Tag Archives: Democracy

Speaking of Inequality…

There is enormous focus these days on economic inequality, and for good reason. The gap between the top 1% and other Americans is growing, the middle class that built the country and ensured social stability is shrinking, and the likely consequences of those phenomena aren’t pretty.

In the United States, our Constitution guarantees us only equality before the law. Critics may quote Anatole France for the proposition that “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread,” but there is much to be said for a system that protects individual liberties against encroachments by the state. In such system, however, efforts to ameliorate material deprivations are statutory, not constitutional, and as we continue to be reminded, statutory entitlements are vulnerable to efforts to punish poor people for their misfortune.

Most public discourse around “equality” tends to focus on these issues of legal and economic equality and the relationship—or conflict—between the two. We rarely focus on  a third kind of equality—democratic equality—despite the fact that it has a major influence on whether the country achieves the others.

Democratic equality simply means the equal right of each citizen to participate in the democratic process. It probably won’t come as a surprise to find that we aren’t doing terribly well on that front, either.

The influence of money in politics has grown exponentially since the Supreme Court’s ill-considered decision in Citizens United. (Actually, the problem started earlier, with the case of Buckley v. Valeo, when the Court first conflated money with speech) The result has been that those with money are able to “speak” much more loudly and effectively than the rest of us. When democracy becomes “pay to play,” there is no equality of participation.

It isn’t just money. In Indiana—which is unfortunately not an outlier— the legislature has used its power to make it more difficult to vote.

We have one of the strictest Voter ID laws in the nation—in order to cast a ballot, you must not only have a government-issued picture ID, that ID must have an expiration date. (This conveniently excludes the picture IDs issued by state universities.) Middle-class folks assume that it’s simple enough to obtain such identification, but for poorer people—particularly older black citizens who were born at home and lack a birth certificate—getting the necessary documentation can be both onerous and costly. (Despite pious rhetoric about deterring “voter fraud,” fraudulent in-person voting is virtually nonexistent.)

The Indiana legislature has also declined to enact other measures that encourage or facilitate voting by working-class Americans: keeping the polls open past six, establishing convenient voting centers, expanding early and absentee voting.

It’s bad enough that lawmakers see fit to erect barriers to voting rather than making it easier. But as I have previously posted, the most serious denial of democratic equality comes through partisan gerrymandering that produces an abundance of “safe” seats and eliminates voter choice.

Increasingly, especially at the state level, our legislators choose their voters—the voters don’t choose their representatives. So even when disadvantaged folks make it past the obstacles and manage to cast their ballots, they often find they are given no meaningful choice. A growing number of elections are uncontested.

As a result of democratic inequality, the people who would benefit most from the election of candidates willing to work for legal and/or economic equality have less access, less influence and less voice than their more privileged neighbors.

The system is broken.

 

 

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Ah, democracy!

Like so many words echoing through today’s content-free political tantrums, “democracy” gets thrown around by folks who don’t seem to understand how it is supposed to work. (“Liberty” is similarly misused; in the recent RFRA debate, defenders of the law used it to mean retailers’ right to discriminate against customers whose identities or behaviors offended their religious beliefs.)

My observation about the misuse of “democracy” is prompted by a recent blog–diatribe, actually–posted by an Indianapolis school board member named Gail Cosby. (Full disclosure here: I wouldn’t have seen the post, nor would I be following the school board’s “inside baseball” disagreements if our daughter and a former graduate student of mine weren’t both members of that body. So while I am a constituent of Cosby’s, I come with a somewhat amplified point of view.)

In the wake of the most recent school board elections, Cosby has found herself in the minority (alone, actually) on several issues, and has taken to accusing those with whom she disagrees of bad faith, hostility and “undemocratic” behavior. She is absolutely entitled to her opinions, whatever one may think of the propriety or accuracy of these accusatory posts, but like too many other Americans, she quite clearly does not understand the democratic process.

And that leads me to my larger point.

When voters elect a legislative body–the General Assembly, the City-County Council, the School Board–the majority rules. Losing a vote, failing to have your opinion carry the day, or failing to have all your demands met is not evidence of anti-democratic behavior, or “failure to collaborate.” It is the way the system works. The obligation of those of us who find ourselves in a minority position–and believe me, I’ve been in minority positions a lot— is to persuade enough other people of the wisdom/prudence/soundness of your position that you become a majority.

Of course, that takes effort, and persistence, and a willingness to listen and to compromise.

One of the reasons American politics is so debased these days is that too many people share Cosby’s evident disinclination to participate in the hard work required by the democratic process. Too many legislators want to blame their inability to get their own way on other people’s bad faith, or ulterior motives, or “undemocratic” behavior.

To say that the majority isn’t always right is an understatement. But that doesn’t make majority rule undemocratic.

Power, Voice and Bowling Alone

Americans are increasingly focused on economic inequality, and especially the growing and dangerous gulf between the 1% and everyone else. But of course, no element of our social ecosystem is separate and distinct from the other elements, and the financial gap between wealthy and working class citizens is closely connected to other kinds of inequality.

Children from poor families attend poorly performing schools. The streets and sidewalks and parks in poor neighborhoods are rarely as well maintained as those in wealthier precincts. The prevalence of “food deserts” in poor neighborhoods—the lack of markets selling healthy foods at reasonable prices—has been the subject of numerous articles. These and other tangible manifestations of unequal access to social goods (health care, for example) are relatively obvious.

But there is a less-often recognized kind of inequality: disproportionate access to the public square and the marketplace of ideas. This lack of access to contending perspectives, abetted by the steady erosion of what sociologists call voice, doesn’t just disadvantage the poor. It hurts us all, by depriving us of perspectives we need to hear and understand.

It is certainly true that many Americans, not just the poor, have historically opted out of democratic deliberations. But they had voice–and influence–through a multitude of civic organizations.

As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently wrote

 Political scientists after World War II hypothesized that even though the voices of individual Americans counted for little, most people belonged to a variety of interest groups and membership organizations – clubs, associations, political parties, unions – to which politicians were responsive.

 “Interest-group pluralism,” as it was called, thereby channeled the views of individual citizens, and made American democracy function.

 What’s more, the political power of big corporations and Wall Street was offset by the power of labor unions, farm cooperatives, retailers, and smaller banks. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith approvingly dubbed it “countervailing power.” These alternative power centers ensured that America’s vast middle and working classes received a significant share of the gains from economic growth.

 Beginning in 1980, those organizations—a vibrant part of civil society—began to wither. Robert Putnum famously documented the decline in Bowling Alone.

The decline of unions has been especially consequential. As Reich notes, however, other former centers of countervailing power – retailers, farm cooperatives, and local and regional banks – also lost ground to national discount chains, big agribusiness, and Wall Street. Many of these changes were an intentional result of public policies—everything from Right to Work laws to slackened banking regulations. Others reflected economic and technological shifts.

Meanwhile, political parties stopped representing the views of most constituents. As the costs of campaigns escalated, parties morphed from state and local membership organizations into national fund-raising machines.

Although Reich does not include it in his list, we might add the effects of so-called “privatization”—especially the practice of government contracting with nonprofit organizations to deliver public services. Nonprofit scholars have long expressed concern that the growing dependence of human services nonprofits on government dollars has operated to “hollow out” their essential character as mediating institutions.

Reich concludes that the only way to turn this situation around is through greatly increased political activism. I agree.

The open question is whether average Americans have the time, the energy, or the will to  reassert their right to be heard, and to insist on retaking their rightful place at the civic table.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Politicians Like Rokita are More Dangerous–and Anti-American–Than you Think

According to yesterday’s New York Times, pragmatism about climate change is beginning to trump politics at the local level. The article focused primarily on candidates in Florida, where rising sea levels and other consequences of global warming have become too obvious for local Republican candidates to ignore. But the article also quoted Carmel’s Mayor, Jim Brainard, who has defied his national party’s fealty to Big Oil (more than 58% of Congressional Republicans deny the reality of climate change) and who has worked actively to reduce Carmel’s carbon footprint.

“I don’t think we want to be the party that believes in dirty air and dirty water,” Mr. Brainard said, noting that the Environmental Protection Agency was founded under President Richard M. Nixon, a Republican.

Contrast Brainard’s eminently sensible approach with that of Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita, who recently told the Purdue Exponent that claims about global warming are still “under debate,” and that the belief in anthropogenic climate change is “arrogant,” because after all, who are we to think our human activities could change God’s climate?

When asked by a constituent about government subsidies for renewable energy sources like wind and solar, Rokita said that he respects “God’s green earth,” but that the private market should decide which energy sources receive funding.

Evidently Rokita  hasn’t noticed the massive subsidies we taxpayers are providing to the (enormously profitable) fossil fuel industry.

It would be easy enough to dismiss Rokita and the other dogged defenders of the energy status quo as politicians pandering to a know-nothing base. As a 2012 article from Scientific American pointed out, however, these anti-science attitudes not only threaten America’s economic future, they represent a dramatic–and dangerous–departure from traditional American values.

The Founding Fathers were science enthusiasts. Thomas Jefferson, a lawyer and scientist, built the primary justification for the nation’s independence on the thinking of Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon and John Locke—the creators of physics, inductive reasoning and empiricism. He called them his “trinity of three greatest men.” If anyone can discover the truth by using reason and science, Jefferson reasoned, then no one is naturally closer to the truth than anyone else. Consequently, those in positions of authority do not have the right to impose their beliefs on other people. The people themselves retain this inalienable right. Based on this foundation of science—of knowledge gained by systematic study and testing instead of by the assertions of ideology—the argument for a new, democratic form of government was self-evident.

The authors warned that the anti-science posture of contemporary politicians “reflect an anti-intellectual conformity that is gaining strength in the U.S. at precisely the moment that most of the important opportunities for economic growth, and serious threats to the well-being of the nation, require a better grasp of scientific issues.” Anti-science positions occur at both ends of the ideological spectrum, from anti-vaccine activists on the left to climate change deniers on the right.

By falsely equating knowledge with opinion, postmodernists and antiscience conservatives alike collapse our thinking back to a pre-Enlightenment era, leaving no common basis for public policy. Public discourse is reduced to endless warring opinions, none seen as more valid than another. Policy is determined by the loudest voices, reducing us to a world in which might makes right—the classic definition of authoritarianism.

The entire article is well worth reading, but I found this paragraph particularly  compelling:

“Facts,” John Adams argued, “are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” When facts become opinions, the collective policymaking process of democracy begins to break down. Gone is the common denominator—knowledge—that can bring opposing sides together. Government becomes reactive, expensive and late at solving problems, and the national dialogue becomes mired in warring opinions.

When Congressmen like Rokita substitute convenient and uninformed opinion for science and fact, they threaten both our planet and our democracy.

 

 

 

How a Bill Shouldn’t Become a Law

Remember the old cartoon developed to teach students “how a bill becomes a law”?

A proposal is introduced. It is assigned to a committee that reviews it, hears testimony about it, and deliberates its merits. The committee then votes whether to advance the measure. If the vote is affirmative, the entire chamber votes on it.

In bicameral legislatures (those with both a House and Senate), a positive vote sends the bill to the other house, where the process is repeated.

Speaker of the House Brian Bosma is teaching young people–who are disproportionately interested in the fate of HJR 3–a different lesson.

What if a bill the Speaker really wants passed is assigned to a committee that actually does its job–a committee that deliberates based on the evidence before it and the testimony it has heard? What if that committee then concludes that the bill should be defeated?

Why, you just change the rules.

You don’t abide by the decision of the lawmakers you assigned to make that decision.  You cheat.

Speaker Brian Bosma insists that there is nothing unusual in his decision to take HJR 3 away from the committee to which it was originally assigned. And it’s true that some bills are reassigned, mostly in order to expedite the process, or because on closer examination the bill really belonged elsewhere.

In this case, the change was made for one reason only: to get the result Bosma wants. The decision he couldn’t get playing by the rules.

Even more incredibly, the Speaker has scheduled the new committee’s vote for tomorrow. The vote will be taken without the benefit of evidence or testimony–but then, as we’ve seen, the Speaker considers evidence and testimony irrelevant. The only thing committee members need to to know is what the Speaker wants them to do.

Usually, the power plays and the wheeling/dealing is done behind the scenes. This time, that wasn’t possible. This time, everyone got to see what is seldom on public display: the House leadership’s absolute contempt for democracy and the rules of fair play.