I think the inability of our government — and the legislative branch specifically — to convey anything remotely resembling the popular will to be a fearsome problem. Indeed, actual problems can’t be addressed coherently with a government in which the legislature has been 1) purchased by capital 2) gerrymandered beyond the bounds of representative ideal and 3) designed originally by a collective of rural and regionalized planters so that popular will can be at key points mitigated by oligarchical interests.
#1 and #2 seem to me much more serious than #3. And #1 could be extended to literally any interest group, monied or not—so long as they’re focussed against a diffuse opposition.
As far as a collective will—even if GW Bush was unfairly elected in his first term, he still got close to half the vote, and he won the second time—if I recall correctly, by promising to deny human rights to gays. Just as you wrote about the Patriot Act (in http://davidsimon.com/we-are-shocked-shocked) being born from the consent of ordinary citizens, so too are the people of the US in favour of the Tea Party, capital punishment, and denying basic rights to homosexuals.
Incentive issues and systemic issues, gerrymandering and the like are undeniably causing problems, and will continue to do so. I guess I’m challenging you on whether some of these political failings aren’t due to moral and intellectual failings by voters rather than failures of implementation by their representatives.
If even 10% of your voting countrymen think it’s a good idea to stiff Uncle Sam’s creditors on the grounds that someone, somewhere is getting undeserved welfare/poverty aid—then that part of the problem can be solved not through quixotic Constitutional amendment, but through writing and speaking in some present-day Agora.
The purchase of the legislature by raw capital is a process that has increased geometrically given the collapse of campaign finance reform and the Kafkaesque rendering of money as speech by the Supreme Court.
As to the voters, they often choose poorly, or fail to choose at all. Sometimes they are slow to the actual implications, and sometimes they are right on time. And there are always people on every side of an issue. But I actually believe that if capital can’t bury the actual facts of an issue in lies and hyperbole (death panels, swift boats, Kenyan birth certificates, etc.) and if the American marketplace of ideas still had coherent referees rather than partisan demagogues, that Lincoln would be right: You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
Yes, anti-gay tactics were a wedge issue for the GOP for one or two election cycles. Until. They. Weren’t. And now, with such speed as to make me proud in some ways of the resilience of the Americanspirit, voters have come around fully to a place of tolerance and acceptance. Now, in the shortest span of time, gay rights are a wedge issue against the GOP, which either has to accept the turning of the tide or let its hardcore base drag it into the political gutter. Good that you mentioned gay rights. It is one of those things that makes me believe that the American voter, given a relatively few years to consider and react, will quite often go to the better place.
David, do you really believe that the upper house and the electoral college are significant enough to be doing significant damage?
Comparing this to your familiar bêtes noires: the dark union of drugs, no jobs, bad schools, tepid journalism, and bad institutional incentives for government and police—I have a hard time seeing the electoral college as a fearsome black guard.
One could invent tenable defences of these things in the name of federalism, states’ rights, or protection of rural interests. But even without these it’s hard to see how the size of this problem isn’t covered in the shadow of the problems you usually address.
Did you just attempt to invoke state’s rights? In the 21st Century?
I think the inability of our government — and the legislative branch specifically — to convey anything remotely resembling the popular will to be a fearsome problem. Indeed, actual problems can’t be addressed coherently with a government in which the legislature has been 1) purchased by capital 2) gerrymandered beyond the bounds of representative ideal and 3) designed originally by a collective of rural and regionalized planters so that popular will can be at key points mitigated by oligarchical interests. We did well enough enduring 3) as a republic for a couple slower centuries, but now, amid the astonishing reach of 1) and the modern excesses of 2), the ideal of a representative national legislature has become farce.
Unless you have given yourself over to an easy cynicism, then all of those problems that you write about — and that I attend to as well — will have to be addressed by our democratic collective. Or not. If not, then the next century will certainly not be an American one. And given how dull the tools of redress, reform and practical, progressive governance are at present, I can’t imagine anything getting much better. If you think our government to be functional at present, I don’t know what to say. If you think that our government doesn’t need to be problem-solving, now more than ever, well then I suppose you can indulge yourself in such notions. Me, I took democracy as Lincoln did, the last and best hope for all of us. But democracy is, in our time, ceasing to be notably democratic in our practice of it.
To declaim on our problems as you do, without giving sufficient thought to the broken mechanisms by which we are supposed to address those problems collectively, as a governed nation, is rather pointless. Problems for any society are ongoing, inevitable and — in this tumult of a modern, vulnerable planet — geometrically more complicated than ever. And yet, as those problems remain unaddressed and the costs are compounded, they are also symptomatic of our sociological and political inertia. Our awful governance — we are masters of political theater, and increasingly incompetent at governing — is now a disease unto itself.
Yes, we’re still filling prisons with drug users and immigrants, bringing guns to church and arguing about which manufactured diety some fool of a city councilman is going to worship aloud before voting to cut the school budget. Meanwhile, the factories keep closing, the Chinese keep burning more coal in a year than humans worldwide ever thought possible and the polar ice caps melt away. A government that can muster collective will is essential here; is it not reasonable to worry that it might have perished from the earth, to borrow a phrase?
A failure to govern is a failure to bring the collective will to bear on actual problems. And soon enough, some of those problems may prove existential. Chirping about how big the problems are is fine as far it goes. But if you aren’t attending to the democratic mechanisms with which we are supposed to address those problems, as a society, then what are you advocating? The societal abdication that marks libertarian thought? That’s juvenile. Or totalitarianism, which certainly can be brought to bear with greater ease than republican governance, but at some notable cost to the human spirit, if not to actual human beings.
We have to have a government that works. This one no longer does. And the heart of the matter is Congress. It’s broken.
Did you just attempt to invoke state’s rights? In the 21st Century?
Sure. Here’s someone wiser than I am invoking it as it relates to highway funds: https://twitter.com/munilass/status/463673043383250944
State legislatures deal with smaller problems and stand to gain less from dissembling soundbites than do those who can appear on national TV.
One can observe both successes and failures in municipal and state governments. Although they aren’t each dealing with the same population (Detroit), some of this is surely due to the merits and demerits of their choices in governing (Stockton), and (tying into what I was saying http://davidsimon.com/bill-moyers-for-a-second-bite-of-the-apple/comment-page-1/#comment-27297) these successes or failures are not obviously one or the other, today (Texas).
California’s state budget is ~$100 billion, whereas the United States federal budget is ~$4 trillion. So national obviously dwarfs the biggest state, but eleven zeroes ? nothing.
According to someone I spoke with in a state legislature, the federal government uses its highway money as a club to get states to do what it wants.
So, yes, although the national government is clearly the stronger player, local and state are not out of the game. In fact many of the issues you talked about in your interview with Bill Moyers were on local rather than national government.
I’m all for the local administration of state and municipal government function. You are confusing that with state’s rights, which is a very different banner.
I hope it’s OK that I’m segregating my comments. I find threaded conversation easier to follow personally.
I’ll just add that in what little C-Span I’ve watched, the senators do seem more with-it than the lower house. You spoke about the advantages of senior reporters who know their beats in one of your talks. I would draw a parallel between that and the experienced, senior politicians. Surely you’ve witnessed a newbie city councilman tripping over Robert’s Rules of Order or using up her allotted time without saying anything of substance, simply because she’s not tired enough of all the meetings yet to cut to the chase.
Doesn’t your point that junior and senior people both have things to teach each other basically endorse the bicameral setup?
I’m not apposed to a bicameral legislature, or six year terms for the upper house. I’m not against seniority in a healthier legislative universe. I’m opposed to a couple hundred thousand Wyoming residents having the same amount of representation as some forty million other fellow citizens. That’s not democratic. It’s absurdist, 18th Century landed-gentry hokum. Forty percent of the electorate cannot elect sixty percent of the upper house to represent them, and then — on top of that — require a 60-percent, rather than majority vote, to be the standard for progressing a legislative act to enactment. That’s a recipe for anti-democratic paralysis and little more.
Couple the historical flaws in the Senate with the rampant gerrymandering in the House and, hey, this party is over.
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