If Elections Matter for Greece, Why Not America?

A supporter of Alexis Tsipras leader of Syriza left-wing party holds the Greek flag during a rally outside Athens University Headquarters, Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015. A triumphant Alexis Tsipras told Greeks that his radical left Syriza party's win in Sunday's early general election meant an end to austerity and humiliation and that the country's regular and often fraught debt inspections were a thing of the past. "Today the Greek people have made history. Hope has made history," Tsipras said in his victory speech at a conference hall in central Athens. (Photo: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

If Elections Matter for Greece, Why Not America?

Elections are supposed to have consequences. When countries establish electoral processes that are sufficiently free and functional to ascertain the clear will of the people--and when those votes are cast and counted in an election that draws a solid majority of eligible voters to the polls--that will should be expressed as something more than a New York Times headline or a Fox News alert. It should be expressed in leadership, law and governance.

Elections are supposed to have consequences. When countries establish electoral processes that are sufficiently free and functional to ascertain the clear will of the people--and when those votes are cast and counted in an election that draws a solid majority of eligible voters to the polls--that will should be expressed as something more than a New York Times headline or a Fox News alert. It should be expressed in leadership, law and governance.

That governance should be sufficient to address poverty, tame inequality and conquer injustice. And if outside forces thwart those initiatives, that government should challenge them on behalf of the common good. After all, if meaningful economic and social change cannot by achieved (or at the very least demanded) with a stroke of the ballot pen, then what is the point of an election?

Questions about the point of elections are common in the United States, where the political process has decayed rapidly in an era of money-drenched campaigns, narrowly-defined debates, exceptionally low turnout elections and gridlocked government. On the eve of the 2014 mid-term elections in the United States, Gallup polling found that the percentage of Americans who said they were "extremely motivated" to vote had fallen to 32 percent--from 50 percent in 2010. An analysis of the numbers by Gallup's editor-in-chief suggested that Americans might "have reached the point where they don't believe their vote for a specific person, of either party, is going to change much."

In fairness to today's candidates and parties, the challenge of coherent governing is as old as the American experiment. There is no question, however, that the problem has been exacerbated in recent years by an increasingly rigid system in which two parties compete not just for votes but for the contributions of a billionaire class of campaign donors who extract a price from politicians of both parties: subservience to the demands of political paymasters when it comes to setting tax rates, regulating banks and establishing budget priorities.

What the populists and progressives of a century ago referred to as "the money power" now games the system to assure that it is never disempowered. Governments may be focused and empowered by high-turnout presidential elections, but they are quickly unfocused and disempowered by low-turnout midterm elections. There is no question that discussions of democracy reforms must include proposals to eliminate an Electoral College that can place the loser of the popular vote in the White House, to redistricting practices that can place the party that loses the popular vote in congressional contests across the country in charge of the House of Representatives, to close the loophole that allows governors to fill US Senate vacancies by appointment, and to guarantee the right to vote and to have that vote counted.

Yet, even if the process was designed to allow for more decisive and representative governance, the United States would still be stuck with a politics defined overwhelmingly by the whims and furies of billionaires--with very little room left for the ideas and ideals of citizens. Until this reality is addressed with a constitutional amendment declaring that money is not speech, that corporations are not people and that citizens and their elected representatives are free to organize elections where votes matter more than dollars, that reality will continue to limit prospects for governance of, by and for the people.

In other countries, however, there are different circumstances, different systems, different possibilities. Can their elections bring fundamental change? And can they teach the rest of the world--including countries such as the United States, where the democratic infrastructure has so decayed that barely one-third of the potential voters participated in the recent mid-term elections--something about how elections are supposed to work?

That's the democracy question that arises in the aftermath of a Greek election that has the potential to transform not just one country but the global debate about austerity. Even those who might not agree with the policies of Syriza--the radical coalition of parties and ideological tendencies that has swept to power on a promise to renew civil society in a country battered by imposed austerity--should recognize that what is at stake is more than economic policy. What is at stake is the question of whether the democratic impulse, which can be traced to ancient Greece, will have meaning in the modern world.

As Sunday's election results confirmed that Syriza had surfed a wave of anti-austerity sentiment into a first-place finish that positioned it to form the next Greek government, the headline in Britain's Guardian newspaper declared: "Voters Reject EU Austerity for Radical Alternative."

There was little question regarding the rejection of austerity. Close to 65 percent of the Greek electorate participated in Sunday's election, as opposed to last November's turnout in the United States of just 33 percent of the voting age population (and 36 percent of the "voting eligible population"). And Syriza, after increasing its share of the vote by almost 10 percent, won 149 of 300 seats in the parliament; the next-closest party (that of the defeated prime minister) won just seventy-six.

Those results earned notice far beyond Europe, as the political struggle against economic austerity is a global concern. "The Syriza victory in the Greek elections tells us that people around the world will no longer accept austerity for working families while the rich continue to get much richer," said Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. "The top 1 percent of the world's population will soon own more wealth than the bottom 99 percent. This is wrong and unsustainable from a moral, economic and political perspective."

Syriza's alternative to the savage cuts in human services, high unemployment, scorching inequality and hopelessness--which were forced upon Greece by the "troika" of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund after bankers gone wild crashed the global economy--will not be easily achieved. The demand for an upending of policies that have "reduced [Greece] to penury" places the new government on what The Guardian suggests will be a "collision course" with the politicians and bankers who have imposed austerity policies and the concentration of wealth and power that extends from them.

But, finally, Greece has a government that is prepared to fight on behalf of its people, rather than to sign away their future. And that fight, which begins with a demand for a European conference to write down unsustainable debt, is about much more than Greece. Syriza's victory, a spokesman for the party explained Sunday night, "sends a message that does not only concern the Greek people but all Europeans."

Everyone who has been paying attention in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland--countries that have been brutalized by austerity policies--recognizes precisely what is at stake. "There is only one place for Ireland to be at this moment of truth and it's not on the fence," the Irish essayist Fintan O'Toole wrote in a pre-election column. "It's with Syriza."

A petition in solidarity with Syriza that has been signed by political leaders and trade unionists, environmentalists and human-rights activists from across Europe reads in part:

Greece is the most striking example of what happens when political matters are being dealt with by economic powers. The fact that non-democratic entities such as the European Central Bank or the IMF sort out problems which were created by those same economic powers in the first place, is a serious step back regarding the concept of democracy as a whole, which used to guarantee that the citizens' decision was the most sacred contract within European societies....

We think that Syriza's victory can be the starting point of what will stop the trend which, in the name of financial speculation, is destroying economies, the environment and the well-being of the people.

The struggle of the coming weeks and months will be about more than economics.

At a polling place in Athens on Sunday, a voter told a reporter, "I just voted for the party that's going to change Greece. In fact, the party that's going to change the whole of Europe."

That change begins with the faith of voters that an election can change a country, a continent, a world.

This is what democracy is supposed to mean for citizens.

This is what democracy is supposed to look like.

Democracy is not supposed to be boring. It is not supposed to be so predictable that elections can be called before campaigns have begun. It is not supposed to sustain an unfair and unequal status quo. It is not supposed to dull the appetite for real reform. It is not supposed to be so frustrating and dysfunctional that the great mass of potential voters is turned by the political process itself into the great mass of non-voters.

Countries that have not developed a democracy sufficient to the challenge of producing meaningful change--or that have allowed their democratic infrastructure to decay so thoroughly that little faith remains in the prospect of real change, in the prospect of an election that might produce "a new birth of freedom" or a "New Deal" or a "Great Society"--should recognize in the results from Greece an example of democracy's potential.

That does not mean that Syriza and its allies in other European countries will succeed in charging every economic policy, or even most economic policies. That does not mean that everyone can or will agree with Syriza's approach to every issue. The party's political progress has won support from Greek voters who differ with elements of Syriza's manifesto, just as it has been cheered on by Europeans who do not occupy the same space on the ideological spectrum as Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras.

This support is grounded in a belief, or at the very least a hope, that elections still matter in these times--that politics can be more than mere theater, more than a game played by elites that are already rich and already powerful. This is not a new faith. It is an old faith that democratic experiments begun long ago, with all the inspiration and energy of the enlightenment, might yet begin the world over again.

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