Thousands have been protesting in Hong Kong over Beijing’s assertion of its power over its election process. In 1997 Hong Kong returned to Chinese control after having been ruled as a colony by Britain since 1842. At that time China signed an agreement with Britain to allow Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy as a special administrative region in all areas except defense and foreign affairs, which will last until 2047.”
According to “Christian Science Monitor” staff writer Arthur Bright in a Sept. 28, 201, article entitled, “Hong Kong Protests 101: What’s Behind the City’s Turmoil?” the Chinese government has decided to interpret its agreement regarding Hong Kong according to its own lights. China will allow universal suffrage – the right to vote for all – but the government will decide who the three candidates will be, not the people of Hong Kong. That is what is stirring the street demonstrations. Hong Kong holds a lesson for us Americans about democracy: the power to nominate is far more important than the power to elect.
In most U.S. elections, candidates are chosen through the primary process. In Washington state the top two candidates who file are selected to move on to the general election in November. The idea of the primary came out of the Progressive Era of reform of the early 20th century. Before primaries, party bosses in smoked-filled back rooms determined who the candidates would be for public office. Allowing individuals to nominate themselves wrested the power from the bosses and put the power back into the hands of the public.
Now, 100 years later, that power has shifted again. Most American voters do not participate in primaries; the figure is between 12 and 15 percent. That fact has allowed the more extreme factions of both parties to decide whom the candidates will be. These are the people who turn out to vote and, just like in what is threatened in Hong Kong, the power to nominate is far more important than who is voted in.
Hong Kong voters protest because they understand what Beijing is attempting to do to them – give them the image of democracy while drawing power to themselves. The threat is real and present to them. And like the proverbial frog being cooked alive in slowly heated water, most American voters do not understand that we Americans are in the same situation as the people of Hong Kong. By largely ignoring the power to nominate through the primary system, power again has been taken by the few to control governance for the many.
Hong Kong residents are lucky in some ways, because the threat of losing their democracy is obvious and real for them; for us in America, not so much.
It took a great deal of corruption to raise the awareness of Americans at the turn of the 20th century to rise up to protect their rights during the Progressive Era. Americans finally understood what Big Business was doing to them through the use of money to influence elections. They rose up and brought changes that extended and expanded democracy to preserve our rights.
It seems like it will have to get a lot worse before American voters realize that, like the citizens of Hong Kong, our democracy is threatened. We are different from the people of Hong Kong in that the power to nominate still lies with us. The difference is that we American voters are often too complacent and unaware to realize that our apathy has already stripped the power from the people and given it to the extremists and the wealthy in both parties.
It’s time for Americans to wake up to see the danger at our doors and act to get involved, not just in the power to vote, but more importantly in the power to nominate through the primary process.