Friday, September 09, 2011



Why are US citizens disenchanted with our political system? Why has engagement in Public & Civic affairs declined 40% since the mid ‘60's? Attitudes toward our government shifted from positive to negative during the three decades of extraordinary growth & social stability. Something has gone wrong with American Democracy. Strangly, Zakaria believes there has been one big change - The Democritization of Politics. Sounds crazy, eh? We have opened ourselves up to greater public contact & influence in an effort to become more democratic. Organized groups - Special Interests - now run Washington. It’s not that politicos are unwilling to hear our pleas. It is that they do scarcely anything but listen to the American People. Public opinion is too important for them - lobbyists, activists, consultants, pols use this info for the basis of their actions. As the pandering has gone up, the public attitude toward pols has gone down.
Meanwhile, some of our major institutions are distinctly Undemocratic - For instance our Court Systems - power by unelected judges (for life!). Political parties - Candidates & platforms are chosen by party hierarchies. But his was done internally before going to the public. Representatives & senators met in committees to trade, barter & compromise. The legislature is the best indirect democracy. We choose who will legislate for us. They do not write or pass bills. James Madison didn’t regard America as a democracy. Democracies are governed directly, thru popular assemblies, (like ancient Greece). He said the better term is a republic, where citizens delegate the task of governing to it’s representatives.
Edmond Burke (English) said “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement : and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion”. And Sen. Bradley said “If a politician adopted a policy without regard for it’s popularity, he is considered not brave, but stupid”. Most politicians that have left said our political system is out of control. But most voted for the changes that turned American politics into the hyper-responsive, poll - driven system, it has become. Under the banner of Democracy, “Good intentions have gone haywire”.
About 1970, Civil Rights, Vietnam, Watergate, Urban Violence were the challenges of our government. We had to “fix it”. In America, that meant democritizating. It was too closed & heirarchigal, we had to move power out of the hands of the leadership into the entire body of the members. They had to be more accountable & with greater scrutiny. Thirty years later, almost all agree it made matters worse. “Campaign finance laws, Independent Council statutes, nothing turned out the way it was supposed to” (Biden).
The House of Representatives ,1972, democritized the method of choosing committee chairs by party elections instead of seniority. The number of subcommittees expanded 50%, allowing unlimited numbers of new bills & amendments, from any member of the house. To do this, staffs grew by individual members, not committee chairs. From an institution dominated by 20 + powerful leaders, congress evolved into a collection of 535 independent political entrepreneurs, their own interests uppermost , e.i., to get re-elected.
With our open committee meetings & recorded votes, now each member has to vote publicly on every amendment. The purpose of these changes was to make congress more open & responsive. And it has - to Money, Lobbyists & Special Interests.
These activists ensure that the groups they represent are well taken care of in the federal budget & legal code. Well organized interest groups, no matter how small, - can ensure that government bends to their will. Reforms designed to produce majority rule have produced minority rule. “It isn’t that these groups don’t have a legitimate interest but they distort the process by wrangling over the smallest issues, leaving congress paralyzed & the public disgusted” (Sen. Bumpers).
As our government has become larger & more open, lobbyists have become Washington’s largest growth industry. In the mid ‘50's, there were 5,000 registered lobbyists, 10,000 in the ‘70's, 20,000 in the ‘90's. In 1979 there were 117 health groups in D.C., by ‘93 the number was seven times that. The rise of interest groups has made our government totally dysfunctional. D.C. is unable to trim, let alone eliminate - nearly any government program, no matter how obviously obsolete. Spending real money on new problems or opportunities in the U.S. has become close to impossible.
The industries, problems & opportunities of the future do not have lobbies ; Those of the past do. When government seems unable to apply reason or logic to it’s priorities & spending, people lose faith in it’s ability to solve new problems. We have evolved into a self-organizing structure 20% under control of politicians & voters and 80% under control of countless thousands of client groups. Any serious attempt at change produces instant well-organized opposition from the small minority who are hurt by it & these are the minority who really run Washington.
James Madison in his famous Federalist Paper 51, placed his faith in the size & complexity of America. Small factions wouldn’t be able to have their way because other factions (outnumbering them) would thwart them (He was wrong).
Take Cuba for instance - Obvious to most Americans, 30 years after the cold war, they realize Cuban Communism no longer possess even the remotest geopolitical threat to us. However, Anti-Castro Cuban Americans have controlled the issue because they live in two electorally significant states, (Florida & New Jersey). Thus a handful of Americans have been able to dictate American Foreign policy for decades.
Here’s something surprising - political parties do not really exist in America anymore. They have become so open and decentralized that nobody controls them. The party is , at most, a fund-raising vehicle for a telegenic candidate (Looks good on TV). The bullet that killed the American political party was the primary election. Choosing a candidate was the most important decision a party organization made.
Campaign finance reform has suffered the same problems. Now a candidate must spend and entire year before the election wooing “Masters of the Rolex” to find enough galas & breakfasts to get enough cash for a campaign.
The growth of referendums is another aspect of the disease. In 1960, there were 88 issues, by 2000, it had risen to 204. As a result, 85% of our California state budget is outside of the legislature or governor’s control. I guess that could be called “Government by the people”. But then, if that’s the case, why do we need a legislature?
One of the biggest problems Zakaria sees, is there is probably no way to get out of this mess. I’m afraid I agree with him on that score.