AMERICAN ELECTION: Poll's real victors did not vote

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The Independent Online
Perhaps the most significant news to emerge from Tuesday's US elections, given that the configuration of power remains the same as it was on Monday, is that the turn-out at the polls dropped below the 50 per cent mark, handing America's non-voting majority its biggest victory since 1924 and possibly 1824.

The exact figures had not been tallied by yesterday morning but, give or take a percentage point or two, history will show that only 49.1 per cent of American voters had taken the trouble to go to the polls.

The statistic is all the more remarkable because of the participation of a third serious candidate, Ross Perot, whose presence in the 1992 ballot raised the turn-out to 55 per cent, from 50.1, in the Bush-Dukakis race of 1988.

No doubt the commentators will engage in much hand-wringing. We will hear much about the causes of the malaise. "Negative advertising" will be one. Bob Dole's lacklustre campaign another. Republicans will complain about Bill Clinton's appropriation of their policies, which left Mr Dole without electoral ammunition.

All this is true, but it misses the point. First of all, it is not primarily the issues, but the nature of the political system, as devised in their wisdom by the constitution-makers, that militates against popular participation. Second, is the diagnosis correct? Is the failure of people to take part in the political process a malaise or an eloquent symptom of political health?

Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the Founding Fathers were so at pains to avoid a return to "tyranny" that they ensured in the constitution that the powers of the presidency would be severely curtailed by Congress and vice-versa. In earlier times, when the country was being built, or rising from a Depression, or fighting a world war or defending the free world against Communism, presidents were more powerful.

Today, America is stable, rich, at peace, complacent in its position as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. But in the overall scheme of things, taking into account the rest of the world and human history, America is indeed uniquely blessed. It is in countries riven by war and misery that people turn out at the polls with the greatest enthusiasm. It is in such countries that the poorest reveal a depth of political knowledge and understanding that would shame your average accountant in Des Moines.