Turnips: It’s What’s for Dinner

As the results of the United Kingdom’s referendum vote to exit the European Union has shown us: elections matter. We are already seeing a wave of voter’s remorse sweep the country. Apparently, many voters in the UK didn’t understand the ramifications of leaving the EU, or were so convinced that their vote wouldn’t really matter, that they voted to leave as a kind of protest vote against…

well I’m not sure exactly what they would be protesting, but it seems to have really loused things up for the UK if you believe that staying the EU was the correct choice. I’m not wading into the argument about whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that the UK is leaving the EU. Clearly there are advantages and disadvantages beyond the plunging stalactites in Americans’ 401K statements. But I am intrigued by how the system of voting, and the options you present to the electorate are so important in how the outcome takes shape.

In the US we also have an important vote fast approaching. We are about to select a president, the worlds most dangerous hood ornament. How we elect presidents is confusing, distressing and impenetrable to both Americans and the rest of the world. There is a great deal of corruption in how we do it. In general, there is corruption in allowing the parties at stake in elections to control the means of their own election, and there is a deeper corruption in controlling which options are presented to the people. This corruption can increase the tendency for people to lodge protest votes or refrain from voting completely. Both of these choices ultimately benefit the very parties we might be protesting against.

Unlike the US, the UK electorate is familiar with proportional representation. European Commission seats, national assemblies and other bodies are elected on a multi-member multi-party basis. Members of Parliament are elected in what is essentially a two-party system in a first-past-the-post paradigm that Americans are all too familiar with. However, in the UK, it is quite possible (although not as easy as it is in European politics) for a minor party to attain some level of power. In the UK, minor parties actually have a seat at the table, because the infrastructure of the two-party system doesn’t necessarily permeate every level of politics. In the US, the two-party system is present from the election of city councilors right up to the office of the president. Even municipal elections, which can sometimes be organized on a non-partisan basis, are controlled by boards or commissions which are instruments of the two major parties. Oklahoma’s ballot access process and electoral system is controlled by the state election board and county level election boards (county government being the most useless level of government in the US). The state election board is appointed by the governor (a party official) and he selects who is on the board from lists prepared by Republican party and Democratic party officials. Our election boards are literally run by party bosses. “Third parties” even those with significant resources and support behind them are consigned to playing the role of spoiler for the Republicans or Democrats at best. https://www.ok.gov/elections/About_Us/State_Board_Members/index.html

Idealistic voters in both the US and the UK may feel the impulse to vote with their hearts, knowing they cannot win. Or they may vote for someone or something they don’t truly want to win as a way of protesting the two sanctioned options presented to them by the system. Whatever the circumstances, we have to realize that every vote matters when determining the outcome. Though I am sympathetic to those who lodge a protest vote, and to those who engage in the ultimate protest of not voting at all (both of which I have done), I have come to believe that we must cast a ballot, and we must cast it by weighing the two options presented to us. The two-party system in the US is uniquely sinister. The election of president is its most visible example. It presents us with two candidates, each chosen to be the ultimate expression of each party’s ideals. Hillary Clinton embodies the Democratic party, and Donald Trump embodies the Republican party. The machinery of government and the American psyche demands that there are only two options, a hero and villain, a victor and the vanquished. There is no other player in this opera.

Presented — as we are — with the two options, you could lodge a protest vote intending to condemn the system. Perhaps you choose Jill Stein (Green Party) or Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party), knowing their chances are slim. Perhaps you favored a candidate who lost in the primary to another candidate who you are not a fan of (i.e. Sanders’ loss to Clinton). You may choose to cast your vote for Trump in a blanket condemnation of a system which is clearly rigged, hoping to teach someone a lesson in something. Or, worst of all, perhaps you decide to stay home on election day and not vote at all. The reality is that we are presented two realistic options. One of them is going to win. We have a plate of turnips and a plate of broccoli in front of us and we have to pick one. The insidious chef who prepared these meal options for us won’t be harmed or insulted if we select the turnips over the broccoli. He’ll prepare an equally distressing meal for us tomorrow night. His satisfaction comes in selecting the menu, not in sampling his own cooking. I didn’t go to the dinner table hoping to dine solely on a heaping pile of broccoli, but I know which one I’m going to pick. You might push yourself away from the table and say “no dinner for me tonight!” but you’ll only go hungry and turnips and broccoli will be on the menu again tomorrow.

We are electing leaders under rules designed by those who stand to benefit most from the rules. We need to help shape the rules, not just live by them. Elections are often seen as our only way of influencing government, but that’s just wrongheaded. Elections are just the end result of a system of rules. Where those rules are made is where the real power is. Instead of paying attention to politics only during the presidential election cycle, people have got to participate at the local level, where the mischief is first concocted and conceived. It gets distilled and refined as it moves up the ladder of federalism, but that corruption starts in your own town, with your own local party politics.

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