The students were excited when I came to class carrying my ballot envelope.
It was only two years after the Tiananmen Square protests, which had also had their reflection in student demonstrations in Shanghai. Some of my students, undergraduates in 1989, had actually been on Tiananmen Square the night the tanks had come in and the shooting started. Others had commandeered buses and buildings in Shanghai in support of their comrades in Beijing. They had all been calling for just the democracy that I was holding in my hand.
I opened the envelope and pulled out the paper ballot, and passed it around the class.
There were bewildered looks from students as the long paper strip was handed around.
I hadn't looked at it yet, so I wasn't sure what the confusion was all about.
Finally, one student asked me, "Where are the choices? It seems as if each office only has one candidate to select."
I explained that in many parts of the country--upstate New York, which is almost entirely Republican territory, is an example--the voter registration is so overwhelmingly one party that no one from the opposing party bothers to run. The opposition party in such regions often cannot find anyone willing to waste time being a candidate.
"But thats just like our elections," said one disappointed student.
It was, I confess, an embarrassing moment.
In fact, the situation is all too common in the United States of America. And it is actually worse than it looks. In many political races, the opposition candidate or candidates are really not serious opponents. They run, knowing that they have no chance of winning, but just out of either a sense of civic duty, or perhaps to raise issues and to try and force the inevitable victor to address them.
In Congress, we are told that of 435 seats in the House of Representatives, only some 27, or at best 30--well less than 10 percent--are "competitive." The rest of the seats are in districts that have been so carefully gerrymandered that opposition is futile. (Only recently, House whip-in-exile Tom Delay engineered a corrupt redistricting in Texas that predictably added seven new Republicans to the House by simply running new district lines through black or Latino neighborhoods to divide up their votes and create safe, white Republican districts.)
The reason third parties have so little success in US elections is not just that the system is constitutionally constructed to block them; it's that the electorate is too lazy to listen to their arguments, or to consider their candidates. In much of the country, citizens don't even listen to the main so-called opposition candidates. They don't even pay attention to the incumbents that they put in office before.
Democracy in the U.S., at least as described in high school civics books, does not exist today. We only go through the motions, and indeed, in elections like the coming off-year congressional election that will put all 435 House Seats and a third of the Senate's 100 seats up for grabs, it will be amazing if more than a third of eligible voters even go to the polls. Only half of them bother to go even in presidential election years.