The Gazette, November 22, 2015, p. C3
“I am waiting for someone
to really discover America . . .”
-- Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “I Am Waiting,” A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)
On November 3 Iowa City held an election of city council members. The somewhat unique existence of two slates of candidates, whose differences over issues were clearly drawn, might have produced a massive voter turnout. It did not.
Approximately 62,000 Iowa City residents are eligible to register as voters. Of that number only 45,000 do so (72 percent). But wait; it gets worse. In the latest city council election only 15 percent of those who bothered to register also bothered to vote.
My Oxford English Dictionary (1971) defines “democracy” as “that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them or by officers elected by them. In modern use often more vaguely denoting a social state, in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege.”
Has America ever had such a democracy? Does it have one now?
Meanwhile, many Americans stay at home with their TV sets and video games on Election Day, only to have their faces turn purple months later as they rail against the evils of [“guv-ment” (in quotes) was deleted and "government" was substituted].
Fact is, our nation began, not as a democracy, but as the plutocracy it remains today. As Noam Chomsky reminds us, it was John Jay who proclaimed that “those who own the country ought to govern it.”
To insure this result, voters were initially limited to males who were white, over 21, and owned land. This has been gradually expanded to include African Americans, those without land, women, and finally all over 18. Thus, those who own the country today have to govern it by choosing the nominees.
[William “Boss” Tweed, of New York’s 19th Century Tammany Hall, is credited with having said, “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.” Today the nominating takes place in New York’s financial district, Wall Street, well to the south of the old Tammany Hall at 141 E. 14th Street. As Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein and his friends have said privately about Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, echoing Boss Tweed, "Those would be two very good choices and we’d be perfectly happy with them."]
[But if the American poor, working poor, working class, and lower middle class were well informed regarding their interests, registered, and then voted as a block, they could put their candidates in every elected position in the country, from school boards to the White House. That’s why it’s so important for the 1%, even though they do the nominating, to put every possible roadblock in the path of the poor on their way to the voting booth –- with schemes only restrained by the limits of their imagination.]
[And that is why the establishment’s two major parties make it virtually impossible for third parties to rise and survive. Proposals like instant runoff, fusion, and many more, would make it possible for us to vote with both our hearts and our heads -– better reflecting Americans’ true preferences, while leaving the two parties dominant. But the two majors generally succeed in keeping third party candidates from even being seen in the national debates.]
[Asked to delete or substitute something for the above paragraph, I proposed, and The Gazette used:] Voting reforms such as instant-runoff, ranked choice, or preferential voting would enable voters to vote for more than one candidate. Voting with both one's heart and head would better reflect Americans' true preferences. It also would breathe life into third parties, now usually excluded from participation by a Commission on Presidential Debates made up of the Democratic and Republican Parties' leadership.
Iowans are blest with laws and practices encouraging, rather than stifling, registration and voting. We are given the heady responsibility of playing a disproportionate role in the nomination of our presidential candidates. If anyone will ever “really discover America” it will probably be right here in Iowa. But only if we’ll take our responsibilities seriously and use the opportunities we have.
Nicholas Johnson, an Iowa City native, has worked in every presidential campaign since 1948 [, was a congressional primary candidate, and participated in party organizations at the national, county and precinct level]. He is the author of Are We There Yet? (2008) and the blog FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Gazette's online publication of the columns can be found here: "Writers Circle: Engaging Voters in Local Elections," November 23, 2015, 8:00 a.m. ("Earlier this month, members of The Gazette Writers Circle gathered to discuss this question: A fraction of eligible voters turned out to cast a ballot in this month’s municipal elections. How do we get more people engaged in local political decision making?")
Brandon Weber, "Here Are 3 Big Reasons Millions of Americans Don't Feel Like Voting," Upworthy (online), November 16, 2015 (gerrymandering; primary voting system; electoral college)