The Value of Democracy

September 12, 2017

Driven by the Tea Party, Republicans gave us a Congress that hasn’t been able to get much done. Saying less government is better, they take credit for getting nothing done, and leave immigration, tax policy, and health care to fester. It took the Democrats to make a deal with Trump to open the spigot even on hurricane relief.

Republican scorched earth policy is scariest for the lesson we take from it. For some of us the lesson is partisan – the other party must be defeated, fast. But for some Americans the lesson is that democracy doesn’t work, isn’t worth standing up for, honoring and protecting.

Many Americans have seen nothing but gridlock. Unlike the ways the parties worked from the 30s through the 80s, we’ve been dominated by gridlock since the mid-90s, especially when Republicans controlled Congress and Democrats were in the White House. Newt Gingrich and then the Tea Party made gridlock both their goal and tactic – if government can’t get anything done, then there is less government, never mind all the things for which we depend on government.

Republicans literally shut the government down under Clinton, only to discover that the American people didn’t like it because, from fixing potholes to carrying the mail, from sending out Social Security checks to keeping the skies safe to fly, government does lots of things we depend on.

By the mathematical logic of a majority of a majority, a minority in Congress could rule the Republican caucus and that caucus could stop everything so long as they agreed to stick together. So that minority of Congress gives us gridlock. We often talk about minority rights. But we are experiencing something else, not democracy, but it’s opposite, rule by minorities.

Elsewhere, dissatisfaction with democracy paves the way for dictatorship, in places like Syria, Iraq, and much of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. What replaces democracy is not some kinder, gentler, godly leader but kleptocracy, the rule of thieves, taking as much as possible from everyone to fatten their own pockets. Want to start a business, give the tyrant a cut. Want to export or import, the tyrant gets a cut. Courts aren’t in the business of dispensing justice; they’re in the business of looking at who is higher in the hierarchy. That’s why the flow of refugees isn’t from democracy to tyranny, but from dictatorships to freedom and democracy.

Democracy has a key secret. We can argue about who was wrong about Vietnam, Iraq, Obamacare, whatever – the people make painful mistakes – but a democratic people have the ability to vote the bastards out. Generally that gets the people better results than passing the reigns to dictators who can twist everything for their own benefit while sneezing at the people’s misfortune.

Democracy is not to be sneezed at. It is the singular American contribution to this world and we must protect it from foreign powers and political bosses who would control the people by gerrymandering, manipulating the census, keeping people from the polls or not counting their votes, We must protect it from fraud, from lying to the public, and from autocrats who claim they can fix everything if we’d just let them do whatever they want, autocrats who would have us end up like Venezuela under Maduro, Turkey under Erdogan, or like Hungary, Syria or Iraq and from so-called leaders who claim the rules don’t apply to them. We must protect it for ourselves.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 12, 2017.

 

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Democracy and Compromise

September 13, 2016

Since Obama’s election, congressional Republicans and their Tea Party challengers made Obama’s defeat their overriding goal, and when they couldn’t do that, they did everything they could to make him seem like a total failure, an example of politics gone completely awry. To accomplish those goals, they refused to give him any victories – not on infrastructure, not on economic stimulus, not on judicial nominations and they tried to retract his success with the Affordable Care Act under a Democratic Congress.

The Republican decision that nothing could go forward without support of a majority of the Republicans in each house of Congress gave power to a majority of their caucus but a minority of Americans. Had dissenting Republicans been able to vote their conscience, some real negotiation would have been possible. The harsh stance driven by the Tea Party was a form of power play by a determined minority that got its hands on a way to block the congressional majority from even bringing bills to the floor.  It was not a prelude to negotiation and it was not an example of democracy at work.

On the other side of the political spectrum, many Sanders supporters argued that they could take nothing less than Sanders or a third party – even if it made a Trump victory more likely.

In this era of my-way-or-the-highway politics, it needs to be explained why democracy is and should be about compromise.

If a majority can do anything, or a majority of representatives, can do whatever they wish, then one portion of the population can be left with virtually nothing. That may be majority rule. But it has nothing to do with fairness or equality. Democracy gets its moral authority from taking everyone’s interests and needs into account. We routinely talk about the combination of majority rule and minority rights. Merely giving the majority the power to exercise power over everyone else is a definition of tyranny, not democracy. Where bargaining is possible, even small or unpopular groups can get some recognition of their needs. Where bargaining is possible, even permanent minorities can get some modicum of decent treatment. Without bargaining, permanent minorities can be stripped of virtually everything. Bargaining gives some meaning to the ideal of equality. The willingness to work things out has always been one of the things that had made America a leader of the free world.

The Founders of this country tried to force some degree of compromise by the different ways they constructed the Senate and the House of Representatives. Before the Civil War the struggle to reach compromises was all about slavery and freedom, the rare area where compromise ultimately became as impossible as it was immoral. After the war, a spirit of compromise reemerged so that America could deal with conflicts between rural and urban areas and other issues.

Sometimes compromise works better than others. Some of us remember within our own lifetimes when absolutely nothing could be done if it included any benefits for African-Americans, and the use of the filibuster to prevent any breach in the wall of segregation.

Many astute observers of democratic government point out that the system works best and most fairly when the needs of different groups of people overlap – disagreeing on some, agreeing on others. That gives groups an incentive to bargain so that everybody gets a fair shake. Even so-called nonnegotiable demands can sometimes be balanced against other similarly important demands of other groups.

Civil war becomes more likely when democracy becomes a contest over nonnegotiable demands that are beyond any form of bargaining. Democracy does not have to be a zero-sum game, where some win the brass ring and the rest merely polish the brass.

Americans need to relearn the art of compromise. Our democracy and our country will be better for it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 13, 2016.

 


The Dysfunctional House

February 26, 2013

I’ve spoken often about why sequester type budget cuts threaten a weak economy and can worsen the debt. Today I want to talk about history.

In 1787 the delegates to the Constitutional Convention struggled over the shape of Congress. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia had the largest populations. The Carolinas and Georgia realized they had far fewer people, but since the primary activity of most Americans was farm or plantation labor, they thought their size would eventually give them large populations. So they formed a six state coalition for representation in proportion to population, especially with the added voting power of three fifths the number of their slaves – turning the principle of majority rule into a deal with the devil. Read the rest of this entry »


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