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A debilitating polarity grips American politics.  This is not merely the bitter paritsanism that dominates Washington D.C., the media, and the US hinterland.  Rather, it’s a polarity of ideas – a barren chasm of thought separating “yes – no,” “either this or that,” – “black -white.”  Nowadays it is actually considered sissy to think before expressing an opinion.  Rather than tools of analysis, information and data are now carefully selected in order to support  un-nuanced positions no matter how complex the issue.  Sadly, we have lost “maybe” – “neither” – “both.”  We have become a nation of cowboy thinkers, shooting from the hip, and embarrassingly, hitting ourselves in the foot.  

This polarity is bringing us down.  If the USA is the nation of exceptionalism, it is rapidly becoming exceptional in ways for which we should not be proud.  Our wealth is more maldistributed than any of our developed peers; in this regard; instead we are similar to such nations as Cuba and Iran.  We are falling behind our peers in education.  On average we die about 4 and a half years sooner than the longest lived nations, and we are sliding backwards.  We now rank forty-fifth in infant mortality (out of 224 political entities – the CIA World Fact-book), and yes, here too, Cuba beats us out.   We have the lowest tax rate of any industrialized nation, and yet we whine about exorbitant taxes.  The size of our middle class is shrinking, size of those in poverty is growing – the percent of those owning homes lags behind others.  We spend a larger percent of our GNP on health care than do others while leaving a large population without access (unlike our developed peers).   We kill more people (relative to population), rape more people, and rob more people than others.  We are not even the most free (according to a UN measure).

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but hopefully, it is sufficient to make a point.  Our exceptionalism does not mean that the USA remains the shining beacon for all to emulate – the best.  This is especially true regarding our quality of life.  This is shameful for a country as wealthy and powerful as ours.  We are moving toward third world status, and if we opt for the pablum of “yes or no,” we are going to get there quickly.                 

Why have we abandoned responsible analysis and thought?  Why have we gravitated toward trivial answers based on hackneyed formulas?  Is it mental laziness?  Is it that our attention spans have shortened?  Is it that we teach rote memorization rather than analytical thought in our schools?  Is it that the news media is now inhabited by soporific, boffo propagandizers putting forth extreme points of view.  No doubt, it is for all of these reasons, and many more.  But lurking in the background is are structural causes that makes it inevitable that we will be polarized.  It is built in the nature of our democracy.  Consider:

  1. We have a two party system.  With few exceptions, our choices are black or white – either this or that.  Rarely do we think in terms of neither this nor that.   2. Our participation in a polarized politics does not stop with voting; we are members of one of our two parties.  Instead of citizens selecting and evaluating our elected leaders, we are mere subjects – blind pawns supporting the interests of our “superiors.”  Thus it is our role to act rather than think.   
  2. We have an either this or that, winner-take-all  political apparatus.  No matter how close the vote count – a president appoints a cabinet and dictates policy.  No matter how balanced the congress, the party with majority gets all committee chairmanships and a majority of committee members.  In our recent close elections, does either party have such a mandate to wield such power – should the opinions of 49.99999% of the population be ignored?   
  3. In reality, our democracy is a power-sharing arrangement.  “Who are you going to vote for?”  the answer “neither one!” is an anathema to the Democrat/Republican “duopoly.”  Yes, there is often bitter contest between the two members of this duopoly, but it is not in the interest of either to render the other a killing blow.  Evidence of this can be found in our electoral system: 
  • We are offered choice, and at times, these choices appear to be extreme, however, in the end, there is little difference in the policies that are actually enacted. 
  • With few exceptions, moneyed interests pour massive dollars in the campaign coffers of both parties irrespective of their “position.”   The destruction of the Howard Dean 2004 candidacy was not motivated by his “scream” (in reality, a reasonable reaction to an embarrassing loss that was transformed by sound technicians and editorializers), but because he was not beholden to the moneyed interests (his campaign was funded by small, citizen donations).       
  • There is an emphasis on the support of an in-group (incumbents) in the way elections are structured – no incumbent of the Republican/Democratic Duopoly is forced to face another.
  • We simply have no place for a third party – when one does emerge, the needed absolute majority becomes the need for a mere plurality.   Since 1872, plurality presidents were elected in 1880 – 1892, 1912 (Wilson), 1976 (Carter), 1992 (Clinton), and 2000 (G. W. Bush).  All were member of the duopoly.
  • When new power blocks emerge, they are incorporated into the two party system through gerrymandered districting or some other device.  This process is co-optation rather than integation ration.  For example, for years, African-Americans felt compelled to chose the lesser of two evils (the Democrats) in spite of receiving little from either party.   
  • There are high barriers to entry (into electoral politics).  Campaigns are expensive .  It is a bad investment to back a likely loser.  and outsider.  thus, there are very high “barriers to entry.”   When a third party does emerge, it is virtually ignored – a mere plurality of voters select the winner.  Thus, voting for a third party is a “wasted vote.”  Thus,  

It is little wonder that the USA is punging toward third-world status.  This slide will continue (toward the Abyss) as long is “citizens” continue to serve as foot soldiers marching to the tune of emotive, meaningless, hackneyed  mantras broadcast by glib assholes.

From the Abyss,

Jim

Why is it that senators and representatives vote on legislation when they have a conflict of interest?  It is not an alien concept – Judges recuse themselves from cases when conflicted – lawyers don’t take cases when conflicted – therapists and brokers are concerned with the issue – and on and on and on.  But our Congressmen cavalierly accept millions of dollars every year from interest groups who are trying to buy legislation.  Is it a surprise, then,  that there is little public confidence in Congress?  The Roper Poll conducted between October 1-5 (2009) finds that only 33% of those polled approve of the way Congress is doing its job – 64% disapproved.  The Gallop Poll of October 1 – 4 finds the public even more disatisfied – 21% approve, 72% disapprove.  The outbusts and threats that occurred during this summer’s town hall meetings supports the notion that confidence in our political institutions is lacking (at least, among a sizable minority). 

This is a serious problem.  Democratic government (in particular) can only operate with the confidence and acquiescence of those governed.  This does not mean that everyone must agree with what government is doing – an effective democracy depends on informed debate and honest dissent.  But citizens must respect the principles by which the policies are derived – e.g. majority rule and representative democracy…  Make no mistake, the more violent and threatening behavior exhibited this summer may have been directed at individuals, but it demonstrates a growing lack of confidence in our institutions.  Shamefully for all of us, many elected officlals encouraged this behavior either openly, by their silence, or through tongue-in-cheek disapproval.  Democracy is not a lazy man’s game, it’s not for the sqeamish, and not a spectator sport, but it does have rules, and mob rule is not one of them.  

However, there is good reason for the citizenry’s declining confidence; there is growing doubt that government puts their welfare before that of special interests.  Consider the insurance industry’s effort to influence health care reform.  Since the 1990 election cycle (1989-90), the industry has pumped one-third of a billion dollars in the campaign coffers of those running for Congress (and this only one interest group with a stake in health care).  As almost every Congressman, no matter which party, receives some of it, it is difficult to explain how this huge outlay of money is directly transformed into favorable votes.  And yet, these contributions must have some affect.  Why would there be such contributions be made if it were otherwise?  And the amount of money involved suggests that the return is large.  Thus, the motives behind the those voting for or against any legislation must be questioned.  What is most influential, the needs and desires of the citizenry or that of an interest group of one kind or another. 

There is something legislators can easily do to rehabilitate their standing in the eyes of the public; they can exclude themselves from votes on legislation if they’ve received contributions from organizations (corporate or otherwise) having an interest in that legislation.  This seems a simple remedy, but it would have a profound effect on the way the political process works.  Congressmen, legislative aids, party or campaign officials, and interest groups would oppose it vehemently.  They would argue:  “Special interests insist on giving us money – don’t they have a right to be heard?”  Of course they do – their members can vote like the rest of us, can’t they?  Besides, this is not about special interests; it’s about you, Congressman!  “Absurd, special interests wouldn’t make contributions – there’d be no incentive.  How would we run our campaigns?  They’re long and expensive, you know.”  Yes, they’re too long and too expensive.  Make them shorter and cheaper, maybe then you could spend time legislating rather than raising money on a continuous basis.  “But everyone takes the money.  There’d be no one to vote if we restricted voting, the legislative process would grind to a halt.”  Yes, that’s true – as long as you continue taking money.  “Why…why, there’d be a complete change the legislative process!”  Right, that’s the point.

So the ball is in your court, you guardians of the public trust.  But remember, democracies have many ways to remedy runaway, improper behavior – if you can’t police yourselves, maybe the citizenry will have to do it for you.  

From the Abyss,

Jim

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