Monday, February 4, 2013

Dysfunctional Democracy

Its somewhat laughable that we hold up our democracy as a model system for nations to emulate. In almost every aspect of the democratic process, from voting and elections to the legislative process, the system has been corrupted. There  are no shortage of issues demanding attention, but if we could affect change in three particular areas they could be a catalyst for more pervasive change throughout the political process.

One is gerrymandering. The 2010 census gave Republicans an enormous opening to reshape voting districts in their states, and the result has been a electoral map that where all but 25-30 of congressional districts are non-competitive. Unfortunately the courts have set such a high standard to prove that the maps are discriminatory that it will require creative, aggressive work by independent attorneys to effectively challenge the status quo. But it is a fight worth undertaking, for the lack of competition in elections is contrary to the very nature of a true, vigorous democracy.

A second area is voter turnout and the notion of "one man, one vote." There are a multitude of reasons why individuals do not vote, but at the very least a concerted effort should be made to increase participation through a combination of "moral" suasion and increasing the number of registered voters. Some simple math will illustrate the problem: In a typical presidential election year, 75% of voting age Americans are registered to vote. Of that 75%, approximately 60% will vote in the best of elections. Of that 60%, around 52% end up voting for the winner. Applying Bayes Theorem, the end result is that of the total number of voting age Americans in the country, about 23 1/2 % actually vote for the eventual winner. In off year congressional races, where voter turnout is at most half the turnout of presidential years, the actual number of people voting for the winners is even more deplorable. When you consider that the demographic of actual voters is skewed towards white, elderly, suburbans, we have a system that underrepresents a significant number of our citizens.

To me, the best solution is a switch to approval voting, where individuals can vote for any or all candidates that one would approve of. Such a system would encourage more people to run for office, and might also encourage more people to vote, removing the idea that a person's vote might be "wasted."

Of course the biggest impediment to changing the level and character of voter participation is that our current senators and representatives were elected with the existing system, so any changes would constitute a possible threat to their ability to win reelection. There is no incentive for our legislators to affect change, and since Congress has control over that process, without public pressure, or without finding legislators willing to put our democracy over their own self-interest, their is little chance that change will occur.

And finally, the voting procedure in the Senate must be changed. One aspect is the fillibuster, a procedure that has been recently subject to enormous abuse, stalling votes and grinding the legislative process to a halt. Some senators are trying to change the process, actually requiring fillibustering Senators to physically appear in the Senate well and speak during the fillibuster.

In addition to the fillibuster, the recent requirement that "significant" legislation require a "super majority" of 60 votes has resulted in a huge power shift to those in the minority who wish to thwart legislation they disagree with. Rather than need 51 votes to reject legislation, now opponents only need 41 votes.

Our Founders intended democracy to be run through majority rule, with the courts being the final arbitor when the rights of minorities or minority views are being trampled. It is the courts that are empowered to guard against the "tyranny of the majority," not the voting procedures of the Senate.

The requirement of a super majority has corrupted law making, and unfortunately it may take a legal challenge to force change in our legislative body since neither party seems motivated to affect the necessary changes.

Redrawing congressional districts, improving participation by both candidates and voters, and returning integrity to the legislative process are the three most critical needs if we are to begin correcting the dysfunctional nature of our democracy. Far from being an example for the world to emulate, our current system demonstrates what can happen over time when democracy becomes "tired" and loses its vibrancy and "soul."

The late political economist Mancur Olsen, in The Rise and Decline of Nations, warned that stable, mature economies and political systems can easily be corrupted by a small number of well organized interest, and that as a result both our economy and government will suffer. The current state of our democracy is fertile ground for such groups to unfairly influence our government and set in motion the decline he feared.

I wish I could consider this a call for action, but I'm afraid it is little more than the concerns of a citizen who feels helpless to stop the destruction of our democracy. I pray that there are those out there with the power to affect change that will take it upon themselves to challenge the status quo. There is so much at stake.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Tea Party Taliban and the Duty of True Republicans

"....like putting lipstick on a pig." I've always loved that metaphor when describing efforts to make something ugly look more palatable. Right now the Republican Party is that pig. The omnipresence of the Tea Party in the machinations of GOP politics has made the Party a turnoff to the vast majority of pragmatic Americans residing in the "middle," that great mainstream that is the American public.

Tea Party politics are so far to the right of center that even in those rare moments when Tea Party affiliated party members show some willingness to compromise, that compromise still keeps those compromises too far to the right of center. I say rare moments because the Tea Party is perhaps the most rigid ideological cohort of people in recent US history. Ideology in and of itself is not a bad thing, but American tradition, especially the tradition of policy making in an environment of divided government, is to leave ideology at the door when it is time to do "the nation's business."

More to the point, the rigid ideology and unwillingness to compromise is anathema to the great tradition of our nation, a tradition borne out of liberal science and the virtues of the Enlightenment. For true democracy to flourish, no one can have the final say, no one can claim a monopoly on the "truth," for in reality there really is no such thing as "the truth."

They may hate to hear it, but the Tea Party has more in common with groups like the Taliban than with the Democratic and Republican parties. Tea Party members are fundamentalists in the truest sense of the word. They not only claim a monopoly on the truth, but they are willing to punish- in this case by defeating candidates in the primaries or incessantly attacking them while in office- anyone that opposes their views.

The presence of the Tea Party has made it impossible for the Republican Party to diversify, to seek out citizens whose tendencies support a belief in limited government, gradual but progressive cultural change, a view of federalism that favors state government over the federal government, and that seeks for solutions in the private sector and private associations before leaning on the federal government to solve our problems. These are, to me, the traditions of the Republican Party, and they are traditions that can appeal to people cutting across gender, race, geography, economic status or any number of characteristic features of our populace.

I often hear that America is now becoming more liberal, that conservative thought is waning. To me, nothing could be further from the truth. I vehemently disagree with anyone who tries describing the mainstream of America that way. While there are of course strident liberal and conservatives, radicals and reactionaries, libertarians and statists, the majority of Americans belong to another political philosophpy: the pragmatists.

Americans are a pragmatic people; that is in fact a distinguishing part of our nation's character. We are independent minded, entrepreneurial, and pragmatic, especially in our politics. As a people we will assess the positions of both parties and then gravitate towards the party whose solutions seem the most likely to affect a solution to our problems.

Today there are two main fiscal issues on the agenda, our debt and our jobs. The Democratic Party has staked out a position that jobs are the immediate problem and debt is our long term problem. The Republican Party, as expressed through the Tea Party lens, is that our debt is the most important problem, and jobs aren't even on the radar. Greater employment is in fact seen as a consequence of tackling the debt.

The majority of Americans see the Democratic Party's position as the most pragmatic, giving President Obama a strong negotiating position. But it doesn't mean we are becoming more liberal!

I was once a faithful member  of the Republican Party, but I no longer feel at home under their tent. Sadly, there are many Americans who identify with the party "plaform" I sketched out above, but they are completely turned off by Tea Party adherents who project a fundamentalist aura, who believe that diversity of opinion is somehow tantamount to betrayal of the Republican Party, when in actuality it is the true tradition of Repulicans. It is Tea Party members that are the RINOs, the ones that don't belong.

My Republican Party is the Party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan, Eisonhower, and, yes, Richard Nixon. I'm still trying to figure out who Tea Party members look to for inspiration in the Party's storied history. Joe McCarthy? Jesse Helms? Strom Thurmond? I honestly can't think of one American statesman that could be held up as the personification of Tea Party virtues.

It is time for the more moderate members of the Republican Party, and these days that would include true conservatives in the William Buckley tradition, to reclaim their party and cast the Tea Party into exile. This "Taliban Wing" will resign the GOP to the backburner of national politics. In fact, if it wasn't for some very favorable gerrymandering and other manipulations of the political and legislative processess, the GOP would already be a true minority party.

I want to be a Republican again, but I can't do it unless the Party's mainstream grows a backbone and realizes that confronting the Tea Party now is the key to its long term strength. Until that time, I will wait on the sidelines, assess both Party's positions through a pragmatic lens, and vote accordingly.