America is the richest country on earth, but its democracy is an ugly mess. To quote the September 24th Economist - “If democracy means multi-party competition at the grass roots, America is not a full democracy in elections to the House of Representatives”. Only 29 of 435 House seats are competitive, the rest having been rendered ‘safe’ by partisan gerrymandering. In 2002 four out of five seats were won by more than 20 points and the average margin was two to one. Only 4 incumbents lost to challengers at the polls - another 4 lost in primaries – and the incumbent re-election rate is 99%. This year at least 68 seats will be uncontested, and more than nine in ten Americans live in districts that are one party monopolies in practice.


In large parts of the country voting in the presidential race is also pointless. For the state winner gets all its electoral votes, and more than half of states regularly vote Republican or Democrat by big margins. Indeed candidates only campaign in competitive states, meaning most Americans are basically spectators in the election of their own leader. Only about 16 ‘battleground’ states are winnable for either side this year, and the ‘national’ presidential election is in fact essentially a three state contest. Whoever wins two of Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio will very likely get the most electoral votes and be declared the 44th president - even if like George Bush in 2000, his opponent gets more votes overall.


The popular vote winner might well lose the electoral count again this year. For while John Kerry is popular in the ‘blue’ west and east coast, George W. Bush is overwhelmingly so in the ‘red’ south. Kerry leads by over 10 points in 8 states, Bush in 17. A Kerry minority presidency would not only be poetic justice, it might even get the ludicrous electoral vote system changed.


Some bad aspects of American politics are attributable to outdated traditions, but others are caused by plain inefficiency. It’s astonishing that earth’s most technologically advanced nation has a hodgepodge voting system. Some places vote with paper ballots, some with punch card machines, and some electronically. In Florida this year many votes will be cast via touch screen computers which leave no paper trail and so make ballot recounts impossible. Apparently nothing has been learnt from the 2000 ‘hanging chad’ nightmare. Democrats are already muttering darkly about secret Republican plans to not only ‘steal’ Florida again but Ohio too. This would be unthinkable in Britain or Canada. It’s sad but true that in the world's richest democracy people don't even have full confidence in the basic electoral machinery.


Money is another great bane of American politics. After the obscene amounts spent in 2000, reforms were passed to limit campaign spending. But money has poured in through the so called 527 groups loophole. So the $200 million or so spent on the presidential race 4 years ago has more than doubled this time. Perhaps it’s impossible to separate money and politics. And maybe fund raising is a kind of rough democracy, since the most popular side usually raises the most funds.


The saving grace of American politics is its media. Whatever its faults, there is more information available on US elections than those in any other country. Every aspect of every major race is analyzed in detail either in newspapers, on TV or over the internet. Politicians there can run, but they can’t hide. The presidential debates are an especially admirable tradition which should be copied everywhere. The Bush-Kerry town hall debate was riveting drama and politics at its best, with the candidates’ minds in effect exposed naked before the voting public.


Now practically everyone on earth has an opinion about the American presidential race. After all, what happens there affects the entire world. And anyway, thanks to the American media’s global reach it’s impossible to ignore it even if you want to. We Jamaicans for instance get more information from cable channels about the Bush/Kerry race than is available from our media on our own elections.


Now Dubya Bush seems likeable enough. But he has been a staggering failure. Simultaneous tax cuts and public spending increases have turned a huge budget surplus into a record deficit. He is the only POTUS since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net job loss. Worst of all, he initiated a foolish war and then mismanaged it. It’s not so much the morality of the Iraqi invasion that bothers me – the world is better of without Saddam Hussain – but the sheer incompetence and lack of planning with which it was prosecuted.


Bush and his advisors seem to care nothing about economic fundamentals. A nation whose government spends 5% more than it collects in taxes each year is flirting with disaster, especially when it already has a 5% of GNP trade deficit. Such fiscal irresponsibility makes me fear for the US's long term economic prospects if Bush wins again. And if America goes down, so do we all.


Based on his miserable record Bush should be on his way out. But war presidents engender a lot of knee jerk patriotic support. Right now Bush leads slightly in national polls, though the battleground state polls are trending towards Kerry. Since the undecided vote usually breaks against the incumbent, Kerry might be a slight favourite. But anything could happen. And if another 2000 style debacle does occur, maybe this time America will realize that its sick democracy needs radical surgery.

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