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Last Updated: Friday, 4 January 2008, 15:19 GMT
A very long and winding road
By David Cannadine

Campaigner reminds voters to go to caucus in Iowa
Caucuses and primaries pick who will run for president
Why does the United States, champion of democracy, have a drawn-out presidential electoral system that is a far cry from the "one vote for all" principle?

As the Iowa caucuses and the impending New Hampshire primary remind us, there's one prediction that can be ventured with almost absolute certainty: in early November 2008, the United States will have selected its next president.

This must be so, because in the aftermath of Franklin Roosevelt's unprecedented four electoral triumphs, the Senate passed a constitutional amendment in 1947, prohibiting any future president from serving more than two full terms in the White House.

So George W Bush cannot stand for re-election again. And not only will he not be running again, nor will his deputy Dick Cheney, who doesn't wish to gain the presidency himself. Which means there'll be neither an incumbent president nor an incumbent vice-president seeking re-election this autumn - something that hasn't happened in the US for more than half a century.

But when I say that it's almost certain that the US will have selected a new president this November, I choose my words with particular care. For while it's virtually assured that this will happen, neither the outcome nor the timing can be guaranteed.

Matryoshka dolls depicting 2000 presidential candidates Al Gore, left, and George W Bush
The Supreme Court had the final say after the Florida recount in 2000
The presidential election of 2000 took place, as required by the constitution, early in November; but for weeks, the result remained in doubt, and George W Bush was not declared the winner until early January 2001, nearly two months later.

And I didn't say that the American people will elect their president, because collectively they do no such thing: for the popular ballot in each state is converted into a delegated franchise in an institution called the Electoral College, and it's the members of the college, whose numbers reflect the combined representation of each state in both houses of Congress, who actually vote for one or other of the candidates.

Because of the uneven distribution of the US population, this means a presidential contender can actually lose the popular vote across the whole nation, but can still win the Electoral College, as George Bush himself did in 2000, and as Benjamin Harrison did in 1888, and as Rutherford B Hayes had done 12 years before that.

Democracy, with strings

The US may have good reason to pride itself on being the world's oldest continually functioning democracy, and spreading freedom around the world has been one of George Bush's most cherished (and most thwarted) ambitions.

The founding fathers built in checks and balances to prevent democracy from getting out of hand

But it's certainly not a democracy in the sense that most of us would understand that term, when it comes to selecting - rather than electing - a president, and it was never intended that it should be.

When the founding fathers created their constitution, in the aftermath of the American War of Independence, they sought to modify the prevailing revolutionary and libertarian mood by building in checks and balances to prevent democracy from getting out of hand.

One way of doing this was to require that senators should be elected to Congress for six years, thereby rendering them free of popular pressure for most of their turn. Another was to create the Electoral College, which meant that the president would be chosen indirectly rather than by the American people as a whole.

From this side of the Atlantic, these roundabout and arcane processes of choosing a leader seem mildly reminiscent of electing the Holy Roman emperor in medieval and early modern Europe, and of the way in which popes are still decided on by the College of Cardinals to this day.

And even if everything turns out to be consistent and straightforward, in terms of both the popular mandate and the electoral college vote, then the successful presidential candidate, whoever he - or she - may be, doesn't take office immediately, in the way that one prime minister can instantly succeed another after a general election in Britain, as Tony Blair did when he ousted John Major from 10 Downing Street on 1 May 1997.

Who's in charge

Instead, there'll be a period of what is known as transition, lasting until the third week of January, when the new president will be inaugurated and finally take up residence in the White House.

Roosevelt in 1942
Roosevelt addressing congress
Ten weeks may seem a long time for such a handover; but until Franklin Roosevelt's day, this transition went at an even more leisurely pace. Roosevelt was elected in November 1932, but he wasn't inaugurated until March 1933. It was only with his re-election four years later that the inauguration was brought forward to the following January - in so doing, Roosevelt established a precedent that has been followed by all US presidents since.

When John F Kennedy was inaugurated in January 1961, he observed that such state ceremonials, taking place in Washington on the steps of the Capitol, and surrounded by the great and the good, were not so much a victory of a political party as a celebration of national freedom.

Yet this was scarcely the whole truth of things, since Kennedy's presidential triumph was also a significant party triumph for the Democrats, and the voting irregularities which had taken place in Mayor Daly's Chicago, and which had helped Kennedy to win the key state of Illinois, were scarcely consistent with the claim that Americans were a free people, or that theirs was an unfettered democracy.

And Kennedy neglected to mention something that may have been self-evident on his side of the Atlantic, but which wasn't at all obvious here: that the inauguration of a new president is more akin to the British coronation of a new head of state than to a general election which may result in a new prime minister.

Kennedy's inauguration in 1961
How it all began for JFK
However partisan and divisive the election campaign may have been, the president is expected, on taking office, to rise above such sectional interests, and get beyond such partisan bickering, and to assume the august mantle of national leader, embodying and personifying the goodness and the greatness of the American people as a whole.

This in turn helps explain why White House scandals are so riveting yet so traumatic for the US political classes and for the American people. As politicians seeking the highest office, presidential candidates may be uninspiring, fallible, wayward, even corrupt human beings; yet once they are inaugurated, they are expected to shed these mortal shortcomings and moral imperfections, and to be transformed into exemplary national paragons.

That was what made the Watergate affair and the ensuing destruction and disgrace of Richard Nixon so wrenching for so many Americans: it was not so much as if the then British prime minister, Edward Heath, had been caught trying to subvert the constitution, but rather as if Queen Elizabeth II herself had been found out doing something equally dreadful.

Imagine the ensuing trauma, with Her Majesty forced to abdicate and to go into exile, as had been the case with her uncle, King Edward VIII, when he renounced the throne in 1936. That conveys some sense of what it meant to Americans to see their president resign in disgrace.

Dignified and efficient

One of the ways in which the American presidency is unusual is that it combines both the ceremonial and the executive functions of national leadership - functions which, here in Britain, are divided between the monarch (as head of state) and the prime minister (as chief executive).

State opening of parliament
Ceremonial duties fall to the monarch in the UK
In the middle of the 19th Century, Walter Bagehot, who for much of his life was a journalist on the staff of The Economist, and who had a fine flair for a memorable phrase, drew attention to this contrast by noting the distinction between what he described as the "dignified" and the "efficient" elements of the British constitution.

The "dignified" part was, of course, the monarch (with some help from the royal family and the House of Lords). The "efficient" part was the prime minister (along with the cabinet and the House of Commons). No doubt Bagehot over-simplified, but it was an arresting formulation, it has (if anything) become more true since his own time, and it describes a way of doing things which has been widely replicated elsewhere in British life, whereas it is relatively rare in the US.

Here is one obvious contrast: British universities have both a chancellor, who dresses up for degree days, and a vice-chancellor, who actually runs the place. In US universities, both jobs are performed by the same person who, once again, is known as the president. Here is another: while British museums and galleries and foundations tend to have both a chairman of trustees and also a director who is the chief administrator, both jobs tend to be combined in the US in the person (surprise surprise) of the president.

So, to put it in Bagehot's terms, while our monarch is expected to be dignified, and our prime minister is supposed to be efficient, American presidents are required to be both dignified and efficient at the same time, and so, by extension, are American presidential candidates. I wonder by which of these two very different attributes the inhabitants of Iowa and New Hampshire have been more impressed in recent weeks?

Below is a selection of your comments.

A very concise and well written article. I sadly find that to understand what is happening in my country, I am increasingly compelled to read articles authored by citizens of other countries. On the matter of electing the president: the Electoral College has always been a confusing and contentious issue. Essentially, only the politicians want to maintain it. The average citizen must be continually reminded that there is such an institution as the Electoral College. We are all told that we have a vote and that it counts. Then someone explains the workings of the Electoral College and confusion sets in as one realizes that his or her vote may not really count at all. For example, here in California, whichever party gets the most popular votes gets all of the Electoral College votes. Since the Democratic Party is in the majority here, the Democratic candidate gets all of the Electoral College votes. As a Republican, my vote is meaningless. If 40 percent of California voters are Republican, 40 percent of the Electoral College votes should be Republican. As the world knows, this is not case and even our wildly popular Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has been unable to change it. As mentioned in the article, it is rather ironic (and embarrassing) that we (the US) push democractic ideals so forcefully on others and yet have this glaring deficiency ourselves that we seem unable to correct.
Jon Meyer, Long Beach, California

While the US may champion 'democracy,' the fact is that the US is a representative republic and not a true democracy. To be more precise, it is a constitutional republic.
Bill, Florida, USA

That was a very nice unbiased article. I live in Wyoming, the least populated state in the US with only 522,000 people and I can tell you that this is a nice safeguard to have. Yes, we do have two Senators for our population just as California with its almost 38,000,000 people has only two as well. But the checks and balances of this equation is that Wyoming has only one Representative whereas California has 53. Roughly one-third of our 300,000,000 people live in just 4 of the 50 states: California, Texas, Flordia, and New York. In a so-called "true democracy" one-vote, one person that would amount to nationalized hegemonic power of 4 states over the other 46. The US, as you mentioned, is so vast and unevenly populated, and so diverse economically, politically, and socially that you cannot put the hands of power in the 4 largest states. Is it a perfect system? Of course it isn't. Is there anything better? If there were I would hope that it would have become self-evident after more than 200 years. On a side note I would have liked to seen mention that there are two states, namely Maine and Nebraska (2 more small states) that do not give all Electoral Votes to one candidate. The split them porportionally. Maybe I have answered my own question....May this be the answer if the other 48 states adopted this approach?
Clay, Casper, WY

Well said, there are a lot of us over here who realize how absurd things are on this side of the Atlantic.
Mitchell Strabala, Eugene, Oregon,US

I am a soon-to-be graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago. I would like to comment on the second-to-last paragraph regarding US universities. Yes, there is a president and board of trustees, and alongside them (at UIC) work a chancellor and several vice chancellors (vc of student affairs... of research). The vice chancellors' roles within the school could also be seen as the more "efficient", or "hands-on", when compared to the roles of chancellor and president. Since it is such a large and diverse school, the role of a president alone would not suffice.
George, Chicago, Illinois

Since you are so fond of comparing Britain and America, why don't you point out that Britain's electoral system to some degree mimics the American one in that it is a first-past-the-post one? In the 2005 election, Labour received 35.3% of the popular vote, barely one-third, yet it holds a majority of the seats and consequently its leader holds executive power. Surely a presidential vote share of 51% (or even Bill Clinton's 43% in 1992) is more democratic?
CW, Hong Kong

I definitely agree that it is ironic that our country is trying to tout democracy abroad when we don't even have a democracy at home. Even if we abolish the Electoral College and use the national popular vote, it is still possible for the winner to receive a plurality and not the majority, because we do not use voting methods like Instant Runoff Voting like many countries have adopted.
Edward Chow, San Jose, CA, USA


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