Opinion: Democracy Hypocrisy

The U.S. appears to have an unlimited budget for "marketing" democracy around the world and an aggressive sales team to push the strategy. From the chickenhawks at the Project for the New American Century to the foot-soldiers in Falluja, the great American democracy road-show is due to raise the curtain in Iraq come January, 2005, and then, who knows, perhaps the caravan will be off to Damascus and Tehran.

But how much time, energy, and how much of our growing deficit is currently dedicated to making our own elections transparent and straightforward? Millions of post-election pundit hours are spent hand-wringing and parsing every quirk of each county's voting system after a general election---there are different registration rules, differing ways of casting your vote, different biases of different election officials; teams of goons are bused out to challenge felons and falsely registered voters---"suppressing" the vote is considered a standard tactic in the election day playbook.

Listen to a.m. radio and you'll hear the creed frequently confirmed that America boasts the greatest political system the world has ever known, and why should the facts get in the way of a stirring narrative? Notwithstanding Jim Crow, since 1946 the percentage of the voting-age population participating in U.S. presidential elections reached a high of 63% in 1960 and has been at or around 50% for the past 30 years. Among our western peers the democracy-loving Germans have kicked in at 80-90% at general elections; in Britain and France it's been at or above 70%. Even after the much heralded get-out-the-vote efforts this time around the total vote appears to weigh in at around 59%, meaning that George W. Bush's "political capital" amounts to about 30% of the plurality.

Is this the great political engine we're priming for export? The U.S. Constitution and its eccentric, archaic system of converting votes into representation is hardly going to be a ready fit for the regional, religious and ethnic striations of Iraq, a country whose borders were drawn by colonial fiat in 1919 after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. The architects of the president's foreign policy likely have something else in mind, something not entirely distant from the candid musings of a senior British India Office official at the Treaty of Sevres: "What we want is some administration with Arab institutions which we can safely leave while pulling the strings ourselves; something that won't cost very much…under which our economic and political interests will be secure."

By Richard Stilwell
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