By the people, for the people…

Posted on November 5, 2012


It won’t have escaped the attention of even the most casual political follower that the coming weeks see potential changes in the leadership of both China and America.  The Chinese leadership is certainly changing hands and whether or not the US also ushers in a new leader, there is no doubt that those who emerge in the next few weeks will have a huge impact on the rest of the world, not just their own people.

On the BBC, Martin Jacques quite rightly raised the question of who has the greater mandate – a question he, sadly, failed to do much justice to in his answer.

Yet, it is a fascinating question.

The US is meant to be the bastion of democracy and freedom.  But not only does the electoral college allow for the possibility of a popular vote loser gaining office (W. by half a million lest we forget…), it also puts a large number of eggs in a small number of baskets.

With many states closed shops, the 13 or so swing states become all important.  Combined, they have a population of c. 96 million people meaning that, with an average voter turnout of 48% in the US, the election will effectively be decided by just 46m or 14% of the population.

China is not a democracy.

It might at best be described as a benevolent, totalitarian oligarchy.  Its leaders are chosen through closed discussions within the Party Conference, not by the people whom they purport to serve.

And yet the party itself currently numbers just over 80million members – so it could reasonably be argued that the leader in China is ‘elected’, by something in the region of 6% of the population.

Both numbers seem low to any advocate of democracy.  Yet another way of looking at a mandate is not how many people in a population voted but on how many are happy with the outcome of the vote.  On this point, there can be little doubt that China is streets ahead.

Satisfaction levels with the government’s policies happily hover around the 80-95% mark.  The reason for this is that, since the early 90s, China has focussed on shaping (to an extent) and delivering on what it believes the people want – improvements in wealth, education & quality of life.

By contrast, the US has been paralysed recently by the GFC and its own two house political system – leading to progress at a much slower pace, if at all.

Of course, it’s always easier for a country starting from a lower position to move more quickly, and both countries are now rife with great disparities in wealth, but, for the time being at least, I can’t help but wonder whether a focus on democracy, freedom and inalienable rights has stopped many factions in the States from focussing on the pursuit of their citizens’ happiness of late.