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Diverting the Main Stream

How the Vice Presidency Cracked U.S. Democracy

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The history of vice presidential politics has been a setback to the progress of American democracy since the earliest elections under the U.S. Constitution and the subsequent tweaking and evolution of the U.S. government, its relationship with the states, and the democratic republic as a whole.

The vice presidency has been in the news a lot lately. Barack Obama recently named his running mate, Joe Biden. We’re already seeing rumblings in the media of a negative reaction among Hillary Clinton’s supporters, this despite the fact that she has made it clear that she is not interested in the vice presidency. This just shows that not only do people not believe candidates, even the ones they support, but they expect and approve of some withholding of information and a certain level of deceit, as Obama “snubbing” Clinton by not making her his running mate would imply that she was dishonest when she said she wouldn’t consider the possibility. I’m not saying I know whether she would take the position if offered, any serious negotiation is done behind the scenes and no real offer would be made until both parties are in agreement, but the possibly erroneous perception that she was interested in the vice presidency and bad blood between the two campaigns kept the two from running together is enough to illustrate public tolerance for coy or deceitful showmanship in campaigning.

In addition to being, in modern times, a springboard for aspiring future presidential candidates, with Al Gore making a name for himself and Dick Cheney seen as an important, possibly driving influence in the Bush administration as well as a very important conservative thinker in public policy and private business circles, the vice presidency has shown itself to be an important role in shaping the American political discourse.

The actual role of the vice president, to preside over the Senate, while important, is a bit nuts and bolts for the kind of head-of-state aspirations people who serve as vice president tend to have. This is why the vice president generally doesn’t bother doing this aspect of their job, thus the existence of the president pro tempore. The tie-breaking vote in the Senate, however, is not to be underestimated, especially in a nation split so evenly between two different worldviews.

In Argentina, the vice president broke party lines on a tied Senate vote and defeated a piece of legislation put forward by the administration to reinforce their taxation of soy exports. The plan was to prevent the spike in soy price on the international market from causing inflation and monocultivation, and at the same time raise funds for public projects. The opposition organized a roadblock which lasted several months in an attempt to cut off food supplies to the people, claiming that the export retentions would destroy the rentability of agriculture, despite the fact that even with increased retentions, the price spike would still lead to higher profits, and that the administration would “steal” the funds gathered.

Despite the position of importance that the vice president really does have, since the signing of the Constitution the office of vice president has been ridiculed. The office itself is that of a loser who doesn’t do anything important and who history forgets. Dick Cheney is the evil Star Wars emporer, Al Gore is boring, and Dan Quayle… well, we all remember Dan Quayle.

The original role of the office of vice president was to aide in the balance of power in our democracy. The original system was designed so that the winner of the highest number of electoral votes would be president, and the runner-up would be vice president. This was a power-sharing scheme between the two most popular parties of a multiparty system. The president would be the head of state in foreign policy matters, with the very important power to veto legislation, which could be overturned by a two-thirds majority in the Senate. The vice president would be the presiding officer of the senate, enforcing the rules of debate and making the final decision in the event of a tie.

This was ended very shortly after the Constitution was signed. Within a very few presidential elections, with the major parties offering two candidates, the winning party’s candidates both received the same number of votes from their supporting electors. Rather than voting for two candidates from separate parties, as would be the case in an instant runoff or ranking voting system, the electors in the Electoral College voted for both candidates from the party they supported. This led to a tie, which was resolved by the Congress, and the party’s intended presidential candidate became vice president, and vice versa. This led to the immediate amendment of the Constitution; today electors vote for a presidential candidate and a vice presidential candidate, technically separately, but always from the same party.

This was a leap away from the intended power-sharing scheme in the direction of the existing winner-takes-all system, and no correction was made to attempt to promote diversity in the political arena. Where first past the post is a very common system, many nations use runoff elections, instant runoffs, or ranking systems which make it possible for voters to vote for the candidate they want most, and then strategically vote for their second choice. This promotes diversity in the political arena and the public dialogue by allowing multiple parties a real chance at winning elections, or at least losing elections without being blamed as the “spoilers” who cause the major parties to lose possible supporters.

This was the original intention of the office of vice president, to serve as a balance of power and an agent for promoting political pluralism. Today the United States is suffering because voters feel they can only choose between two parties they may have little in common with, and part of the cause of this is the simple flawed mechanic in the architecture of our democracy which was fixed without adding a contingency to preserve its intended function.


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