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Democracy mobilized

Three weeks before the US presidential elections politika.lv interviewed Richard Jensen, professor emeritus of History, University of Illinois, Chicago

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You have written many publications on the history of elections. What is elections in your opinion? Is it more like a triumph of democracy, or good forum for the struggle for political power?

Elections are an essential component of democracy. The Americans have an unusually complicated system that is so different from a parliamentary system and has its own unusual rules and things like electoral colleges and so on. The rules are complicated, but once you see how the rules work, you see that issues: foreign policy issues, economic issues, cultural issues are expressed through that format. As a historian I argue that the issues of 150 years ago were rather similar. I’m a specialist in the elections of the Woodrow Wilson period, and there are many striking similarities in the debates. The debate over the Versailles Treaty in foreign policy in the United States in 1919 is very similar to dabate on Iraq and America’s role and mission in the world. As a historian I tend to look at a very long run and I compare the situation on how you create democracy after the American Civil War and how you create democracy in the South. The problem of reconstruction: how do you take a defeated society in the South like Afghanistan or Iraq today or like after World War II Japan and Germany. How do Americans turn the defeated South in 1865 into a democracy? I would argue, indeed, that the issues, the logic, the goals - very similar today to what they were in 1920, to what they were back in 1865. I see a very long-term continuity.

A hot topic at the moment in Latvia related to the elections is the role of money. In many European countries, including Central and Eastern Europe and in Latvia as well, recently there is a tendency to decrease the need for campaign money by introducing limits for political advertising. Would such regulations be necessary in the US as well?

Well there are such regulations and we have debated this in great detail for a hundred years, trying for a lot of different solutions. We thought we had a solution about a year and a half ago, what was called the McCain Feingold Law that was passed. It turns out it had a gigantic loop-hole in it in which hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by agencies who were free-spending but independent of the candidates. That was a big surprise, we did not expect that.

There is a deeper question of how campaigns should be financed. One school of thought says the government should pay for it and therefore control the total amount spent. The problem with that is that it seems very likely that the incumbents will always get re-elected and an outsider would have a very difficult time breaking in. The only way an outsider can break in is to spend a lot of money on advertising. We have a country of 300 million people. And advertising in cities like New York City and Los Angeles - incredibly expensive. A million dollars for thirty seconds. It’s an expensive business. Is there a solution? Well, one will be tried, a different one, I would predict, in another two years or so. I’m not sure what it will be. Analysts are debating it right now.

What about advertising as such - is it compatible with democratic idealism? People sometimes feel manipulated.

That’s my specialty, the history of campaign techniques. Americans see an average of many thousand TV commercials a year. Americans are absolutely flooded with many thousands of ads for everything. And so we’re used to handling it. In a society in which nobody has ever had wine, would introducing wine have a dramatic and negative impact on politics? It probably would. But in a wine loving country where everyone loves and knows and appreciates wine and rejects bad wine - they know it so well, that it doesn’t make you drunk.

There was a big discussion after the last American presidential election which was nearly a tie, whether this system of electoral colleges is appropriate for the contemporary world. What about reforms in this respect?

The electoral college system has been in place for 200 years and there has been zero serious effort in the last 50 years to change it, including after the 2000 election. There were major efforts after 2000 to change the ballot problem of paper ballots and punch card ballots. There was a great deal of discussion in the last four years on exactly what ballot technology should be used and that is not quite settled down yet. The tendency I think is going to be toward the ATM type computerised ballot. Although, as I say, there’s the worry that some very clever hacker will rig it.

In a well established two party system, parties tend to divide over or to adopt certain issues, for example, environmental or women’s issues are "Democratic" or anti-abortion issues are "Republican". This inevitably has a politicizing effect on all concerned advocacy groups. Isn’t that a negative side effect of the well-established two-party system?

One of the curious things about the two-party system, it could be negative, but actually the way it really works, is that the two candidates try to get very close to each other and yet still be distinctive. And gay rights is a very good example, gay marriage. It was a big surprise a year ago. In one state, Massachusetts, one court ordered legal gay marriages, unexpectedly, it was out of nowhere. And everybody thought that it would be a very big issue this year. Well, what happened, is that Bush says I am against gay marriage and there should be a federal constitutional amendment. And Kerry says I am against gay marriage and there should be a state constitutional amendment. They’re different, but they’re so close together, that suddenly that big issue, it’s there, but it does not hurt the system to have that kind of debate.

What about the international context of the elections this year - is the international impact on the result of this election the same as it was four years ago?

We usually don’t talk about foreign affairs in election, but this year is quite different. For various obvious reasons - the war of Iraq, and the 9/11 terrorism attacks. It has become a number one issue. And also because what usually is the most important issue - the economy - is not helping either candidate. The economy - it’s not bad enough to help the democrats, it’s not good enough to help the republicans so it’s not a high visibility issue in this particular election. That’s just even more attention to foreign policy.

What would change in America's international relations if Kerry was elected? How strong are the American interests, I mean there is some consensus between Democrats and Republicans.

Kerry has found he has a very difficult problem in the Democratic party. The Democratic party is divided almost equally into the anti-war Democrats who are led by people like Governor Dean last year who almost got the nomination, and the pro-war Democrats who are led by people like Senator Lieberman, who was the vice-presidential nominee four years ago. Kerry has had a very complicated, difficult time to keep both wings of the Democratic party. He can’t lose one wing. If he loses the support from one wing, he’ll lose. His solution to staying in the middle is that he denounces strongly what Bush did in 2003, and strongly supports and says I will do even a better job fighting the war in 2005. Kerry will have a very similar policy, in terms of the Middle East. There may be some differences in places like North Korea. In terms of policy toward Europe, I believe Kerry and Bush - their actual policy toward NATO, toward EU toward Russia will be about the same. I don’t see a major change.

What are, in your opinion, the main reasons for the public support for Bush after all the blunders or perceived blunders and mistakes he has made, especially regarding no WMDs in Iraq, Abu Ghraib and so on?

In terms of weapons of mass destruction, intelligence is a prediction, and estimate, a guess of the way the world works. And if you can send ten thousand soldiers, there were more, to inspect every square mile of Iraq, then you’ll know what the situation is. But ahead of time, in 2002, every intelligence agency in the world agreed with the United States. We’re talking about Germany and France, we’re talking about Britain and Russia, we’re talking about the different American agencies. They were all in unanimous agreement that Sadam Hussein had them. He fooled us. That was a big surprise. Is that a mistake? Well, yes. The question is what risk do you take. The Bush policy is that theoretically there are two kinds of mistakes you can make. You can attack an enemy who is not really an enemy. That’s Type A mistake. Type B mistake is not attack someone who is an enemy. That’s 9/11. That’s much worse. We think the danger of inaction, the Bush administration says, of not taking action, that’s what produces Pearl Harbours and 9/11’s. That’s much worse than invading a country, so to speak, by mistake.

But who is allowed to decide whether a country is or isn't such a threat for the world?

We had originally, once upon a time, thought that the United Nations would make that decision. It has not made that decision one way or the other. The United Nations has not condemned the United States. It has not called the United States an aggressor nation. They will not do that.

Who makes the decision? Back in 1920, this is the debate in Versailles, the League of Nations, this is the debate in 1945 about the United Nations. One element thought that those international bodies would solve this kind of problem. Especially with a medium or small country like Iraq. The League of Nations could not solve the problem with Ethiopia and Italy. It was humiliated in that episode. And the United Nations hasn’t been able to solve problems either. So the Americans have come to the conclusion that the United Nations is a useful place for discussions and meeting peoples and working out public health issues, but it is not a good place to solve diplomatic issues of the world. NATO is much better and other regional and temporary alliance systems.

9/11 changed the American outlook. We are not going to allow Type B mistakes to happen. That’s not going to happen again. We’re taking the risk of more Type A mistakes to avoid much more damaging Type B mistakes.

You talked about the mission of democratisation and there are of course plenty of countries which could be really grateful to America because of their democratisation. What do you say about the state of this mission at the moment? On the one hand of course there are big efforts to democratise Iraq. On the other hand there are some suspicions about double standards, for example, regarding Libya, which is America's best friend at the moment.

Libya switched from a bitter enemy, over night, within days, to a friendly, normal relationship. One picks issues that are very dangerous. North Korea is an example of an extremely dangerous situation in a small geographic area. Secondly you look at very large areas that may be dangerous - that’s China, that’s Russia. Iraq belongs to that first category. We consider it very dangerous. We consider the problem to be in much better shape than it was two years ago.

Russia is even more serious, but not as urgent, so to speak. We are not sure what we should do about Russia, but we are putting pressure against Putin who has these unhappy tendencies towards dictatorship maybe. Does he? We are not sure.

China we’re handling very carefully because we are strongly encouraging China to modernise its economy. We have a theory and we think we proved it, the world proved it in cases like Taiwan and South Korea that if you modernise your economy, democracy will follow, and that the creation of a large middle class, a business community, a clerical and educated society will lead to democracy. Well, we think so. We strongly encourage, for example, universities and educational systems, and we try to promote that sort of thing because that’s a very long-run effort to promote. We try and promote civic cultures, that is local groups that are not controlled by the government, but that voluntarily get together. Whether it’s businessmen, or cultural groups, or religious groups, or artistic groups or what not. A society that has those is not totalitarian.

The last question - who will win the election and why?

This is early October. Bush, I think, has two advantages right now. He is seen as a stronger leader. Kerry has this very difficult juggling act of the two wings of the Democratic Party, pro-war and anti-war. He has to keep both of them, and it’s a very difficult job.

In terms of the geography of the election, it is somewhat favourable to the Republicans. The Democrats tend to waste extra votes in their strongholds, like New England, and New York, and Illinois and California. If they could take a million Democrats out of California and move them to Pennsylvania they would be very happy. Doesn’t work that way of course.

The other factor is that this year very few people are undecided or in the middle. Almost everybody is locked into the Democratic or Republican position. So for both parties it is going to depend on their efficiency in getting their turnout, getting their supporters to the polls. Only 55% of Americans vote in elections. But if you can get 56 or 57, you win. That means phoning people, that means rallying people, that means getting little clubs together in which they all talk to each other and get each other to the polls. Both parties are doing that. It’s hard to say who is doing a better job right now. The Democrats used to rely on organisations like the labour unions to get out their votes. The labour unions still do that, but they are much smaller. Only 9% of the workers join labour unions now. So they influence a shrinking number of Democrats. Republicans have found a new force - the churches. And the Republicans are working closely with the churches - both Catholic and Protestant in different areas to mobilise. A religious vote tends to be a Republican vote. Those are the kind of structural, local, almost invisible things, because they are not on television. Who is doing a better job this year, it’s very hard to say.


The interview took place on 9.10.04.

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