It’s election season in the US again, and as always, I get lots of questions and comments from my European friends. Here are some common ones, and my answers.
In terms of the election itself, this map pretty much says it all in terms of what people throughout the world think about who they’d like to see win: http://www.economist.com/vote2008/ .
One of the most common things people wonder about is the electoral system used in the US, especially after Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, but ended up losing in the electoral college. The explanation for the electoral college system is that it creates a need for candidates to do well in a wider area, giving places like Wyoming, with few people but a lot of land, a chance to not be consistently outvoted by far away urban areas. San Francisco, for instance, has more people than the entire state of Wyoming, so the way the electoral college works gives a bit more weight to places that otherwise might be ignored. Furthermore, the voting is "winner take all", which tends to concentrate power in the middle.
Linus Torvalds (yeah, the Linux guy), writes about his view of the US elections here: torvalds-family.blogspot.com/2008/10/stranger-in-strange-land.html , complaining that the US system doesn’t have proportional representation like in his native Finland. However, when he calls the US system "polarizing" he is right only in that the US system creates two large, centrist "poles" rather than some of the more extreme parties that can thrive in proportional systems. For US readers not familiar with the idea of how proportional representation works, it’s pretty simple: everyone gets to vote for a political party, and then those parties are assigned representatives according to how much of the vote they received. Linus is right that this allows everyone to vote for someone who best represents them, but unfortunately that also includes extremists. Modern Italy still has a communist party, as well as groups on the right who are unrepentant of Mussolini’s rule. The US system, thanks to the median voter theory that comes into play with two strong parties, tends towards the center. Now, some people may not care for where the center is in the US, however, at times it has been advantageous to have a system that pushes towards it.
Another problem with proportional representation comes into play when you have coalition governments, as is very often the case in Italy. Say you have left wing parties A and B, with 45% and 10% of the vote, respectively. Since they’re on the same side, they form a coalition. But say party B is actually the communist party, which has some different notions from the mainstream left wing party A. What happens? Party B, with only 10% of the vote, can threaten party A that unless they get their way, they leave the coalition and new elections must be called. This isn’t just a theoretical example, either, it has happened in the past in Italian politics: it leads to shaky, unstable governemnts and small, more extreme (or more corrupt, opportunistic centrist) parties having more power than they deserve.
Not to say the US system is perfect, but it does have some advantages. I don’t know anything about politics in Finland, but it seems to be an orderly, well run place by all accounts, so perhaps the electoral system isn’t as important as the attitude of the people and politicians. I could imagine the Finnish Founding Fathers declaring boldly "We’ll all hang together, or… we’ll freeze to death – it’s cold out there!". Perhaps a country with that kind of attitude places a lot of value on coming together to fix problems that work for everyone.
A further problem in Italy is that proportional representation puts a lot of power in the hands of the political parties, who get to choose their list of candidates for the elections. The idea of something like an open primary, like in the US, is very new to Italy. Romano Prodi put together one a few years ago, but it’s not an entrenched tradition.
I’m not a gun owner, and have never fired one. I would be in favor of further restrictions on their ownership and use in certain areas of the US, but a lot of Europeans don’t understand that, especially in the western US, gun ownership and hunting are part of the culture, and not an unhealthy one either. Mark Thoma, a left-leaning economist, sums it up very well in this post about growing up with guns: economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2008/04/guns.html
While the economics behind it are complex (and interesting) I don’t think the US system is particularly defensible. There are some good things about it, but by and large, I’m far happier with health care in Europe, in large part because it’s so much simpler: if you have a problem, you go to the doctor. When you work, you pay taxes that go towards the health care system. If you lose your job, you can still go to the doctor. All in all, this system is also a lot cheaper than in the US.
Of course, what most Europeans see in the US are the things that are glaringly obvious, different, or affect them, such as foreign policy. What they don’t often get to see are the local politics, which I think are actually something that works pretty well in the US. At least in my home town, Eugene, becoming involved with politics at the city level was something that was within reach of anyone, really. During my job as "shop boy" at Paul’s Bike Shop, Paul ran for and won a seat on the city council. Paul is a smart entrepreneur and good salesman, but he’s anything but a slick politician. Like many people, he did his term, and then bowed out, going back to running his business.
I suspect that local politics throughout Europe are as varied as the people and countries here, but if you go to the US and have an opportunity to look into things, it’s an interesting side of the country that is not as visible to outsiders.