The American President is not a breakfast cereal

Politics is about choices, but not always in the way people think.

It has become common to bemoan the lack of choice people have at the ballot box. You may remember Cynthia McKinney, the Green Party’s candidate for the 2008 American Presidential election, complaining that you have hundreds of choices of breakfast cereal but only two choices for President.

This raises the question; should we choose who is to be the President of America in the same way we choose what to have for breakfast?

Many people think we should.

Recently, late night talk show hosts had some fun with the story that many Egyptians are not enthused by the two candidates for President. ‘Just like America’ they chuckled to themselves.

Martin Bright, Political Editor of The Jewish Chronicle, asked the related and hopefully rhetorical question about the recent London Mayoral elections “How on earth did the Labour Party end up with a candidate many loyal supporters (Jewish or not) couldn’t stomach voting for?”

I say this was hopefully rhetorical because we have to imagine that Martin Bright understands how the Labour party chooses its candidates. I think by looking a bit closely at this question of choosing candidates we can understand a bit more why the American Presidency is actually strikingly different to breakfast cereal.

The short answer to Martin’s question is that Ken Livingstone successfully organized the situation so that he was chosen to be the Mayoral candidate.

Anyone who has had any experience of how Ken’s ‘machine’ works will know that it is pretty formidable. He was able to build an organization that had endorsements, pamphlets, voter segmentation, fundraising, policies, boots on the ground and so on and so on. Oona King, his rival, was not able to match this organization. This is not surprising given that Ken Livingstone has been influential in London politics since before I was born.

We get the same answer if we look at why Egyptians are faced with the choice between an Islamist and an official from the old regime in their upcoming elections; these are the two candidates who organized most effectively. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Generals are both enmeshed in a complex web of patronage and support throughout Egypt. None of the liberal parties has anything like this degree of organization.

Most embarrassingly perhaps we see the same story playing out in the recent unsuccessful attempt to recall Governor Walker in Wisconsin. Not only was it a disastrous political decision to choose to collect enough signatures to recall Walker but it was also an embarrassment that the Democratic Party and the Labor Unions were so comprehensively out organized in a battle of their choosing. Walker personally raised over $30 million while his opponent raised under $4 million.

Walker won because he was better organized. Livingstone was selected because he was better organized. Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood is potentially the next President of Egypt because of their organization.

We might say that the reason that our political choices are limited is that other people limit them because those people want their candidate to be chosen. If we want other choices we cannot just turn up on election day and hope that there will be other candidates available to us. We or someone else actually has to create this choice. A vague disorganized desire amongst a large number of people will always lose out, politically, to a specific and organized desire amongst a much smaller number of people.

Woody Allen once said that 80% of success is turning up. He was absolutely right, but you have to know where and when you need to turn up.

When you are buying breakfast cereal you can just turn up at the supermarket and be pretty sure that you will get something like what you want. When you are voting for a political candidate who will stand up for what you believe in, you better turn up a bit before the election to make sure that your candidate is actually on the ballot…