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Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2000 /30 Shevat, 5760

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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The voters rule: In Manchester, Mexico, and Moscow, an imperfect system works --
AS MANCHESTER momentarily replaces Des Moines as the center of the political universe, it might be worthwhile putting America's elections in world perspective. After all, the United States is not the only nation with a 2000 presidential election important to Americans. Also voting are citizens of two of the countries most capable of causing us trouble–Russia, which has nearly as many nuclear weapons as the United States, and Mexico, with whom we share a 2,000-mile border.

To an observer who has been watching all three elections at varying distances, there are fascinating similarities. Voters in all three countries are showing satisfaction with things as they are, with economies that are growing, lustily here and perceptibly after rocky times in Mexico and Russia. Yet their electoral systems are forcing them to face new issues and make different choices. Term limits bar incum-bent presidents here and in Mexico from running, while Russians know little about Vladimir Putin, who was virtually unknown when Boris Yeltsin named him prime minister in August 1999 and whose intentions have been unclear since Yeltsin resigned December 31 and made him acting president.

The two major American parties' front-runners have set out platforms with some sharp differences. George W. Bush has proposed tax cuts, education reforms, and Social Security individual investment accounts. Al Gore, battling Bill Bradley's challenge, has moved to the left on trade (no agreements without conditions other nations are unlikely to accept) and health care (an incremental program he sells as a step toward national health insurance). Gore is hoping that Clinton's high job rating and traditional Democratic edges on education and Social Security will help him. But the Battleground Poll conducted in January by Republican Ed Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lake shows voters evenly split on whether to continue or change Clinton's policies on both education and Social Security, while Bush leads by nearly 2 to 1 on holding taxes down. Electoral democracy is moving us toward change on major policies.

Responsive. Our long-established two parties and our baroquely encrusted system of caucuses and primaries produce a politics that is responsive to current opinions and diverse constituencies. Russia and Mexico, in contrast, started the 1990s with one-party systems. But each is developing, however clumsily, a multiparty politics that has been forcing voters to contemplate change and entrenched politicians to respond.

Mexico's PRI party has held the presidency since it was founded in 1929. But President Ernesto Zedillo has reduced PRI's election-rigging and abandoned the tradition of naming his successor. Instead, PRI held its first primary last November and trumpeted that it was leaving the choice to voters. The winner, Francisco Labastida, widely seen as Zedillo's pick, has accepted the North American Free Trade Agreement and free-market reforms. So have his closest rival, former Guanajuato Gov. Vicente Fox of the conservative PAN party, and, trailing behind, former Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the leftish PRD party. But they are competing with rival proposals to improve education and pledges to clean up corruption. The ruling party is favored in the vote, and cynics say the system won't change. But the emergence of electoral competition (including, after years of fraud, reasonably clean vote counts) and the premium voters afford politicians for good performance in office give Mexican pols benign incentives they have never had before.

Russia is a scarier place. Putin seems unlikely to have serious competition in the March 26 election, which leads many to say Russia's electoral democracy is a fraud. But Yeltsin put Putin on the way to winning only after the Putin-backed Unity slate wiped out the Fatherland slate led by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov in the December 19 Duma elections. True, Unity was helped by scurrilous negative campaigning on media oligarch Boris Berezovsky's ORT television. But voters had other sources of information and a skepticism well developed over the years.

In his 1922 book, Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann argued that electoral democracy could not produce responsible government. Voters could not understand complex issues and would be swayed by stereotypes and slogans. He recommended "an independent, expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions"–Platonic guardians. Similar complaints fill election coverage today: Many people don't vote, many voters are uninformed, the media are biased. All true. Yet one who has interviewed voters in the United States, Mexico, and Russia cannot help but be struck by how often their responses, even if not at first forthcoming and uttered in shorthand phrases, show knowledge of issues and candidates and a rational basis for choices. For all its faults, electoral politics 2000, by forcing choices on the voters in Manchester, Mexico City, and Moscow, does better than the 20th century's many Platonic guardians.

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


01/19/00: The era of Big Promises
12/08/99: Welcome to the world of 'good enough'
11/2/99: Just saying no
11/12/99: Money talks, as it should
10/28/99: Mexico votes – for real
10/03/99: Going against type
09/28/99: The unions go public
08/31/99: China's strait flush
08/25/99: The first two contests
08/03/99: Paddling upstream
07/08/99: Taking Hillary seriously
06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©1999, Michael Barone