“Your guilty conscience may force you to vote Democratic, but deep down inside you secretly long for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule you like a king. That’s why I did this: to protect you from yourselves. –Sideshow Bob, “Sideshow Bob Roberts”
(This is the third installment of my political corruption series, and the last. For now.)
Let’s be clear (If you read my stuff, it’s probably already clear): I am a lifelong Democrat. I am the child of two lifelong Democrats: my parents voted for John F. Kennedy, for William McGovern, for Walter Mondale, for Michael Dukakis; I voted for Clinton, for Gore, for Kerry, and for Barack Obama, twice. I don’t understand why people can vote Republican: the wealthy, for whom it makes personal sense, have to be callous, I feel, in order to refuse to maintain the social safety net for those less fortunate than they, or unbelievably greedy in order to agree to destroy the regulatory state so that they can make even more money at the expense of our very world; the poor and middle class are voting for social causes, not for personal gain (Unless they believe in trickle-down economics, but in that case they are deluded), but I see two problems with that: first, they are on the wrong side of most social issues – anti-choice, anti-equality, xenophobic, and parochial – and their candidates don’t ever deliver on their promises. So if you’re wealthy, how can you stand to vote Republican? And if you’re not, why would you ever think to vote Republican?
I read an excellent book by Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter With Kansas, in which Frank examines how Kansas, his home state and, through the 1800’s and early 1900’s, one of the most radical and progressive states, became so very staunchly, unflaggingly, self-destructively conservative. What happened was that Republican candidates around the early 90’s started pushing a pro-life agenda as the only issue that mattered – you know, the usual “40,000,000 murders,” “Culture of life” stuff – and when elected, every Republican proceeded to lower taxes, kill social services, remove regulations on business, make sweetheart deals with corporations, and basically ruin life for the average person; and then go back to election yelling “We have to end the scourge of abortion!” Which got them re-elected, into majority after majority — and yet they continued to fail to do anything about abortion, simply pushing their pro-business agenda on the state to its steadily growing detriment. But the pro-life agenda, whipped into a frenzy every new election cycle, was so compelling that nothing else seemed to matter to the voters, who kept voting Republican until it put their state where it is now – essentially hollowed out, unable to provide even the most basic elements we expect of our governments, like schools – not that Kansas schools teach anything other than creationism and abstinence, according to the campaign promises of the Republican candidates.
That’s how I see Republicans: selfish, deluded, misguided, and absurdly optimistic– or, less kindly, willfully blind to the fact that their politicians don’t ever deliver on the things they promise that won their constituents’ votes: on the national scene, we still have Obamacare, we are still giving foreign aid to dozens of other countries, our veterans are still dying on the streets, abortion is still legal, gay marriage is now legal as well, and there still isn’t a wall between the US and Mexico. So why would anyone vote Republican?
Here’s the thing, though: why do I continue to vote Democratic? It was Clinton who ended the Glass-Steagall Act, which, more than anything else, precipitated the economic crash that happened ten years later, under George Bush but not – I repeat, not — because of him. It was Bush’s fault that our government wasn’t in a better position to help after the crash, because he gave away Clinton’s surplus in tax breaks and war spending; but the crash was because of the Democrats. Democrats who I voted for. And of all of my other causes, the most important to me is the reduction of violence and misery, and the improvement of equal opportunity for everyone; the largest obstacle to all of that is income inequality. Which Democrats conveniently ignore, not wishing to appear – gasp – Socialist. (I know, I know – Bernie Sanders. But he’s also pro-gun.) We have Obamacare, but without the public option, it is more of a burden than anything useful; my costs for health care are still going up, every year, while my wages are going down: I make less now than I did ten years ago. Unions are still dying, and women still don’t make the same wages that men do, and Guantanamo is still open and still incarcerating prisoners of war who have never been to trial, and guns remain unregulated, and schools remain unfunded, and everyone is still driving Hummers while we drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
So who’s really the fool, here?
I think the answer’s pretty obvious: we all are. We have all been sold a bill of goods that doesn’t match what the grinning faces behind the counter are putting into our baskets.
This is the last form of political corruption I want to write about, and that I think I have a solution for: this one is the corruption of the entire system, through partisanship and self-serving deception. This political corruption is the two-party system.
I would love to go back now to when the two-party system made sense and worked well for Americans; but in all honesty, the two-party system has always been about helping itself. Having a clearly defined and well-known political party makes it easier for candidates affiliated with that party to get elected: the party label offers a certain legitimacy, and even loyalty, in that people often vote the “straight ticket,” picking the candidates affiliated with their party without knowing anything about them. The party also offers a political apparatus that makes it easier to get heard and therefore elected; you need staff, you need volunteers, you need access to media and to debates and the like, you need a platform that people can hear and understand and support. The political party that exists before and beyond one’s own candidacy offers all of that; unless you’re a billionaire loon like H. Ross Perot, bless his wrinkly, big-eared heart, you wouldn’t want to form your own party just for your candidacy, and you almost certainly couldn’t afford to. So political parties are useful, and they aren’t going away – more’s the pity; because by far the easiest solution here is just to ban them entirely. But then it would be too hard for anyone not an incumbent to mount a national political campaign, or even a serious state-wide one, and that would not be any better, as those in power – who already have political staff, legitimacy, and access to media – would get re-elected even more often than they do now. So okay, we’ll keep political parties.
Now, if that party represents a certain set of values that the voter supports, then well and good: but because there are only two parties with any real legitimacy in this country, those two parties become too large and unwieldy, their umbrellas too wide and encompassing such extremes, that voting for the party doesn’t really mean supporting one’s specific causes: is this Republican candidate an evangelical Christian who wants to put the Ten Commandments on the American flag and mandate both creationism and prayer in schools? Or is he a Libertarian seeking the end of the income tax and government reduced to only two services, international commerce and the military? Is this Democrat in favor of a path to citizenship, but also supports private prisons, or is she looking to legalize marijuana and strengthen the Second Amendment at the same time? We can’t tell based on party affiliation.
Now, the two-party system theoretically serves the middle: because the two parties have to have such broad appeal, they tend towards the center. And thirty or forty years ago, I think that was probably true: but it isn’t now. And before that – say, eighty or a hundred years ago – it also wasn’t true. Way back when it was formed, the Republican party was single-mindedly abolitionist, which was an extreme (albeit correct) position; the Democratic party, in response, was for decades staunchly segregationist and pro-states’-rights. Also not moderate positions. Today, we have one party – I’ll let the reader guess which one – that has discovered that it can motivate its base through extreme and inflexible positions on social issues; in other words, the more extreme and zealous and inflammatory the party gets, the more votes they turn out. The entire party is moving away from the center, and at the same time, becoming more successful, because of it. More successful, that is, at winning elections: they are certainly not more successful at governing, a profession they seem to have cast aside in favor of demogoguery. Meanwhile, the opposition party is trying to maintain its foothold in the middle; but as the other party keeps going farther and farther to one side, the middle drags in that direction – and rather than hold their ground and make the extremists come back, the moderate party is moving with them, and thus also becoming less moderate: while surrendering entirely the side of the political spectrum they were supposed to be watching. I feel like, any minute now, the Democrats are going to turn around and see that a Republican has captured their flag while they were all on the other side, trying to keep an eye on the Republican team – who were having a dance party around their own flag, completely ignoring the Democrats and the entire game, but subtly distracting their whole team so that no one was left to play defense. And somehow, Vince Lombardi was behind it all. Or Ronald Reagan.
The two-party system is also supposed to provide stability: because the parties are predictable, and centrist, and inclusive, and effectively share the electorate, they are forced to compromise, which isn’t terribly hard because their positions aren’t far apart, and so they can respect and agree with each other on most things; any one politician also realizes that his opposition is not going away, and so he has to work with them. Except our parties aren’t providing that, either: instead we get hatred and bile and petty partisanship that blocks everything useful, even stuff that shouldn’t ever be a question, like raising the debt ceiling, or providing for the 9/11 First Responders. Honestly, any government that can’t give those guys health care and a pension that would choke a horse is no kind of government at all.
So that’s what we have: no kind of government at all. The parties have lost their way: rather than improving our democracy, they are hurting it; because their goal is no longer to represent the will of the people, but rather to maintain and expand the power of their party. As long as their party wins, nothing else matters. Politics is become a team sport. The propagandists (You know – the cheerleaders. Though I can’t think of anyone on this Earth who looks less like a cheerleader than Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove.) have taken over, and they have realized that they don’t need to steer their parties towards what the people want; they can make the tail wag the dog, and the party can tell the people what they want. As long as they say they are in favor of what the people are in favor of – this side will ban abortion, that side will close Guantanamo and ensure that women make equal pay for equal work – they don’t actually have to do those things in order to maintain power. And as long as the person says they are a Democrat or a Republican, that’s a win, even if they don’t actually act like it: and so the Republican party will support Donald Trump if he wins the nomination, and the Democratic party will support Bernie Sanders, even though he is a Socialist independent.
I don’t even have to argue that the political system is broken: the race for President – which has already been going on for a full year – will likely come down to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. Bernie Sanders will likely not be in the running. (And I have to say: in that scenario, I almost wish that Ted Cruz would win, so that Mitch McConnell could stand up in the Senate and say that his first goal is to ensure that Ted Cruz is a one-term president. I want to see how well Mr. Cruz can do when he can’t blame things on Obama. Although of course he’d keep blaming Obama for everything, anyway.) If the system worked, then Sanders would run as a Socialist, Trump as the head of the shiny new Trump-Solid-Gold Party, Hillary Clinton as a Democrat, Ted Cruz as a member of the Inquisition, and probably Marco Rubio as the Republican. And then we’d have a race, by God. You’d have two actual centrists, Rubio and Clinton, one on the left in Sanders, one on the far right in Cruz, and Trump off on a tangent, somewhere far out in Nutsville.
So how do we change things to achieve that glorious outcome in the future? Well, there are a couple of ways. The first thing is we can bring back the Fairness Doctrine, which required opposing viewpoints to be presented on any television station that aired political views; that, with a certain minimum percentage of votes – say, 5% of the popular vote in any one election cycle – required to gain status as an opposing viewpoint, would allow alternate parties to gain media access, publicity, and a voice in the system. That would be the best thing: allow parties a chance to gain their own foothold, and stop this nonsense where everyone other than a Democrat or Republican is a “third-party candidate,” which is seen almost universally as a wasted vote.
We could also eliminate the one-winner-takes-all election system, and the single-representative system with it. Depending on whether we want more representatives in Congress, it could look like this: the Congress members from a certain state would all run in one general election, with up to as many candidates as there are seats from each party – so in a state with ten Congress seats, there would be ten Republicans, ten Democrats, ten Socialists, etc. – and the popular vote would be divided by percentage. So if 50% of the state voted Republican, 30% Democrat and 20% Socialist, then the state would get five Republican congresspeople, three Democrats, and two Socialists; you could either have the parties choose their reps by caucus, or have a run-off within the party for which candidates get the slots. Alternately, you could run the same system but with multiple candidates from the various parties winning a single “seat,” that is made up of several actual members; though that would greatly increase the number of Congresspeople, and still allow for districts to be gerrymandered. I like the state-by-state bloc voting, personally.
And one other thing is critical: term limits. It is absurd that we don’t already have these in Congress when we have them almost everywhere else, including the Presidency. I’d suggest about a decade for each seat: four two-year terms in Congress, two six-year terms in the Senate. Maximum twenty years in the legislature. And anyone currently past that is out at the next election.
All of us are unhappy with the partisan politics. I have seen this meme several times of late, and I expect to see it even more between now and November.
We need to fix the system, because the people who are breaking it aren’t going to turn around and fix it, and breaking it even further is not going to magically bring it back around to a good place. Too be specific: Donald Trump will not make America great again. No Republican and no Democrat will.
We the people can. We will. We just have to do it. Now, please.