01 January 2008|
Don't Tread on Me
The four greatest weaknesses of American democracy, and how to fix them
In the 2002 elections, the first national elections after the September 11th attacks, only 42% of eligible American voters actually cast ballots. Such statistics abound as evidence of America's world-leading citizen apathy. Many wonder, how could so many people not care to exercise their vote in such an important time? The unpopular answer is that informed people generally vote, but many apathetic people just don't care enough to be informed. Any "Vote or Die" type efforts have the effect of only scaring ignorant people into a "civic exercise" they know nothing about. Evidence of such citizen "ignorance" already present in the population is the fact, among others, that only 15% of American citizens can name the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid. Pundits are appalled.
What these pundits don't understand is that ignorance and apathy tend to travel pari passu. I know this because I don't care much about math or science, for one example, despite being a subject I recognize as generally very important. But I don't remember a damn thing about the quadratic formula, and have probably forgotten dozens of other fundamental axioms of math and science that are undoubtedly much more important to math and science than Harry Reid is to American politics.
Ignorance and apathy - in politics or anything else - is an exercise of free choice and a personal preference. (When we were young, we called this live-and-let-live.) Shocking to probably most everyone who is reading this article, many people think politics isn't worth their time to give a damn about it. What we all must realize is that one cannot force or otherwise socially compel an interest in politics, any more than you can get me to eat more vegetables, or I can get Mitt Romney to listen to Ice Cube.
Most of all, apathy is an artifact of prosperity and success. When your country churns out a world-leading per capita GDP, hasn't fought a war on its soil in nearly 200 years, and has two "opposition" parties that offer virtually the same standard of benign incompetence year-in and year-out, one can't be surprised when Americans don't get excited about voting. In a lot of ways, it's a really good sign.
But that's not to say apathy doesn't have its dangers. Certainly it does. My generation (weakly named "Generation Y" by some unidentified moron), is the most politically apathetic, and thus is the most at risk of political alienation. Thomas Jefferson once advised, "The most effectual means of preventing the perversion of power into tyranny are to illuminate the minds of the people at large. Thus, apathy risks tyranny, but engagement preserves freedom." William F. Buckley, Jr., later wisely noted, more laconically, that "the best defense against usurpatory government is a assertive citizenry."
The ideal political formula is simple - you vote out the politicians that you don't like. And ideally, when you are posed to vote the politicians out, they start to pander and give you what you like to see. But everyone knows that politicians don't pander to citizens who don't vote. This effect is especially pronounced as the apathy tends to be isolated to certain groups. As we all know, old people vote, and young people don't. When was the last time you heard a politician talk about subsidizing a skate park, instead of subsidizing arthritis medication?
The solution to this democratic quandary isn't for aging pundits to try to "act hip", or for cable news outlets to start featuring Paris Hilton stories right before their coverage of the newest Medicare prescription policy. This country will either get interested in politics because it wants to, or it won't. As we saw, even 9/11 failed to inspire voter engagement. It is thus up to independent organizations to make things interesting for those among us who frankly just don't give a f*ck. This organization stands to do just that, as a start. We look forward to whoever else can join us in bringing some diversity into the stale gerontocracy we call 21st century American politics.
2. Political segregation
Back in the day, Southern politicians used to redraw Congressional district boundaries to confine Colored voters to specific districts, limiting the amount of political clout they could wield, and entrenching segregation in this country. Now, the political heirs to these manipulative "representatives", ostensibly no longer interested in White Supremacy, redraw the districts to keep other modern undesirables, such as Democrats, similarly confined to politically homogenous districts.
The very essence of federalist democracy - forging a true national consensus on contentious issues of universal importance - is sabotaged by this shameful practice. An example of this is on the issue of immigration. Many Western districts are redrawn so a few Democratic districts contain most, if not all, of the immigrant communities, while the native-heavy Republican districts have next-to-none. Thus, Republicans like Tom Tancredo can fulminate against excessive immigration without ever alienating too many of his constituents, very few of whom are first-generation Americans. Both parties redraw these districts with impunity, and thus neither one really wants the practice to stop.
However, this manipulative practice, awkwardly known as "gerrymandering" in political science terms, does nothing but enhance partisanship, racism, and other invidious classifications. Most of all, it is anti-democratic. The Economist recently noted that gerrymandering has led to levels of incumbent reelection that are nearing "North Korean levels." No wonder. The system is that of politicians classifying you, and defining your voting authority, by the party they think you'll vote for. Gee, how did you think that would turn out?
Instead, politicians should be entirely prohibited from redrawing voting districts. The districts should instead be redrawn to account for population shifts by the Census Bureau, and they should be redrawn mathematically, randomly, and without the oversight of meddling politicians. Leave it to the wonks, not the party shills.
3. Special interest influence
In Federalist Paper #10, James Madison warned against the power of factions, which he defined as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Sir Madison hoped that the American Constitution would effectively prevent these factions from gaining too much political power. Sadly, his brilliant vision has been perverted.
Special interest factions, rather than being silenced by an effective republic, are wielding more political power than ever. The American handicap lobby, among others, has successfully lobbied for legislation to legally shield them, and other protected classes, from the universal realities that the rest of us call life. The American farm lobby, among others, gets Congress to make you pay more for their goods, even though you'd rather not. The American car lobby gets your tax dollars to subsidize their production of crappy cars that you don't want to buy. The list goes on.
A substantial cause of this problem - among the other issues mentioned in this article - is America's asinine campaign finance restrictions. Thanks to McCain-Feingold, hard money - a donation to a particular candidate - is capped at a few thousand dollars. But soft money - a donation to a political party, under the guise of helping the party's candidate(s) - is unlimited. This mindless two-tiered system means that candidates can't raise money by their own appeal, ideas, or vision, because they can only legally accept small donations for their candidacy. Instead, they can only appeal to their national party, which retains the unfettered, duopolistic authority to collect million-dollar donations.
As a direct result of this legislative idiocy, the special interests are heeded, because they are the only ones who can give enough money to make the national party pay attention to their specific concerns. By contrast, the local businessman, wishing to support his local representative, sees his piddling $2,000 dwarfed by the million-dollar checks from Proctor & Gamble, and can do nothing about it.
In the McCain-Feingold world, one must be either a party whore or a billionaire to have a shot in a national election. We call that democracy?
Instead, campaign finance should be completely unrestricted. Independent candidates should have the ability to raise money for themselves, thus unshackling politics from the bonds of party influence, and thus combatting special interest power. The effort should not be in the French interest of regulating the expenditures of the party machines, but rather in the American interest of allowing the market to provide the entrepreneurial, independent underdog the funds to make his public appeal to his fellow citizens. Support campaign finance reform, and help independent candidates combat special interests. Come on, people, make Publius proud.
(Disclaimer: The author is a distant relative of A. Hamilton. Take that as you will.)
4. Minority oppression
Despite its racial connotation in modern political parlance, minority oppression takes many other, color-blind forms in 21st century American politics. The interests of those political minorities who lack billion-dollar special interest lobbies or the sympathy of a recent Zogby poll are routinely sacrificed at the altar of the self-centered Will of the American Majority.
The examples, past and present, of this principle are myriad. In the 1944 Supreme Court case of Korematsu v. United States, Justice Hugo Black argued that convenience and efficiency in the pursuit of majority America's national security interests justified the internment of a few Japanese-American citizens in the process. The line of fallacious reasoning was exemplified decades before that, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, when Justice Roger Taney argued that "the Negro" had no God-given inalienable rights, simply because the White majority had demonstrated a profound racist impulse to deny them such inalienable rights by political decree.
The tyranny of the majority exerts its power even today. Every student of the First Amendment (especially Larry Flynt) knows that the Civics 101 concept of Free Speech has no real-world value until the Free Speech is expressing a viewpoint that the majority finds alarming and/or repugnant. When it is, the offended majority then likes to enlist the government to enforce its vision of "decency", and silence the Free Speech-claiming minority.
The libertarian wonders, what rights do these minorities have in the face of this glaring hypocrisy? Must, for example, recreational cannabis users wait for the philanthropic elective sanction of non-cannabis users, before they can engage in the same fundamental, private narcotic liberties that the alcohol-swigging majority finds worthy of expression every Happy Hour?
Plato wisely recognized that unbridled democracy can be as dangerous as a dictatorship, and the American Bill of Rights has thankfully enshrined that lesson in the Constitution. The limit to political power in America isn't the limit of the majority's will, interest, or benefit in exercising it, but rather the point at which the minority's fundamental rights are trampled in the exercise.
This defense of minority rights is no new-fangled, contemporary notion. It is derived from the timeless Golden Rule, that elementary axiom of Judeo-Christian morality, that serves as the ground rule for the Western legal tradition. The Bill of Rights is simply the preservation of those fundamental liberties that all Americans - whether White, Black, Christian, Atheist, Homosexual, or anything else - would want to be protected for themselves. Liberty, in essence, is the treatment of your political or social enemy the way you would want to be treated.
The courts are intended to defend these principles of minority liberty, whether explictly or impliedly in the Bill of Rights. Marbury v. Madison, back in 1803, reaffirmed the common law principle that "where there is a legal right, there is also a legal remedy by suit, or action at law, whenever that right is invaded." The Supreme Court is thus intended to be the anti-majoritarian, libertarian check on the Congressional Will of the People. Unfortunately, as we all know, it has not always fulfilled that duty as it should.
Thus, the civil libertarian, the sole political defender of the Golden Rule, often finds himself alone in the noble defense of the minority's rights and freedoms. However, he is not without hope. Certainly, the tyranny of the majority will always be a powerful force to combat. Yet we can still hope that through the courts, public education and political activism, those fundamental liberties will be fully expressed through the equal protection of the laws. Long live the Golden Rule.