Friday, April 13, 2012

The State We're All In

I'm working on something lengthy.

Increasingly I'm concerned about the state of the nation. Two recent coups in Africa (Mali and Guinea-Bissau) have me thinking on statecraft.

To be brief, upon reflection I assume most would agree with me with the following pre-requisites for a true democracy:

1) Democratic Institutions (voting, etc.)
2) Rule of Law (law is absolute, no funny business)
3) Subservient Military (lest coups occur by strong generals)
4) An Educated Populace (lest rights are diminished with citizen's consent)

India, for example, is struggling mainly with (2) - rule of law is still second to bribery and corruption, which cannot prevail in a true democracy beyond the fringe. Singapore is struggling with (1), having a 'voting' system that allows for 40% of Singaporeans who are the opposition to not be represented in parliament. Mali, it would seem, is struggling with (3).

For the United States I'm increasingly concerned by (1) and (4) being bungled.

Our democratic institutions are under threat from the well-known, and acknowledged, issue of money undermining free and open democratic process. A nice example from that lengthy work aforementioned:

"The 2004 election is a good example of how wealthy candidates can rely on their existing assets to squeeze out any competition. Rodney A. Smith explains the situation in Money, Power & Politics:
“In December 2003, during the early stages of the 2004 presidential primary campaign, Senator John Kerry was mired in a crowded field with the support of only 9% of Democrats nationally. He was running a distant third in Iowa and was over 30 percentage points behind in New Hampshire, his cash reserves were running low, and his campaign was $3.8 million in debt…
“Caught in this do-or-die situation, Kerry quietly set up a $6.4 million dollar personal line of credit for his campaign, using his home in Boston as collateral. Immediately thereafter the campaign borrowed $2.8 million dollars in December 2003 and $3.5 million in January 2004, for a total of $6.3 million just prior to the Iowa caucuses. This quick injection of cash gave Kerry the financial resources he needed to win a come-from-behind victory…
“While neither Senator Kerry nor campaign did anything illegal or unethical in setting up a bank loan, this large infusion of cash at just the right moment vividly demonstrates the importance of money in politics, particularly to a campaign that’s struggling.”
Smith, who served as the National Finance Director of the Republican National Committee, concludes that it would have taken a competitor, making phone calls under the best possible circumstances working ten hour days until mid-May to have raised the same amount."

Smith's example is only one of many such cases I've been researching. As he clearly states there was nothing illegal in the matter - but this does not preclude us from still reaching the critical conclusion that money wins. The most frightening fact, as of yet, that I've come across is a simple statistic: over 90% of recent House and Senate elections since the 1990s have gone to the candidate who spent the most money.

This is not a coincidence, this is long-studied phenomenon. This is cause and effect. The result is that the constituents, the voting public and greater population, is no longer represented by our Representatives and Senators. Considering we had to especially fight for the latter (direct election of Senators began only in the 20th century) this should be cause for anger, concern, frustration and outrage. And indeed it is: 80% of Americans polled are dissatisfied with the current Congress (the same percentage who disagree with the loathsome Citizens United Supreme Court Decision which allowed companies unlimited campaign finance). Of course there's nothing we can do about it.

Government, we are told from our youth, is a self-regulating system of checks and balances. So when Government breaks down we can sit back and wait for it to fix itself. It is this quality, ultimately, for which we hail the brilliance of the founders' design: the government fixes itself so we don't have to bother in the unpleasant ways they had to.

Rarely has this system failed, but three great crises are critical examples of such a failure. A failure of the Executive led to the needless 1812 War with Britain, which saw Washington D.C. sacked, and the White House burned to the ground. A failure of the Legislature led to the Great Depression, for not putting in place rules that might protect us from such an event, causing 1 in 3 to be unemployed, and the creation of safety regulations which, being repealed by a different set of Congressional sessions led to the current Deep Recession. Finally there was a failure of very nearly all parties, including we the populace, which led to the bloody horror of our Civil War.

These were all preventable catastrophes, and we are not, now, facing such a cataclysmic system failure. We are a battle-scarred nation. We have become inured to taking bullets and fighting on regardless of a bloody gash. Such a strength was, if not outright admired, envied by most nations once. What we face now is a different harm to the body of the state. We fight now a cancer, not a wound. The methods of treatment are different, but it is as deadly.

Since it moves slowly many do not heed it at first, indeed only in hindsight can the initial time and place outbreak be diagnosed at all. This diagnosis, then, means the damage is already present, and sufficiently advanced to be readily detectable.

I mentioned two symptoms that have me fearing cancer. The first was the loss of democratic institutions to money. The treatment is increased citizen action and care. If we vote the Representatives out who cause the harm, then, perhaps the system will fix itself anew. When government stops regulating itself, or doing its duty to its citizens the citizens must use the ballot and their voices, and sometimes more. When WWI veterans were not paid their due by the government they marched on Washington, 43,000 strong. They were paid. King's March on Washington gave an important push to getting the Civil Rights Act passed.

Other countries do not have the same problems as we with money corrupting the democracies. We could easily adopt the system where candidates with a certain number of signatures are given equal amounts of campaign air time and publicity, paid for by the state. We could shorten our electoral nomination process to a period of only a couple months, as a result. As elections are increasingly expensive, during a time of recession and high un- and under-employment such savings would be a welcome relief (the 2008 election costing $5.3 billion). Further, if Congress members and Senators had only to listen to constituents, and didn't have to constantly fund raise (to the average tune of $10,000 a week every week for two years to clinch reelection) instead they could get back to their intended role: legislating based on their constituents.

Which brings me to the second cancerous symptom, the declining standard of education in the country. It was Benjamin Franklin who said "The only thing more expensive than education is ignorance." In other countries economics professors teach a simple rule about recessions is that education is a recession-proof job. No other developed democracy country is firing teachers the way we are now. An astounding 8.6 million teachers were unemployed by the recession. That's more than the entire population, every man, woman, and child, in New York City.

Fully 60% of our population a decade ago thought there was a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. (There was not.) Polled in 2010 1 in 5 said Obama is secretly a Muslim (He is not.) Roughly 200,000,000 Americans are eligible to vote: What to do about the apparently 40 million (more than the total population of Poland) in our country who think Obama, in secret, is practicing the Islamic prayers of salat?

Jefferson stated that "...wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government..." The opposite then is implied, that when citizens are not well informed they cannot be trusted with their own government. Our citizens are increasingly uninformed, and the recent complacency towards the ravages of our constitution bear this out. Most Americans do not think corporations should be allowed unlimited spending. But what are they doing about it? The past two administrations have battered down rights to privacy and not made an effort to build them up again - for we have not asked for it, nor hollered and demanded it.

Here is where we must conclude. Voter ignorance, and apathy, has kept money in Congress since we do not care deeply enough to insist the rules be changed. Since we have begun to give up our hard-won rights we are weakening, slowly but ever more perceptibly. And so it is that America may end up as the Ottomans once did: a twilight empire, taking centuries of dry-rot to accumulate in the bones so that the illustrious glory, stripped by stronger nations, doomed by internal dysfunction, fades to darkness. I hope this is not our scenario, for it would have global repercussions for stability, human rights, and democratic governments. But until I see Americans take charge of this illness, we cannot but waste ever further away, and succumb.

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