Political transitions

Byainte an resting coincidence, the two most powerful nations in the world—the United States and China—will choose in the same week the leaders who will govern their respective peoples, and, by extension, shape the conditions for peace and development in the rest of the world. Filipinos cannot but take a keen interest in these transitions, not just because many of us identify with America’s fate and reserve the deepest suspicions for China. It is also because these two countries show us two contrasting systems of governing a society that invite us to reflect on our own.

No two nations are perhaps as different from each other in the way they recruit and select their leaders as are America and China. One aims for openness and representativeness, the other aims for stability and continuity. One chooses its president every four years after a series of open debates culminating in popular elections. The other chooses its leader every 10 years after a series of conclaves open only to the top members of the Communist Party.

One aspires to engage every citizen of voting age in the electoral exercise; the other entrusts the process of arriving at a consensus to the wisdom of a single party whose elders have ruled the nation in the last 63 years. This does not mean that power struggles do not exist in the latter. They do. The difference is that in America, the opposition is institutionalized, and dissent is valorized as something good and is thus protected under the laws. In China, the open expression of disagreement is seen as a threat to social harmony, and is thus frowned upon if not brutally suppressed.

We could go on with such comparisons and end up confirming the superiority of the American system. But that would be simplistic. It would disregard the specific historical and cultural circumstances from which these two political systems sprang, and the particular problems to which they seek to respond. In another column, we will try to make sense of the outcomes of the 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party which, in fact, rules China.  For now, we will focus our attention on some curious aspects of the US electoral system.

A legacy of local state autonomy and of multiculturalism has been a challenge and, at the same time, a source of strength for the United States. America’s 50 member-states are proud of their individual heritage and are jealous of the freedoms they enjoy as self-governing entities. And yet America would not be the great power it is today if the states were not unified under a federal government. The institutions by which the Union asserts itself have evolved and continue to be negotiated in accordance with the expectations of state autonomy and the imperatives of American global hegemony. There is no other system like that of the United States.

To illustrate: In the US presidential election of 2000, more Americans voted for Al Gore than his opponent George W. Bush. Yet, it was Bush who was proclaimed the winner because, under the unique Electoral College system, it is the electoral votes of every state that matter and not the nationwide popular votes. Except in two states, electoral votes are pledged to the winner of the statewide popular vote on a winner-take-all basis.

To win a presidential election, a candidate must get at least 270 electoral votes, or one plus half of the total 538 electors. This total is equivalent to the number of congressional and senate seats of 50 states plus three special votes for non-state Washington DC. In that controversial election, Bush barely made the cut with 271 electoral votes, while Gore obtained only 266.

As rooted in the American past as the Electoral College is the reality of “red” and “blue” states—states whose electoral outcomes are predictable. This was the subject of Mahar Mangahas’ column the other day (Inquirer, 11/03/12). In the last three presidential elections, Mahar writes, 22 states consistently voted Republican, while 19, including Washington DC, voted Democratic. This means that the vote in the 10 remaining states—Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia—will effectively determine the overall outcome of the election. In 2008, Barack Obama won in all the 10 “battleground states,” giving him an easy win. But this may not be the case this year. How do we make sense of this great divide in American politics?

For this we turn to the New York Times online commentary (NYT, 10/04/12) of Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, titled “Why are states so red and blue?” Red, of course, is the Republican color, and the electoral map shows this to be the predominant hue in the southern and western desert mountain states. In these places, there is strong advocacy for a public religion, gun ownership, less government, and strong families—all clue concepts for political conservatism. Blue is the Democratic Party color, and it is the color of the northeastern and coastal states that lean toward liberalism and government with strong regulatory powers, a secularist culture, strict gun control, individual freedoms, social equality, and internationalist engagement.

“The North and coasts,” Pinker writes, “are extensions of Europe and continued the government-driven civilizing process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that emerged in the anarchic territories of the growing country, tempered by their own civilizing forces of churches, families, and temperance.” Rooted in history, the American political divide is ultimately cultural, and not merely geographic.

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