(I wrote this on April 4, 2003)
In many countries, such as Australia, Belgium, Luxembourg, Peru, and Vietnam, citizens are required to vote in their national elections.
In the United States, citizens are not required to vote at all, ever. In addition, citizens who wish to vote must pre-register, usually several weeks in advance, to make sure their names are on the voting "rolls", which are maintained (with varying degrees of accuracy) separately by each local jurisdiction. Furthermore, US elections are usually held on a Tuesday in November, during working hours, making it difficult for employed citizens to exercise their franchise. Typically, voter turnout in the US ranges between 1/3 and 1/2 of the adult population. Most of the time, most people do not bother to vote. If apathy could rule a country ...
But apathy doesn't rule ;-) Instead the US is ruled by the minority of adults who are politically active -- the US is an activistocracy.
Worse than that, nearly all elections in the US are financed solely by voluntary contributions. "Major" party Presidential candidates can receive public funding if they follow a complicated regulatory regime of state-by-state spending limits, but President Bush is likely to skip public funding in 2004 and his Democratic opponent will face pressure to do the same to remain "competitive".
Well-financed campaigns in the US take advantage of the citizenry's apathy by spending the vast majority of their funds on "negative" advertisements that typically make fraudulent or misleading statements about their opponents. These advertisements are intended to convince people who might support a particular candidate to stay home in disgust and forever tune out the political process.
Candidates who can't raise enough money to launch a competitive negative advertising campaign are not treated seriously by party activists or mainstream corporate media. Candidates who would seriously threaten the moneyed interests are thereby shut out of the political process, even if their stands on the issues would be popular to the majority of the citizens.
In the final days of a campaign, citizens who are known to be politically active receive a torrent of targeted direct mail and telephone messages designed to encourage them to vote. This is intended to counteract the months-long barrage of mass media negative advertising — in such a way that only the most committed activists are expected to show up on election day.
What we see in the US as a result of these campaigns are two major parties who generally agree on a wide variety of issues, but who disagree on a small list of extremely emotional issues — abortion, homosexuality, affirmative action for racial minorities, and gun control. Most of these issues are actually decided in federal courts by unelected judges, rather than by legislators or Presidents ... which leads activists to focus particularly upon the judicial nominations made by the President, rather than legislation, budget issues, or foreign policy.
The vast majority of the work of the Congress and the Executive is of no interest to the public or the media. Paid lobbyists monitor legislation, budgets, and regulations for items of special interest to their clients. These lobbyists usually contribute the legal maximum to the campaign funds of legislators who specialize in their issues. Legislators know that they need these campaign funds to pay for negative campaign ads during election season, so they try their best not to offend the lobbyists. Lobbyists often draft key legislation for the benefit of their clients, and they often submit comprehensive comments to proposed regulations that would affect their clients. The result is an annual glut of legislation and regulations that are impossible for any one citizen to monitor, no matter how intelligent or motivated she might be.
Therefore ... America is ruled by a network of activists and paid lobbyists, each of whom focuses on a handful of self-interested issues, while the majority of the citizens pay absolutely no attention to the functions of their government.
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