We know democracy’s slogan: “Elections matter.” Or if that doesn’t work, draw on so many other oft-repeated phrases that make up the melodies in our politics. “Vote for change,” “stay the course,” or these days, “we are the 99 percent,” and the result, as George Orwell once observed, is “political” language. Such phrases Orwell wrote are designed to make “lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
We want that solid wind—and a solid win. Victory feels good, especially when it’s “our” side that’s the “we.”
But the wind is never solid. The same storm that carried Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 also blew strongly for Republicans in the congressional elections of 2010. Both sides—two very different ways of looking at the world—claim the people’s approval for their course of action.
There are structural reasons for that. First, the U.S. Constitution is not a mechanism for solving complicated problems when the nation is this divided. It’s too easy for those out of power to just say no.
Consider the political math: Two houses of Congress must agree. One of those chambers, the U.S. Senate, essentially requires a supermajority of 60 votes before an idea can take hold.
The truth is neither house of Congress actually represents the will of the people (whatever that is).
The House reflects 435 congressional districts designed for the most part to be ideological islands where the majority is determined every decade through the redistricting process. Only a few house seats, just enough to decide who runs things, are actually competitive.
The Senate is even less democratic. A Senator from Wyoming has an upper chamber vote that represents 544,000 people, while a Senator from California has the same single vote on behalf of 37 million citizens. Why is it more fair for one state’s residents to have two votes in the Senate than, say, 5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives represented by some 500 nations, villages and tribal governments?
So why bother? Why vote? It’s easy to dismiss the process as unfair and irrelevant. But that’s not true either. The fact is imperfect elections do matter. (Hardly a slogan, I know.)
Four years ago there was strong support for Obama from Indian Country, unprecedented excitement actually. Many thought that election would bring about a new kind of government one that would solve many of the problems that had been lingering for decades. And, as I wrote before the last elections, by any objective measure Obama has been an engaged and effective president. There’s a long list of successes: the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, solid budget requests, key appointments, and soon to be a third annual meeting with tribal leaders and the White House.
Yet somehow that doesn’t seem to be enough. There’s not nearly the enthusiasm across Indian Country for the upcoming election, let alone the president’s re-election campaign.
But the Republican alternative is significant reason to vote. All of the Republican candidates for president are advocating deep budget cuts. The frontrunner, Mitt Romney, has a plan to cut a $100 billion from Medicaid and then shift the remaining funds to state governments through block grants. This action would, at least if Romney was successful, mean less money for an already underfunded Indian health system. Other Republican candidates would consider that generous. They’d return government to its place, at funding levels that might have been appropriate during the 1950s.
A year from this week we will once again go to the polls. Sure, there will be promises that meet all of our expectations. And, for some, that’s probably enough (though disappointment will follow).
But for the rest of us, this election ought to be about real alternatives in flawed democracy. On one hand, we need to keep pressing for reforms that would help this country live up to its ideals. At the same time, we need to elect candidates that do their best while seeing the landscape for what it is. No matter how hard the wind blows.
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.