Monday, April 22, 2013

Our Political System Has Failed Us


The health of our democracy depends on three components, among others.  The first is an informed electorate which has the responsibility of electing those who will both represent  it and help lead the country.  The second is leaders who both represent their constituencies and act for the greater good of the country.  The third is an electorate and leaders that respect that all are working in the best interest of the country and accept the inevitable loss, whether of a legislative bill or an election, that is part of the democratic process.

On the first point, we have always been weak.  From the very beginning of our country, the electorate base was not well-informed about the issues, in the sense of being able to think rationally about the choices.  Not that they weren’t or aren’t capable of it.  But politicians (even the august Thomas Jefferson, through surrogates of course) have often played more to the electorate’s emotions than its mind and have often used inflammatory words, making reckless, deceitful charges, in order to rouse the populace in their favor and against others.

As to the second point, while American politics, especially elections, have always involved a good amount of mud-slinging, historically politicians on the national level once elected have generally speaking comported themselves appropriately and have, while representing their constituents, acted in what they saw as the national interest.  Except on the issue of racism (or in the pre-Civil War years, slavery), ideology was not a controlling factor in actions of Congress.  

And although there has always been a strong element of conflict between the powerful central government forces v the small/weak central government forces (the parties names have changed over the years), those arguments were, once the Constitution was in place, more on peripheral issues.  Even a staunch small central government advocate such as Jefferson, presided over a huge increase in the responsibility of the federal government.  Similarly George W. Bush presided over a huge increase in the federal deficit as a result of his policies.

But the art of compromise in Congress had been weakening and the nastiness of interchange increasing since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.  Since the election of Barack Obama and the 2010 midterms, the functioning of Congress has basically come to a halt.  

The Republican Right has taken control of the party and the Republican Congressional agenda.  With their extreme ideological rigidity, the Republican majority in the House and the Republican minority in the Senate (which can stop any legislation or appointment through the filibuster, even when a majority of the Senate is in favor) have been able to halt any legislation that addresses the national interest from other than their narrow perspective. 

The most egregious example of this was in the recent debate on expanding background checks for gun purchases.  90% of Americans surveyed, and 85% of NRA members, supported expanded background checks.  A bi-partisan compromise measure was introduced lead by arch gun rights advocates, one Republican, one Democrat.  And still the measure was defeated through the filibuster process by Republicans joined by a few Democrats.  

That this measure, which would not have kept a single gun of any type out of the hands of anyone who was legally entitled to own one and thus, as the Republican co-sponsor said, was really not a gun control measure, was defeated despite overwhelming popular support and desperate need shows the total failure of our system.  It also shows clearly another aspect of the system’s failure ... the preponderant influence of corporate America.  The only powerful interests against the Senate measure were firearm manufacturers and their de facto voice, the NRA.

Corporations have for more than a century had a strong voice in Congress through their lobbyists and political donations.  And this has impacted both parties.  Both are in thrall to and support the power of the big corporations, although the Republicans more so than the Democrats because they have been the greater beneficiary of corporate dollars.  

The old saying, "What's good for General Motors is good for the country," was discredited years ago, and yet that still is often the marching tune for both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.  What happened to the concept that, while being supportive of a strong and healthy business sector, an important role of government, and therefore Congress, is to protect the general public from the excesses of corporate activity and power? 

This can especially be seen in the federal response to the recent financial crisis ... nothing has really changed; the same financial practices that led to the collapse are ongoing; regulation has not really improved; no one in the big investment firms has been brought to justice for their shady practices; it's business as usual on Wall Street.  It can also sadly be seen in the team that President Obama put together after his inauguration to advise him on such matters ... all seasoned Wall Street types who were prime actors in the period leading up to the collapse.  

But since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling that corporations can spend unlimited sums supporting someone’s candidacy through PACs, the power of corporations not just over the actions of Congressmen, but on who gets elected, has been increased manyfold.  Through huge purchases of advertising air time to support candidates favorable to them, they have been able or tried to influence the electorate and change the outcome of close elections.  If ever there was an argument for Federally-financed elections, this is it.

The third point, which has always been the most solid aspect of our democracy, is under threat.  The basic premise, that each side respects the other’s bone fides in working for the national interest, has been gravely weakened if not destroyed.  Neither side trusts the other nor will it give the other credit for acting in the national interest.  Instead, each side accuses the other of special interest politics and being a threat to the nation’s well-being.  

There have even been some who have voiced the possibility of violence if their position does not win the day.  And there has been a substantial rise in the number of right-wing militias around the country since the election of Barack Obama.  While there is no danger of the constitutional transfer of power being interrupted, there is certainly a danger that the peacefulness of that transfer or the peacefulness of legislative losses may become a thing of the past.

This situation cannot continue unabated without seriously damaging our democratic system.  Several actions are necessary.  At a minimum, all federal elections should be publicly financed.  That would have the benefit of putting all candidates on an equal footing ... winning an election should not depend on how much money you can raise ... and would greatly decrease the prevalence of advertising, which is almost never informative.  Second, all broadcasters, who use federally-licensed air waves, should be required to provide a certain amount of free advertising and speaking time to all candidates.  This should help increase the exchange of ideas rather than sound bites.  Third, no other organizations should be allowed to take out advertising to influence elections or pressure their employees to vote a certain way; contrary to the recent Supreme Court opinion, corporations are not people ... they don’t have a vote and likewise they shouldn’t have a voice.  Fourth, religious organizations who are granted tax-exempt non-profit status should be held to the regulations regarding that status, which prohibit supporting candidates for political office.  Finally, there should be a truth in campaigning measure passed which disciplines candidates who not just stretch the truth but lie and sets up a nonpartisan group to monitor all campaign statements and literature,

The factor of money must be removed from elections and politics.  And the electorate must be communicated with in a way that engages their mind on competing ideas rather than on competing emotions.