Stowe VT, Dec. 31 - Somewhere near here, tramping through the snows of New Hampshire and probably wearing a wool cap with ear flaps to impress the natives, is the next President of the United States – ardently seeking to persuade taciturn Granite Staters that he (or I Hillary) is their best bet for leader of the Free World. While it’s fair to say that ordinary citizens in Iowa and New Hampshire seem to enjoy their quadrennial star turn, I think the rest of the country would be perfectly happy if this political version of "Survivor" didn’t begin until say, next August. Having lived in England for a number of years, I have fond memories of the expeditious character of national elections in what we used to call the “Mother Country” where they allow just six weeks of campaigning before you see a new Prime Minister lugging furniture into Number 10 Downing Street.
However, if you want the very latest in efficient electioneering, look to that new star in the east Vladimir Putin. In Vlad’s Russia they won’t even call an election until they’ve sorted out in advance who’s going to win, namely you know who. Putin’s new electoral techniques were a rousing success in the recent parliamentary elections, where his United Russia party won over two thirds of the seats. This result was much aided by locking up opposition leaders, canceling their rallies, and limiting their television time to after midnight and only available to cable subscribers (if there are any) in Eastern Siberia. The whole thing stunk so badly that even Jimmy Carter refused to be an election observer.
Stealing elections isn’t as easy as it looks. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez thought he’d followed the Putin playbook perfectly in his recent election to make himself President for Life. His thugs beat up opposition leaders, shut down rival newspapers, and seized the only free television station, but then Hugo made the rookie’s mistake of failing to decisively stuff the ballot boxes. When he lost one can imagine a phone call from his mentor Fidel Castro reminding him of the wit and wisdom of the Queen of Hearts: “Results first, lections later – maybe”.
Of course, Americans shouldn’t be too smug about all this, since we’ve had a few funny elections of our own.
Chicago was long famous for having “problems with voting machines” around midnight so that they could find out how many votes they’d have to manufacture to overcome downstate Republicans. John Kennedy, who probably owed his election to such Chicago shenanigans, at least had a sense of humor about it. On visiting the Windy City shortly after becoming President, he lamented the closeness of the election saying “my dad told me he wasn’t buying any more votes than absolutely necessary”.
In fairness, Chicago has no monopoly on slow counts, mysteriously appearing (and disappearing) ballot boxes, delayed poll closings, intervening judges, and who will ever forget “hanging chads”.
So, what lessons can we draw from this random tour of the world’s electoral horizons?
As regards our own elections, it’s been great to see that the pundits and the talking heads in the end didn’t know any more than the rest of us.
They told us that Huckabee had no chance, McCain was finished, Hillary was inevitable, and Obama was just a flash in the pan. Now in the next six weeks, We the People will tell the experts what’s really going to happen.
As regards the rest of the world, beyond what we used to call Western Civilization, much work is needed before elections and democracy can flower into their true splendor.
U.S. elections, like America itself, are imperfect models – but warts and all, we remain the grand example of what people striving to be free want to become. Even election-rigging tyrants implicitly acknowledge this.
So, as we follow CSPAN-2 into people’s living rooms, church basements, and school cafeterias to hear candidates try to make a connection with ordinary people, we are pulled back to a simpler time in our history. Critics may call this an odd manner of filling the most important political post on the planet, but Churchill still has the last best word: Democracy remains the “worst form of government save all the others the world has tried”.
Dr. William Moloney, a featured columnist on BackboneAmerica.net, was Colorado Education Commissioner from 1997-2007 and has done graduate work in Russian and world history at Oxford and the University of London. He admits to being a veteran of all too many political campaigns.