The British have embraced American-styled debates. For the first time, the three major candidates for prime minister squared off in three debates before the general election. The Brits are likely to keep the debates in the future.
Despite this convergence over the concept of debates, the United Kingdom and the United States still run different type of elections. Is there anything the United States can learn from the United Kingdom in terms of how elections should be run?
The most striking difference is how short the British election season is. They call for an election and a month later the election is held. The United States, on the other hand, has an endless campaign season. John Kennedy announced his candidacy for president in 1960, the same year the election was held. Today we have candidates who announce shortly after the mid-term elections that they are seeking the highest office in the land. That is nearly two years before the election and sets up an interminable campaign season of which the American public grows weary. And a candidate who is out of office, like Mitt Romney, often runs what amounts to a four-year campaign. When Jimmy Carter completed his term as governor of Georgia in January 1975, he immediately began running for president. This headstart gave him a great advantage over those candidates holding office and helped him with the presidency in 1976.
Another thing that stands out about British politics is that they have many parties and the parties stay true to their values over time. A person who joined the Labour Party fifty years ago can still recognize the party. Same is true of the Tories. Under such a system, people will not switch parties as readily as changing pairs of socks.
The problem with the U.S. system is it has two major parties charged with representing over 300 million people. The two parties are supposed to be big tents under which everyone can find a place. In reality the parties become vacuum-fillers. When a vacuum is created, one party will move in to fill the space. Principles and heritage are often sacrificed to attain this goal of jumping into the open space.
A great example of this is the issue of race and Civil Rights. Throughout much of U.S. history, the Democratic Party was the more overtly racist party, featuring the likes of Theodore Bilbo, George Wallace and “Cotton Ed” Smith. However, starting with the 1948 Democratic convention, when Hubert Humphrey, then mayor of Minneapolis, spoke out in favor of Civil Rights by saying it was time for Democrats to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights,” the Democratic Party began to move away from its racist past. This created a vacuum which the Republicans gladly filled. Although they did not become as overtly racist as the Democrats once were, the GOP embraced the “Southern Strategy” and made people feel comfortable with their prejudices.
This created an incongruous situation. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, literally gave his life to preserve the Union and end slavery. In his second inaugural address he said, “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” Lincoln opposed the extension of slavery, opposed the Confederate flag with Union forces, and opposed secession. So he must be rolling over in his grave today to know that contemporary Republicans are saying and doing the following:
–Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, has mentioned the word secession and hinted that states may have the right to secede from the union.
–Duncan D. Hunter, a U.S. Congressman from the San Diego area, said he supports overturning a part of the Republican-authored 14th Amendment in order to deny citizenship rights to natural born Americans whose parents are illegal aliens.
–Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell faced criticism when he declared Confederate History Month without mentioning the institution of slavery as a primary cause of the Civil War. He later corrected himself.
–While serving as GOP Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott expressed a fondness for Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential candidacy. In 1948, Thurmond was a Democrat, a Dixiecrat and a segregationist and not at all in the tradition of the Republican Party.
The British system seems to allow parties to stand for principles over time, whereas the U.S. system leads to parties flip-flopping on issues and abandoning core principles. It is impractical to expect over 300 million people to fit into two gigantic parties. If a country the size of the United Kingdom can have five or more parties with seats in the House of Lords, the United States should have at least ten parties. Then parties can stay true to what they were founded upon and not look like they are the exact opposite of what they were at inception.
A third feature of the British system the U.S. might learn from is the British have public financing of campaigns and don’t allow a string of negative, vituperative ads to run endlessly over the networks. The British allocate air time for parties to present their ideas. Under the British system billionaires cannot simply buy their seat or their office by spending whatever is necessary to win election. The U.S. system makes it almost impossible for an average person to run for office. Someone has to be independently wealthy or constantly trying to raise funds for media buys. Elected officials spend so much time fundraising that they have little time left to legislate. When the field of candidates is whittled down so much by income status alone, the quality of candidates must be less than it should be. The recent Supreme Court ruling giving corporations unlimited access to participate in election campaigns will further erode the process.
If the British are willing to try debates, the United States should be willing to try shortening the campaign seasons, allowing third parties an avenue to participate, and going to public financing to take the huge money and corporate control out of the political system.