Policy Analysis No. 451

Election 2002 and the Problems of American Democracy

Executive Summary

In the midterm elections on November 5, 2002, there exists the real possibility of change in the partisan control of either or both houses of Congress, which makes each potentially competitive race important to national policy and politics. This situation lends itself to looking at the election as a series of horse races and the overall outcome as the Triple Crown of politics. As a result, respective partisan fortunes are expected to dominate political discussion during the next 60 days. This is unfortunate.

Our analysis offers a different perspective. Although the horse race aspect of this year’s electoral contest is interesting, the preoccupation with partisan details obscures broader, more important aspects of the national policy mood and the health of our political system. In this study, we examine the attitude of Americans toward big government, the declining competitiveness of our elections, and some mistaken conventional wisdom about American democracy.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, across America there exists a measurable popular preference for less, rather than more, government intervention. Therefore, in the fall of 2002, the electorate will favor candidates who support defense spending, civil liberties, and smaller government outside of defense. At the same time, the political system’s health is seriously weakened by a lack of competition. Unfortunately, the mismeasurement of, and preoccupation with, voter participation serves only to divert attention away from the pressing problem of an uncompetitive political system.

An election that either ushers in a new era of expanded government or further cements the advantages of incumbency will serve neither the representative nor democratic functions of our political system.

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John Samples is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government. Patrick Basham is a senior fellow at the center.