learnt the lesson, and future legal challenges to the decision of the voters, however close, are unlikely.

Not only officials, but voters themselves, seem to care about the fairness of the process as well as the identity of the winner. But in these US elections, winning seems to be the only thing. The Florida outcome in 2000 was intensely partisan, from the compilation of the electoral register up to the announcement of the victor. All decisions, including those of the Supreme Court itself, were predictable from the previously known allegiance of the officer concerned.

European politics has become steadily more consensual in recent decades. In Britain, Germany, France and several smaller European economies, the leading parties look increasingly similar. But the US has been moving in the opposite direction.

Fifty years ago, Richard Hofstadter, the political scientist, noted that the US had no political ideologies because it was one. He wrote during Eisenhower’s inclusive administration and would be startled by the strident tone of the current campaign. Most European politicians believe that the sort of distortions and abuse propagated by Michael Moore on one side and the Swift Boat Veterans on the other are counterproductive and they are probably right.

The very nature of democracy is at issue. Democracy as majoritarianism allows exclusive access to power for a coalition, which secures control of a democratic process. Democracy as mediation uses elections to require leaders to seek a broad consensus for their policies and their actions. Those who believe that a mediated democracy makes for a healthier society than a majoritarian one are bound to be concerned by the character of modern American politics.

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