Sunday, May 11, 2014

Eagerly Paying the Ultimate Price for the Two Party System

"A Well Informed Electorate" -- Then and Now
Read Thomas Jefferson's tweets @ hash tag "#TJEFF."

During the time that the United States' "founding papers" -- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights -- were being painfully composed, most of those present were "on board" with the idea that all the citizens should be able to elect who was going to run things for the next few years.  Of course there were a few "gaps" -- for example, slavery -- in the plan, but most of those can be very comfortably attributed to the established social-cultural norms of the times. [late 1700's]

Although more than a few of the "founding fathers" were rapidly becoming the "wealthy elite" in the British colonial economy, none of them were particularly "just being mean."  Likewise, there were those in that crowd who were quite ambitious for "idealist goals" while others were, predictably, mainly thinking of how a successful revolution might make them even richer.

However, roaming around loose in the "soon to be" representative democracy was a sort of "Constitutional wild card." We can be sure that it was the topic of plenty "heated discussions" not only with the leaders in Philadelphia but, most likely, also in pubs, parlors and road houses all across the colonies.

The exact question which was driving that "wild card" was the very understandable skepticism about whether or not "simple citizens" would know enough about the proposed, elected government to make good decisions at the ballot.

As a result we see a significant reference to the prescient conclusions drawn on this matter by the founders. Perhaps most telling is the direct reference to an "informed electorate." We get an idea of what Jefferson was thinking from his letter to Richard Price.

Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price

Paris Jan. 8. 1789.

Dear Sir

I was favoured with your letter of Oct. 26. and far from finding any of it's subjects uninteresting as you apprehend, they were to me, as every thing which comes from you, pleasing and instructive. I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism & demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshipped by many who think themselves Christians. your opinions and writings will have effect in bringing others to reason on this subject. our new constitution, of which you speak also, has succeeded beyond what I apprehended it would have done. I did not at first believe that 11. states of 13. would have consented to a plan consolidating them as much into one. a change in their dispositions, which had taken place since I left them, had rendered this consolidation necessary, that is to say, had called for a federal government which could walk upon it's own legs, without leaning for support on the state legislatures. a sense of this necessity, and a submission to it, is to me a new and consolatory proof that wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.

We must be careful to avoid the presumption that the "free press" driving this "informed electorate" is merely a passive thing.  Quite the contrary, the reason that a "free press" might, eventually, result in an "informed electorate" cannot be limited to simply having an unfettered, more or less "patriotic" and otherwise generally "honorable," media.  The other side of that question requires that media to confront an actively inquisitive electorate.  Only when both elements are present should we expect what Jefferson was describing to be an existential possibility.

All the parts have to not only be present but also functional, operational and demanded by those responsible for the decisions which will direct the government.

Contrary to what many contemporary Americans might think, the colonials were surprisingly literate.  Historical estimates suggest around 60% of [white] women were literate with a slightly lower rate among men.  However, our modern ideas of an "informing media" are, well, unfortunately  quite modern.

During the late colonial and early revolutionary periods, taverns became increasingly popular throughout colonial America, especially in New England. The tavern was a place to gather, have 
a pint of stout, share a newspaper, peruse the latest broadside or pamphlet, and engage in friendly — or not so friendly — banter concerning the latest news and gossip. Here oral and print culture collided. Newspapers were delivered by post to taverns, and the literate patrons eagerly read them aloud to their illiterate neighbors. Dr. Alexander Hamilton states that he “returned to my lodgings at eight o’clock, and the post being arrived, I found a numerous company at Slater’s [tavern] reading the news … [and their] chit-chat kept me awake three hours after I went to bed.” In a time when news traveled slowly, all were eager for its arrival, literate or not. 

"Informed Electorate" - 
Just a Few "Moving Parts"
Not too complicated, but very important.

The founders clearly understood the importance of guaranteeing a free and robust Fourth Estate. By the time the Bill of Rights' amendments were being formulated, we can assume that the First Amendment pretty much "eased" its way to inclusion without much contention.  When Madison made the proposal to US House during the 1st Session of the 1st Federal Congress, the whole room apparently thought it was a good idea.

The very existence of the First Amendment is evidence that the "threat" those founders were concerned about was the government.  Of course, we can now see that the actual threat wasn't, it turns out, emerging from the government at all. Instead, the origin of that threat was the very predictable, rolling "coup" of the avaricial US billionaires -- merely one mechanism among many -- in their "wet dream" of peacefully transforming the old democracy they hate so much into a bright, shiny, new oligarchy.

Subsequently, however, any hope of an enduring free media began to evaporate almost immediately when the latest crop of modern billionaires had amassed enough cash to buy the networks -- and hire some craven "psych-tech" think tanks to start pouring out propaganda.  

The founders had the idea that the media would be driven by "market forces" enforced by the market demand of "media consumers" seeking news which was useful and accurate.  Those "media consumers" would do this as they sought to fulfill their Constitutional responsibility of "being a well informed electorate."

In fact, it was the presumption in those old Philadelphia rooms that credibility seeking, free market "media consuming," future Americans would pursue this quite energetically to sustain and protect their democracy.

That was the idea in the 1700's.

That is not the idea in 2014.

In 2014 roughly 40% of the registered American voters will very comfortably identify themselves as "really savvy individuals who no longer 'soil' themselves with the nastiness of politics." [NBC: Why 40% of Americans Won't Vote] They consider it quite beneath them, and, in any event, they are quite busy.

Is this another exaggeration roaring out of the geezer?  Hardly.

So, we can see the paradox.  With 60% of voters actually voting, and with 40% of voters not bothering to vote, we would normally assume that around 60% of Americans are generally satisfied with the democratic process, and the other 40% are not particularly strongly dissatisfied with the process  which attracted the 60%.  If the other 40% had been strongly dissatisfied instead  of "not particularly strongly dissatisfied," they would have actually voted.  But, wait.

DAILY KOS: Headlines for FOX Pundits
It gets even crazier.  30% of voters who actually voted should, theoretically, be absolutely delighted with the government they elected. But, get real.  They clearly still hate it.

Does this seem to describe the government's "approval rating?" Thanks to the oligarchs' fact twisting media corporations, no one is at all satisfied -- not even the 30% who actually voted for the candidates who won!

The government of United States is now "acceptable" to 30% of the registered voters. This is, of course, the 2014 version of the old Philadelphia "majority rule" idea from the Bill of Rights days. As far as the "heavy lift" facing the "take over scheme" of the oligarchs and their propaganda tanks, completely inebriating only 30% of the electorate is incredibly easier and cheaper than man handling 50% of all voters into the pit.

Heh, heh.  Quiet down.  We have to figure that the 30% who are calling the shots are probably doing the best they can.

How in the world did the "Philadelphia dream" become something like this?

Don't bite your tongue, but just remember that most of the USA still imagines the country as the "shining city on the hill" with respect to being the world's "ideal example of representative democracy."

Exhausted, Uninformed and Uninterested
No dreaming allowed.

For years after the founders set our course in the 1700's, Americans were able to quite reasonably consider the performance of politicians on an individual basis.  Of course, all the folks elected to go to Washington and run things were, after a while, "connected" to political parties, but success in campaigns and elections continued to be very dependent on what voters thought about candidates as individuals.

After all, it was that specific, individual candidate who had stood before constituent assemblies, communicating what his [or, later, her...] positions were on the country's issues.  Those campaign speeches usually included a few of the inevitable "detail free, big picture" positions such as "strong national defense," "small government" or "lower taxes," and the like -- many of which gradually became "foundation blocks" demonstrating party unity but only as general background for party identities.

So deep went the fear that post-Revolutionary party politics would again degenerate into civil warfare that the Founding Fathers understandably shunned the word party, much less the idea. Scottish philosopher David Hume, learning that his old friend, Benjamin Franklin, was armpit deep in American political intrigues, recoiled in horror. "I am surprised to learn our friend, Dr. Franklin, is a man of faction. Faction, above all, is a dangerous thing.''
Even when, in 1787, the thorniest political questions of a new nation were thrashed out in secret during the Constitutional Convention, there was no provision for a two-party system. Opposition to the new Constitution, while strong in many states, was so disorganized that it was expected to be short lived.
Away in France during this reform convention, Thomas Jefferson objected to the lack of any formal provision for a two-party system. "Men are naturally divided into two parties,'' he wrote, "those who fear and distrust the people and wish to draw all power from them into the hands of the higher classes [and] those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise, depository of the public interests.''
However, when the ballots were being cast, the decisions were based much more on the positions of the individual candidate than on such political generalities.  Further, in those old elections voting decisions were originally more likely to be determined by regional interests -- new schools, property taxes and only gradually, matters affecting larger or national constituencies such as foreign policy or Federal policies directly relating to constituent issues.

There was little "raw ideology" in campaign positions primarily because such indulgences would have distracted voters from the more direct local issues which candidates considered more effective and persuasive platforms.  Understandably, as Federal programs such as Social Security, defense spending, education subsidies or nation wide infrastructure projects became more common, the campaign focus in local or state elections began to include such matters as relevant local issues useful in persuading local constituencies.

Because national policy on such matters was increasingly handled at the Federal Congressional level, the importance of party affiliation grew more important. The Federal Congress was much more inclined to function in ways consistent with party lines. Voters began to view decisions made in Washington as "party driven" more than as the exclusive results of an individual Legislator's political philosophy.  Still, for years Federal policies attributed to the "mixed responsibility" between individual and party remained generally workable.

The "Citizen Soup" of the New Democracy
The 1800's United States after the war ended.

So far, this post has "bounced along" as it passed through an unlikely variety of topics like an old buck board wagon bumping down an isolated dirt trail. Happily, the horse isn't really tired yet, but, still, it's clearly time to tie all this stuff together.

Let's take a closer look at exactly what kind of "price" MeanMesa is seeing here.

Following the Revolution the nation's founders found themselves with a remarkably different electorate of citizens compared to what we find around us today.  The country during the Revolutionary period was hardly populated by Constitutional academics.  It was populated by literate colonists of every ilk, all of whom still had the bruises and burns from the war with England.

Adding to the dynamism of the moment, hardly anyone among the Americans was more than a raw amateur with respect to the "ins and outs" of operating a representative government responsibly.  Still, what was understandably lacking in experience was replaced by a rather "dreadful obsession" to protect what had been won.  While there wasn't an over abundance of trust in the Revolutionary government, there was no shortage in the determined exuberance eagerly provided to make it work -- a demand that it in fact, be representative.

Although we can't accurately refer to "universal suffrage" -- women, slaves and the indentured weren't voters, and even their citizenship status was shaky -- the Jeffersonian idea was in place so far as the culture of the time would allow. Still, the exceptional part of the revolutionary transformation was in place.  To the extent possible, the United States government was under the control of most of the common people who were living here. That was new.

This meant that the alternative of the European nobility government model had been dislodged and discarded.  Oligarch-wise, there were, indeed, wealthy colonials, and their wealth was certainly attached to increased influence in the representational system, but the newly enfranchised citizens were wary and stubborn, and the rich ones knew it.

The resulting democracy was dynamic.  Notably, both within the government and amid the citizens new and innovative ideas were everywhere.  This was partly because "new and innovative" problems were "popping up" right and left, but it was also the result of hundreds of thousands of Americans patiently pondering the solutions to the challenges arising from the new democracy.

One way to characterize the prevailing conditions would be "individual democracy."  Political majorities strong enough to prevail in an election were collections of individuals holding common opinions on enough of the momentary issues to congeal and exert political power.  The political landscape was remarkably free of "packaged positions" to which one might blindly adhere and thus avoid the tedious "considering phase" which was part of the democratic responsibility.

There were indeed "labels."  There were Royalists, Isolationists, Mercantilists and so on, and individual citizens were called by those names, but within the entire group of those labeled as, for example, Royalists, one would find a wide variation of other positions.  There were plenty of cases of "common cause," but there were no lockstep march of political party members holding nominating conventions, publishing blanketing party platforms or daring to identify themselves nonchalantly with a "defining letter" in parentheses [such as an (R..) or (D...)] following their name, state and title.

Politicians were expected to campaign -- and govern -- as individuals. It made them into statesmen, complete with individual nuance potentially either hated and admired. This was the plan.

This, perhaps more than any other contemporary "political condition," provides the salient difference between the founders' country and the contemporary paralysis in terms of the electorate, the government, the parties, the media and the ideologies. The modern United States has rushed headlong to the literal opposite of this earlier environment.

This dynamic individualism was extinguished as political parties became more strongly established.  Those individual political positions became both awkward and unnecessary.  The individual elements in a candidate became no more than the superfluous "icing and decoration" on a gaudily disguised, not particularly delicious, cake representing stolid party platforms.

Political Parties: Suffocating the Dynamic Democracy
The price we pay for limiting all solutions to two choices.

Amid the stiff chaos of the party system, the "informed electorate" encounters something dismally akin to an "economy priced, low grade truck stop" which advertises "quick, convenient food" rather than anything exciting, appetizing or nutritious.

Inside they find a buffet offering a small assortment of "suspiciously oxidized" meals. Even more discouraging, the cafe has taken no effort whatsoever to foster the idea that what's spread out before them is actually comprised of the same food items which are insinuated by the menu.

There is, indeed, food to be had by the weary, hungry traveler, but he will face the inescapable prospect of dining on one of the casseroles presented. Beyond this, all the dinner choices have already been made by the morning cook [who has already had a "good morning bracer" financed by the grocery money he saved by shopping the day old meat counter...].  Anyone desiring dinner will eat one of the choices he has dutifully patched together for the buffet.

Eventually, what had begun as a forlorn, "one star" diner with "pretty good parking but an not particularly satisfying menu with almost no real variety" becomes a grotesque "norm."  You know, the sort of place usually described as "well, not that bad."

Once everyone gets used to it, the place's business lurches along "just swimmingly."  After a while, there are no longer any complaints.  At home when the trip has ended, the children ask their mother for entrees "like what we had at that truck stop."

Let's just say that the new reason for the "informed electorate's" importance is to be informed enough to select the correct party.

Was Ted Cruz elected because he had a good idea?
All the "good ideas" are day old "party ideas."  Platforms.  Innuendo. Punditry.  Not ideas,  Not solutions.

Rather than being living, breathing, thoughtful people honestly aspiring to become statesmen, politicians have become little more than unreconciled shades of dystopian party politics tastefully disguised with a "person-like" mask. The electorate has, apparently, permanently mistaken complaining for demanding.

Was this man elected as a Senator because he had this idea?  Really?

No comments:

Post a Comment