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Good Democracies Make The Elites Compete For The People’s Votes

When the United States goes to the polls next week for the midterm Congressional elections, the results will be close. The Democrats are expected to win back control of the House of Representatives, while the Republicans are expected to retain control of the Senate. Both results will be close. The elections could go either way.

And that’s the hallmark of a well-functioning democracy: both sides have to fight tooth and nail to eke out a bare majority.

The American style of hard-fought elections does cause some problems, like the gerrymandering of election districts (drawing them to favor one party or another), dirty tricks to suppress voter turnout, and even occasional fraud. But it makes the country’s elites compete aggressively for the people’s votes. And that makes elites responsive to the desires of the electorate.

For several decades, from the 1970s to the early 2000s, there was a broad elite consensus in the United States. Politicians from both parties shared a single economic agenda. Issues like free trade and financial deregulation were taken out of politics, leaving voters with no real choice. With Democrats and Republicans cooperating to offer the same policies, people simply stopped voting.

Now, after forty years of low voter turnout, expect a surge in voting for next week’s midterm elections. The reason is simple: Donald Trump. With Trump in the White House, voting suddenly matters again. Voters know that if they elect Democrats to Congress, they will get different results than if they elect Republicans. And democracy thrives on difference.

Many Europeans, and many political scientists of all nationalities, believe that democracy works best when a country’s elites form coalitions to work together for the common good. And indeed that might be the best route to good public policy. But it is terrible for democracy, because it leaves people with little to vote for. In countries like Germany, it doesn’t matter if you vote for the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats, because you get the same policies either way.

From 1972-2012, the United States was moving in the same direction. But in 2016, Donald Trump and the failed Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders changed all that. They brought competition back to American politics. Trump is pursuing policies that are radically different than those of his predecessors. People who like those policies will vote Republican next week; people who hate them will vote Democratic. The important thing is that they will vote.

And they will vote because elite competition has finally given them something to vote about.

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Sydney-based globalization expert Salvatore Babones is available to speak on the Chinese economy (demographics, growth, technology), the Belt & Road Initiative, global trade networks, and Australia-China relations. Contact: