Well, you might say, it’s to make a choice, decide between alternatives, and you’d beright.To elect someone, or something, is to demonstrate a preference. In politics, the significance of elections is to determine just who the majority (voting) prefers to lead government for a set period of time. “Who” in our political system, generally means which political party. Does this mean that whichever party gets the most votes wins, the other loses? Good question. Yes, usually—ignoring the Electoral College, for the moment—but with our system of government politics is not a one-off winner-take-all situation. Politics is an on-going means to democratic governmental responsiveness.
Alan Wolfe, noted liberal public intellectual and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Life at Boston College, commented in a recent article that “. . . we have a two party system. One party wins. One party loses.” I’m hardly qualified to challenge Mr. Wolfe, but in this instance I believe he’s at least partly wrong. In most contests there‘s a clear winner and a clear loser, according to the rules of that game. But politics, per se. is not a game (believe it or not). In our country it’s not a one-off and the contest is over. Politics is the on-going institution through which we choose government leadership in two out of three governing branches. Elections are simply the periodic opportunity the citizenry has to either confirm or reject and replace that leadership (party) of the moment. Choice is a prerequisite of meaningful political elections.
Mr. Wolfe is right, at the lowest level of political choice, and for electing governors and, of course, the president. These offices are points of both power and influence, but they are not where our laws are made. That happens in the all-important legislative branch. In choosing legislative leadership at the state and national levels, what counts of course is the sum of all individual elections. Some voters may choose one political preference and others another. Only when the total is considered do we have a “winner,” politically speaking. That winning political faction is then entitled to propose an agenda and lead in law-making for a set period of time (usually until the next election).
But that doesn’t mean all of those winning individual elections in the “losing” party are sent home. It doesn’t, or at least should not mean that we have one party rule. What we have is a majority-preferred-leadership and its agenda, along with usually a significant but not majority preferred alternative political representation in government, at least in the legislative branch where we make our laws. These non-majority representatives are not losers, no matter which party is for the moment in the majority. What are they? They are the legitimate representatives of the (millions of) voters who sent them to the capital. They have both the responsibility and the right to make the views of their constituents known and to lobby for such to be considered in any and all legislation being proposed in the agenda of the majority. This may take the form of individual or party positions.
Both majority and minority parties have the responsibility to consider the position and purpose of the other, though their means to similar ends may significantly differ. Both have the responsibility to work closely enough with the other in common cause such that the over-all purpose of government is fulfilled. This is how we believe government should work. Is our system performing as we believe it should? Hardly.
That the two political parties are antagonistic towards each other is both acknowledged and accepted. That the two today are almost totally unable to work together to provide good government is likewise acknowledged, but hardly accepted by the great majority of us. We continually express our opinions as to the disappointing state of government and the institutions comprising it. What’s the problem? Politics! What’s the solution? Short of discarding our system of government and starting completely over, it’s politics! To be more specific, it’s choice available in politics. Today political choice is not only effectively restricted, elections are for too many voters a least-worst option. That’s a rather sad commentary on representative democracy in action.
What this effectively says is that the de facto significance of elections under present conditions is to limit choice such as to perpetuate the power struggle between just two political factions that have demonstrated they are unwilling and apparently unable to work together sufficiently such as to provide our country with what most would describe as good, acceptable government. That’s hardly what most Americans want and are entitled to expect from the system.
Therefore, Americans merit more political choice when electing government leadership, given the self-seeking highly ideologically focused missions of today’s two political parties. Today these cater to and represent mostly the extremes of political partisanship, and money. This means that they both appeal to and tend to be responsive to relatively small minorities of voters (other than for campaign purposes, of course). The result: by default we elect minority focused governments, no matter which of the two “wins” elections. And as the electoral laws and regulations are largely within their control, both feel comfortable that they cannot be successfully challenged.
But, you may legitimately ask, if a majority (voting) elects them, how can this not be what the majority prefers? It can be because at least a plurality of voters has expressed no desire to support these parties, at least publically for election registration purposes (we call them political Independents), and yet come Election Day, what are their conservative/liberal choices? Yep, the same old tired two! That’s it. So, if you want to vote, it’s their way or the highway, like it (them) or not. What about today’s third-parties? Maybe for a few, but if these (usually even more ideological extremes of the major parties) were acceptable alternatives, we would see greater support for them, which we are not. As I say, come Election Day, it’s a least-worst option when it comes to electing government for too many Americans today.
And what about that plurality of orphaned political Independents I mentioned—including those so-called “leaners?” Today they aren’t given the electoral respect their numbers merit. This is no doubt due to the fact that they haven’t, as yet, earned it—or even asked for it; but they very well might. How so? I suggest five features, or aspects, of Independents; what they represent:
- Independents are evidence of dissatisfaction with the results of ideological government.
- Independents are evidence of an inadequate political marketplace.
- Independents are a proxy for the moderate—middle—majority of voters.
- Independents represent agents for political change.
- Independents themselves are a probable cause of extreme partisanship.
This is a potentially politically volatile profile. When, and just how, will this already acknowledged elephant in the room begin to make itself felt in our political arena? It’s a matter of choice. That’s the significance of elections.
We need a change.
Thomas Richard Harry