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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Restoring Balance And Harmony (Part Three)

(Editor’s note: The second segment of this multi-part series traces in part how we arrived at the greatest concentration of wealth disparity in American History. In Part Three, we begin to construct a practical solution.)

How do we restore meaningful equality of opportunity --- identified by Theodore Roosevelt as the third great crisis in our nation’s history?  Consider that the power to do so derives in the place from which all legitimate power originates in a democracy --- from the ballot box.

The solution is at the ballot box.  It involves strengthening the ordinary citizen’s vote to elect lawmakers accountable to the public interest.  Strengthened and unshackled, the ordinary citizen’s vote is bound to improve equality of opportunity over time.

The solution accepts the plain reality that the omnipresent “influence” which Thomas Jefferson first  identified cannot and should not be eliminated.  It can, however --- and must be --- reasonably checked.

This can be accomplished by insulating lawmakers from the pressures and corruptive influences of special interests in today’s money-craving, material society.  If the incentive for self-interest is effectively contained, chances are much improved that lawmakers will serve the people’s business, for they will be left with little choice.  The very idea of service can be made to mean service --- and only service --- once again.

The good news is that implementing a sound, practical solution is not complicated.  It also appears to be readily available.  Consider the following proposal, which contains three components, the first of which is discussed in this segment.

The first component is tied to the front end of legislative service.  Our democratic system is designed for voters to choose their legislators at the ballot box.  But lawmakers have long chosen their voters in a self-serving custom by drawing arbitrary, movable lines around voting districts to make them safe from challenge by the other side.  Its opposite the way it’s supposed to work in a representative democracy and therefore must be abolished. [i]

By way of example, in the 2012 midterm elections, Democrats receive over 1.4 million more votes for the US House of Representatives than Republicans.  Yet Republicans win control of the House by a margin of 234 to 201 [ii], using their distorted majority to frustrate the popular will on a range of important issues.  This is not democracy, certainly not the way the founding fathers have envisioned it.

To be fair, Democrats have reaped the benefit of this unfair and imbalanced system for decades prior.  The reality is that both parties are culpable.  Both share blame equally.  The system has evolved such that in the 2014 Congressional midterm elections, relatively few incumbents actually face realistic challenges.

The drawing of legislative districts so tightly in their favor to suit the pleasure of each party’s ideological base serves two efficient but self-serving, undemocratic ends.  First, the possibility of ouster is seen as being remote.  Second, the incentive for compromise in crafting national legislation is greatly reduced.

Put another way, primary candidates must pander to their party’s extremist elements.  To the frustration of the ordinary citizen, and the mainstream at the center line, the concept of partisan gridlock results.  And so it goes.

Moreover, Republicans in this instance now seek to extend and advance this system of cherry picking constituents to the presidential electoral college.  The scheme, initiated so that the loser of the popular vote could more easily win key states and the presidency, is an undesirable threat to representative democracy and must be strongly resisted.

(Editor’s note:  The fourth segment in this continuing multi-part series highlights the solution’s  second component.)

-Michael D’Angelo

[i]  On the federal level, the practice is popularly known as “gerrymandering,” or setting electoral districts that attempt to establish a party’s political advantage by manipulating geographic boundaries to create partisan advantaged districts.  The practice dates back to the early 1800s and was named for Elbridge Gerry, the Massachusetts governor who resorted to the practice by signing a bill that redistricted the state to aid his party.

[ii]  Wang, Sam, “The Great Gerrymander of 2012,” The New York Times, February 2, 2013.  ...  For an analysis of how voting districts are being made more “safe, lily-white” as the nation is becoming more racially diverse, see Friedman, Thomas L., “Our Democracy Is At Stake,” The New York Times, October 1, 2013.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Restoring Balance And Harmony (Part Two)

(Editor’s note: The first segment of this multi-part series discusses in part how we arrived at the greatest concentration of wealth disparity in American History. In Part Two, that discussion continues.)

Popular government devolves to the national level as the arbiter of important questions due to no particular virtue of the federal system.  However, a unique benefit of local government is that mistakes typically do not imperil national security.  This enables local governments to act as crucibles of experimental democracy.  With local grassroots support, the most successful of these experiments can serve as a model for federal reform.

But national lawmakers, in particular, seem to be crying out for help with the difficult task of legislating transparently in the public interest.  The finger may rightfully be pointed at the corruptive forces of money, used to prostrate honorable public servants from acting in the public interest.  Special interests for private gain have effectively accomplished this through the transformation of legislative office from a position of public trust to an individual prize.  It is said that the main role of a legislator these days is solely to insulate corporations from complying with the laws.  Society’s unrest naturally follows.

Meanwhile, a coefficient of legislative inertia and weakness is to some extent the expansion of executive and judicial power, which is compelled to fill the void.  Left to their own devices, these complimentary branches in a system of checks and balances sometimes overreach into the legislative sphere, throwing the separation of powers into harmful imbalance.  Allegations of imperial presidency as to one branch and judicial activism as to the other foster mutual mistrust, distracting from the primary mission.

It has taken a significant amount of time --- and stealth --- to amass a record level of wealth concentration.  Corruption of the legislative “umpire” has carved out a chasm which appears to be morally indefensible.  This confounds the quest to complete our great unfinished business, which calls upon our economic system to provide a fair shot for the many.

As applied to its lawmaking body, America simply has been unable to come to grips with the self-interest component of concentrated economic power on the human condition.  Put another way, what has Congress, the legislative branch, done to ameliorate wealth disparity and insure a level playing field?  If the answer is “nothing,” then it becomes compelling that something has to change.  Consider it a moral issue which can no longer be secondary.

But no matter how diligently we strive to create a more perfect union, collecting things and changing money remain the great motivation which obscures life’s true purpose. Sideshows in the political process have a tendency to swallow substance, reducing important questions to a partisan, smallness debate on the proper size of government --- not on whether government actually works.

At the same time, entrenched status quo interests spread dollars around systematically, muddying the water so that change becomes all but impossible. To check this, we must move beyond a traditional analysis affixed to economic cycles of boom and bust, war and peace. To progress meaningfully from one stage to the next in an upward course, we must aim higher.

Then how best to do this? One might say, “If the lawmakers don’t perform, throw them out and replace them at the next election with those who will perform.” If only apportioning equality of opportunity more equitably under the law were to be so easy. Those monopolizing opportunity would never agree to change the myriad of laws necessary to do so. And the monopolizers have sufficient power to ensure that these laws would never be changed. Therefore, it is folly to attempt changing these laws through present means.

Rather, the way to end the indignities is to unleash the ordinary citizen’s power to put them to an end.  That power comes from the ballot box.  Consequently, if the ordinary citizen’s vote to elect lawmakers accountable to the public interest is strengthened, the ordinary citizen will then be liberated to do the rest himself.  Do this and equality of opportunity is bound to improve over time.

How then can the ordinary citizen’s vote be strengthened to reasonably check the self-interest component of the federal lawmaker?  How can the ordinary citizen participate more effectively in the management of his and her government?  Put another way, since concentrated economic power rules, how can we limit big money in politics?  How can we re-direct emphasis away from the traditional measure of American success on a strictly material basis, moving the ancient principle of service back to the political center?

(Editor’s note:  Do not despair!  The third segment in this continuing multi-part series considers some practical solutions.  Yes, we can do this!)

-Michael D'Angelo