You are about to see the answer all lawyers dread when they cross examine and believe they have a witness cornered:
We observed (posts of October 19, 2012 and January 27, 2013) that Barack Obama has a crisis of legitimacy.
He isn´t alone.
As were Bush, Clinton and all other recent American presidents, Obama was elected by a mere 30% of the population legally eligible to vote. He is, as were his predecessors, The 30% Solution.
What that means in the world where we live and work: when Obama talks, 70% of the people aren´t listening.
The average U.S. citizen senses something is terribly wrong with the country, but is unable to identify it. Outside of readers of this blog, probably not 1,000 Americans are conscious of the 30% legitimacy deficit. Nonetheless, that reality creates a feeling tone that is sweeping over the nation: Washington D.C. floats on top of the people.
In truth, the legitimacy crisis goes far beyond Obama or any other president. In 2008-9, an oligarchic political system replaced the polity, i.e., the oligarchy/democracy hybrid system created by the Founding Fathers and moderated by a large middle class. The newly minted oligarchic system has power but lacks authority and prestige -- in other words, legitimacy.
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Discussions and definitions of the world democracy abound. They agree on little except one thing: somehow, the majority is involved. In that regard, Bush´s and Obama´s 30% figure doesn´t make it to first base, in fact, it is not even in the state containing the city that has the ballpark where the game is being played.
Go back to the year 2000. The cloud of election theft by George W. Bush still hangs over the Florida election (see our post of December 30, 2010). However, even if that fraud did not occur, the Bush presidency was illegitimate with respect to majority rule. Here´s why:
The final official results for the 2000 presidential election: George W. Bush: 47.9%; Al Gore 48.4%; Ralph Nader 2.7%. To repeat, in a democracy, the majority rules. Bush was elected by 47.9%. Therefore ...
Is there a way an American president can be legitimate?
No solution is possible without a structural change in America´s electoral system.
In the 1700s America gave the world a stupendous gift: its form of government. Equally true, in terms of democratic principles and practices, stagnation set in. America was surpassed by other nations. That is why, today, in the search for solutions to the U.S. legitimacy deficit, the first stop is foreign lands.
We just saw one solution in Ecuador: a system with presidential runoff elections.
The 2000 presidential election results are those given above, i.e., Bush wins but lacks 50%.
A short time later, a runoff election is held between the top two candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore. Obviously, the bulk of the Nader vote would go to Gore; Gore wins with over 50%. I will leave it to you, Dear Reader, to ponder the possible differences a Gore victory would have made in American and world history.
But wait -- the impact of runoff presidential elections neither begins nor ends there.
The runoff system should also be applied to the 1992 race. Final official results: Bill Clinton: 43.0%. George Bush Senior: 37.4%. Ross Perot: 18.9%. Had a Clinton/Bush runoff election occurred, the vast bulk of the Perot vote would have gone to Bush; after all, we are looking at fellow Texans and a belatedly improving economy. With a second term for Bush and a defeated Clinton, who would have been the candidates in 1996? Who would be president today? The ensuing speculation beats any reality TV show.
The point is, if a runoff election was required, all presidents would have a 50% plus 1 majority. That solves the legitimacy deficit.
Or does it? Readers of The Big Movida: The Third American Revolution (see this blog) know that mandatory voting is the only systemic way all presidents can be elected democratically, that is to say, by the majority. That result is created by compelling two groups to go to the polls: (i) people who legally qualify but are not registered to vote, and (ii) people who are registered to vote but do not vote.
For those who oppose runoff elections and/or mandatory voting, all I can say is, don´t lose a second of sleep over what is said here. The American oligarchy will never allow either change in the lifetime of anybody reading these words in 2013.
The oligarchy always has been and always will be viscerally opposed to majority rule for two reasons:
(i) The core of the oligarchy is a true minority -- the top 5% of American money earners.
(ii) 2,000 years ago, Aristotle observed that neither the rich nor the poor would “tolerate a system under which either ruled in its turn: they have too little confidence in one another."*
The long and the short of it: runoff presidential elections must await The Third American Revolution. It will restore the polity but with greatly enhanced power for the democratic component, far less for the oligarchic component.
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In Ecuador, to avoid a presidential runoff election the top finisher must win at least 40% of the vote (which is mandatory) and also have a10% margin over the second-place candidate. This system began in 1998; Argentina, Costa Rica and Nicaragua have similar requirements. (For an excellent introduction to runoff elections, click here.)
No system should be slavishly imitated.
1. The 40%/10% requirement is relevant in a multiparty environment. In the U.S., there are only two major parties, which creates this possible outcome: in the first round, a candidate wins 53% of the vote, the second place finisher has 45%, a third candidate receives 2%. If a 10% margin is required, there would have to be a runoff election. The winning candidate did not have a 10% margin even though he received over 50% of the vote.
2. In the 40%/10% system (or similar one), a candidate can be elected with less that 50% plus one. To repeat, to solve the legitimacy crisis of the American presidency, anything less than 50% is not acceptable.
Conclusion: Yes, America should have presidential runoff elections, but require a candidate to obtain only a minimum of 50% plus one to win outright and avoid a runoff.
Coming soon: Venezuelan presidential election update.
*Aristotle, The Politics of Aristotle, translated and edited by Ernest Barker, Oxford University Press, New York, 1962, pp. 181, 186. (Book IV, Chapters XI, XII). Tocqueville expressed the same view of the rich and the poor as implacable rivals: “If you put aside the secondary causes of great human disturbances, you will almost always find inequality. It is the poor who wanted to despoil the rich of their goods, or the rich who tried to enslave the poor.” (« Écartez les causes secondaires qui ont produit les grandes agitations des hommes ; vous en arriverez presque toujours à l’inégalité. Ce sont les pauvres qui ont voulu ravir les biens des riches, ou les riches qui ont essayé d’enchaîner les pauvres. […] ») Alexis de Tocqueville, De La Démocratie en Amérique II, in Œuvres, op.cit., p. 769. (III, XXI).