Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Democracy Revisited

—political wisdom from our Professor—

Democracy is born in Egypt
Democracy is a good thing, right?  This is what we’ve always been taught in our history and civic classes through school.  It is what we tell cultures around the world as they seek alternatives to despotism or single-party rule.  It is invoked in political speeches right along with motherhood, apple pie and baseball.  It must be a good thing, right?  The only trouble is, we find ourselves following the news around the world, and what we see sometimes gives us cause for pause: the “Arab Spring” brought elections to Egypt—and an increasingly radicalized Muslim Brotherhood government.  Civil unrest has followed as the Egyptian military weighs the benefit of intervening and the rioting can be ignited by something as innocuous as a football match.  The “freedom fighters” of Libya were victorious in their battle with the backers of Col. Khadaffi, but our ambassador is now dead and Libya’s resources lie in disarray.  We introduced democracy into Afghanistan, but the Karzai government seems hopelessly corrupt, not to mention its feckless behaviour as a supposed “ally” in fighting the Taliban.  Democracy seems to have its challenges around the world.

This is democracy?  Really?
Fear not, the reader must be thinking: just turn your eyes to the inventors of democracy (the Greeks….ah, we’d better not look there.  All right then, the French….well, after four tries at democracy I guess they managed to do something. Well, there is the British…but they still have the queen (God save her) and a hopelessly fractured coalition government…

Yes,   but what about the world’s most prominent and insistent advocate of democracy, the USA?  How is this democracy thing working out for us?  I would think few observers would dispute that we are caught up in a time in which it is easy to question whether our form of national government is fully up to the task.   The “fiscal cliff” melodrama merely illustrates a dysfunctional Congress that has consistently failed to deal effectively with a number of issues of grave national importance­—most particularly the budget deficit—but also issues of energy, nuclear waste disposal, immigration, and growing economic stratification.  Who among us is willing to present our current Congress and say to the people of the world: “See? You should have one of these!”

What gives?  Has democracy’s “five minutes of fame” (in historical perspective) run out?  Is its instability and deliberate inefficiency incapable of dealing with the rapidly changing, ideologically-charged times in which we live?  Given the examples presented above, one is nudged toward doubt.
In responding to the question of democracy, though, one has to subdivide the problems, for the challenges democracy presents in the middle-east, for instance, are quite different from those presented to us in the US.  There is a very intriguing theory that for democracy to work, one must have a significant and stable middle class.  In other words, for “majority rule” to work, the majority of the population needs to feel they personally have more to lose through social instability than to gain.  If one has a significant amount to lose, your “vote” is practically and pragmatically driven toward competence, stability and honesty in government (or so goes the theory.)  If you have essentially little or nothing to lose (in a material sense) your vote reflects those things that hard-pressed/hopeless people of all ages have tended to gravitate toward: religious fervour or opportunistic corruption (or, many times, both in the same package.)   Israel is the only country in the middle east with a prominent middle class; it is also the only one with a functional democracy (you might argue it is a potentially DANGEROUS democracy, but it is a functional one for better or for worse.)

But the US is nothing if not middle class, isn’t it?  I mean, even people making over 200,000 dollars insist earnestly (and perhaps accurately) that they are the epitome of middle class values.  So why is our democracy in such a seemingly sick phase (let’s hope it’s a phase and not a terminal illness!) 
The problem is that we have forgotten something very important:  America was indeed founded as a democracy, but it was founded very deliberately as a REPRESENTATIVE democracy and not a DIRECT democracy.  The fact that most of us have forgotten this is made manifestly clear every four years when the “wacky” or “inexplicable” nature of the Electoral College is discussed.  There is nothing mysterious, strange or outmoded about the Electoral College; it only seems that way to those who have forgotten our roots as a representative democracy (which means: most of us.) 

The idea embodied by the Electoral College is that we elect individuals whose judgement we trust to then take action on behalf of our nation in a manner in which they consider most positive.  They represent our general interests, but—at least initially—had no obligation to reflect our specific desires or directives.  Technically, we still vote for electors, who in turn vote for a president and vice-president, although a rigid custom has evolved in which electors declare their presidential allegiances ahead of time and invariably cast their votes for that candidate regardless of the circumstances.  The idea of representative democracy is not trivial or insignificant, for America—at its founding and now—is comprised of large numbers of sincere, hardworking individuals, many of whom are too busy or otherwise not inclined to inform themselves regarding  the complexities of running the most powerful nation on earth.  As long as they/we acknowledge this and focus on electing intelligent people of excellent character to REPRESENT us, this works out fine.  But when we start to think that watching sensationalized and heavily edited cable television qualifies us to understand the intricacies (and appropriate costs) of government, and we expect our elected representatives to DIRECTLY  reflect our specific, individual and semi-informed perspectives, we get into hot water.

If we all have to vote on every issue, is there
any time left to drink fine Scotch?
If you look at all of our fifty states, and determine which of them is least functional, California would probably be near the top of most lists.  And it’s no coincidence that California was the first state to overtly apply direct democracy through its ballot initiative process.  Perhaps one of the most famous of these ballot initiative was “proposition 13” proposed by one Harold Jarvis, which set a permanent, constitutionally mandated limit on property taxes.  This fashion of ad-hoc direct democracy seems fine for a while (especially when opening your revised tax bill) but there is no way that such initiatives can respond to changing circumstances (just one example: the Americans with Disabilities Act imposed huge mandated spending on states) or fluctuating economic circumstances.  Ross Perot, when a candidate for president, was quite fond of declaring things to be “just that simple,” which sounded fine—except that it wasn’t and isn’t usually true.

This is how you must spend your free time
if you don't let representative leaders do their jobs
California is a mess, and the entire US is following close behind.  Wisconsin recently conducted a shrill and wasteful “recall” election of their governor—justified on the basis of being “responsive” to the people.  Our electronically connected world has given all of us a megaphone; we use it, and we expect our representatives to hear us.  Fine so far.  But when our “representatives” start to engage in silly stunts like website “voting” on specific bills, recall elections to even political scores and simplistic one-issue “pledges” cooked up by Grover Norquist, we are in trouble.  Our Representatives in congress (if they still deserve that description) increasingly behave as if we were founded as a direct democracy, voting in whichever fashion they perceive the “American Public” to think.  The health of the nation is an afterthought; the health of their political careers is the forethought. 

But we can’t blame them, really.  The unfortunate fact is that party activists are increasingly strident and ideological in their impulses, and increasingly selective about the information upon which they determine their positions.  And they vote accordingly in party primaries, expecting their representatives to directly reflect their ideological stance at all times.  The only way to hinder the harmful effects of these zealots, in a democracy, is to outnumber them.  We simply must find a way to broaden our major parties’ active base in such a way that a more moderate and informed perspective prevails; a perspective that acknowledges that in a representative democracy, we must look for candidates of broad and flexible mind, capable of representing out general interests through rapidly changing circumstances. 
Right now, playing to the zealots who dominate nominating primaries, candidates demonstrate just the opposite traits to those needed my representative democracy: they issue very specific solutions (that will never happen), make very specific promises, and sign ridiculous and rigid “pledges.” They essentially take any discretionary authority away from themselves before they get elected.  They seem either ignorant of how representative democracy works, or too afraid to argue for the prerogatives necessary to be a true representative. 

What would democracy look like if we reawakened the representative roots of our democracy, if we found a way to overtly empower our elected representatives to exercise discretion and judgement in their voting, whether in Congress or in things like the Electoral College?  I have a theory: an electoral college composed of generally respected, broadly informed citizens elected on the basis of their broad judgement by their individual states may never have elected George W. Bush.  And who knows, maybe they would have elected John McCain president knowing that his chief disqualification (the presence of Sarah Palin on the ticket) could have been easily avoided by an electoral college willing to ignore modern protocol, and split the ticket to elect Joe Biden vice-president. (Maybe we could have had George H.W. Bush and Lloyd Bensten?)  It’s called exercising informed discretion….couldn’t we use a bit more of that in our government?

Let’s bring back representative democracy…democracy seems to be in need of it.