Email From America

By David

This week, the United States is in the middle of deciding who will represent the Republican and Democratic Parties in the contest to elect the next President. One does not need to have studied Political Science for long to know all is not well with American democracy. Plato first described democracy as the system of “rule by the governed” where ordinary citizens elected their governors. Nothing wrong with that you might think. However Plato forgot to mention that citizens did not include women, non-land owners or slaves. Of Athens’ 250,000 adult inhabitants only about 5000 were allowed to do the voting. We certainly would not consider that state of affairs to be democratic today.

But, like anything made by man, democracy is capable of being altered and improved by man. In particular democracy began to mean a much wider franchise and protected minority rights. For example, no one today would consider a nation to be democratic that denied women the vote or insisted that only Baptists could elect a government. Some of you may not know that New Zealand proudly lead democracy forward by being the first country to give women the vote.

Probably the single most significant transition in the character of democracy is the attention given to ensuring minorities are represented in government. It is called proportional representation and aims at matching the percentage of votes that special interests obtain in elections with the seats they receive in the legislature. In 2007 the Economist magazine produced a list of the most democratic countries in the world. The top nations, Sweden, New Zealand, Germany, Norway and the Netherlands, all practice versions of proportional representation.

The United States is seventeenth on the Economist’s list. I do not want to hear anybody say, “That’s not too bad.” In Olympic terms, American democracy does not even make it to the semi-finals. American democracy was eliminated in the morning heats. Why? Because unless you join the Democratic or Republican Parties there is zero chance of you becoming President or being elected to the Senate or Congress. It is of course theoretically possible, but practically, there’s no chance. An independent observer could be excused for describing democracy here as a two party dictatorship. The foresight and vision of Plato would have seen him promote a very different version of democracy were he alive today. I like to think that the foresight and vision of Jefferson and Madison would have resulted in a very different constitution had they been writing it today. I wonder if Washington DC today has any Platos or Jeffersons or Madisons. American democracy is in need of their perception.

While American democracy may be in need of some improvement, this week saw a development that bodes well for life in America and for Florida in particular. I have lived here for six years. In that time I have witnessed a million things this nation does extremely well. I have visited the Kennedy Space Center and wondered at the technology that produced the Saturn rocket and the space Shuttle. I have been to three National Swimming Championships and am in awe at the depth of talent on display. The list is endless of events and scenes. I can listen to Elvis 24/7 on SIRIUS. I can drink Coke, the soda that taught the world to sing. I can wonder at the humbling generosity Americans at Christmas. But let me tell you one thing this nation can not do. No one can make proper “fish-and-chips”.

I don’t know what goes wrong. The fish is too thin, the batter is not crispy enough, there’s no vinegar, it’s the wrong species of fish or maybe it’s all of the above. I don’t know, but in 2190 days of looking I’ve never found a decent British, Australian, New Zealand feed of fish-and-chips.

Until today; the parent’s of one off our better swimmers (their daughter is 11 and has averaged 40 kilometers a week over the past 7 weeks of aerobic conditioning) called me to say that on Delray Beach’s main street, Atlantic Avenue, in the Blue Anchor Tavern they had found real British fish-and-chips. They would, they said, bring me a dinner to the pool. I could try them for myself. Yea right, I thought; another limp offering of tasteless fish and soggy chips.

Ten minutes later they arrived, clearly delighted with their find. I joined in, but I knew that these kind and generous Americans jubilant as they might be, they really had no idea. Asking them to pass judgment on fish-and-chips was akin to asking me to rustle up a new formula depicting nuclear fission. I thanked them and carried the offering home.

It looked real enough, but I’d seen that before. The taste would be different. From the first bite I knew; America had taken on another challenge and had triumphed. This is a truly great country. Someone here in Delray Beach can make real British fish-and-chips. I feel a little emotional just talking about it. If the fish-and-chip frontier has been crossed, if this test has been passed, why should I worry? Revitalizing America’s democracy will soon follow.