There was a huge outcry in France this summer over a move by allies of French President Jacques Chirac to narrow the character and quality of that country’s political competition. Stung by recent shows of electoral strength by the nationalist right and the Green and Trotskyist left, France’s political establishment is preparing to rewrite election rules in order to essentially assure that only traditional major parties of the center-right and center-left can prevail in elections for the domestic and European parliaments. Objections from across the political spectrum echo a similar theme: The changes proposed by the insiders in Paris would “Americanize” that country’s politics.
Casual observers in the United States might object to the notion that there is something wrong with Americanizing the politics of France or any other country. But they should understand that the complaint is grounded in our own experience in the US. For all the frenzy and hype of the cable television commentators and the vast political industry that now operates inside the Washington beltway, our country’s political processes have become so leaden and disengaged that they no longer are deemed worthy of attention by the majority of voters. Almost two-thirds of America’s eligible voters (64 percent in 1994, 66 percent in 1998) no longer participate in Congressional elections, and the most hotly contested presidential election in a generation (the unsettling and unsettled 2000 contest between Democratic Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush) could barely draw half the electorate to the polls.
The range of opinion expressed at the upper levels of American political discourse have been narrowing for more than a decade, as marketing men and women have taken over the levels of power in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Even a misguided war and the threat of its expansion to dramatic new levels of folly, corporate scandals of epic economic consequence and the clear corruption of executive branch decision making musters little in the way of straight talk in a Congress where the calculation of campaign contributions takes precedence at every turn over Constitutional responsibilities and the public interest.
As bad as things may be in American politics, however, there are always those who would make things worse. And, in Georgia’s recent Congressional primaries, they succeeded in doing just that. The defeats of US Representative Cynthia McKinney, perhaps the most radical member of the Democratic caucus, and of US Representative Bob Barr, perhaps the most radical member of the Republican caucus, in their respective party primaries will remove two of the few independent voices from a Congress that already suffers from a deficit of dissenters. As such, an already narrow national debate will, at least at the Congressional level, grow narrower still.
To be sure, both McKinney and Barr have been controversial figures. McKinney has been a fierce critic of the foreign and domestic policies of Democratic and Republican administrations since her election in 1992. Often echoing the Green Party’s critique of the two major parties, she has not hesitated to accuse Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney of racial and ethnic insensitivity, and she has been one of the House’s loudest critics of the “Israel First” approach of Democratic and Republican congressional leaders to Middle East affairs.