Democracy At Its Best

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In the minds of most Americans, this country is a democracy. I recall looking up "democracy" in the dictionary years ago, and finding that it was such a nebulous concept as to be virtually meaningless. In general, it means "rule by the people," but what does THAT mean? The people can’t be expected to vote on everything that might concern them — or even to know what those issues might be. Well, they can rule via their legislators, who represent them, right? Sure, but do those representatives actually represent their constituents? How could they, when the constituents themselves are divided on many issues? OK, the people could require their elected officials to abide by a set of rules called a Constitution. Such a government is called a republic, but a synonym for "republic" is "democracy." Remember those bumper stickers — from the John Birch Society, if I recall correctly — which declared This Is a Republic, Not a Democracy? Well, according to Webster, they’re the same thing.

Well, anyway: most people associate democracy with voting, and great importance is attached to casting one’s ballot. The belief is that a voter simply votes for a candidate; the one with the most votes wins. Well, not exactly. Now that the hoopla has settled regarding the Iowa caucuses, it is interesting to see just what the voting in Iowa accomplished.

In the first place, there were only about 100,000 people voting in Iowa, so it seems foolish to attach too much importance to it. John Kerry won about three times as many delegates as Dick Gephardt, but the total number of delegates from Iowa to the National Democratic convention represent only about 2% of the total, so any conclusions based upon such a tiny sampling are of dubious significance, at best. Moreover, the rules of the caucuses state that any candidate who does not have a sufficient number of supporters in a "preference group" cannot be considered; he must lend his support to another, more viable, candidate. It wouldn’t do, I guess, to have too many choices available to the voters. You can carry this democracy thing too far!

And it was delegates to the convention that the voters were choosing, not Presidential candidates. What’s more, the Iowa voters were not choosing delegates to the national convention, but to Iowa county conventions. These latter delegates, in turn, choose delegates to the national convention, but these delegates are not bound by anything but their own consciences; they are not committed to any particular candidate. Our triumph of democracy is an edifice of Jell-o, rooted in quicksand.

Of course, the people of Iowa can operate their caucuses any way they want, but it’s hard to see why the rest of us should pay much attention. The process amounts to a popularity contest, with the "winner" actually winning nothing but a smile from a very few of the Iowa voters.

An innocent person — say a child — might assume that the way to elect a president would be to give each person a piece of paper, and ask him to write down the name of the person he favored for the job. The person with the largest number of votes moves into the White House. Obviously, this is NOT the way it’s done. The actual process is convoluted and confusing, and what the people think they’re doing at the polls may not be what they’re doing at all.

It’s good theatre. Television programs are interrupted to bring us the "latest from Iowa." Scribes scribble their profound thoughts on the process; pundits pontificate on the tube, and the talk-show radio hosts analyze and parse ad infinitum. You’d think it was important! If it convinces Americans that they can, by voting, influence the rulers, it is! That, in fact, is the point.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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