Monday, January 25, 2010

Impolitic Approaches and Impatient Voters

What I have noticed recently in conversation with others is that a "throw the bums out" attitude has been vocalized with greater frequency and with a growing volume. While it is still not the majority opinion, since many cling to a belief that the Democrats in Congress will eventually get their act together, assuming Health Care legislation stalls and dies, even the run-of-the-mill Democratic voter will not reward them for their incompetent approach. He or she is likely to vote Republican, to contemplate third party options by means of protest, or to stay home on Election Day. Cautious and often skeptical attitudes have proven the most helpful as the best means of dealing with such a rude and abrupt reality check, though my sympathies mainly go out to the true believers and trusting optimists now in a state of shock. Those who are never satisfied with any resolution and cast dispersions so as never to have to experience the pain of disappointment will always come out of the woodwork in times such as these, but theirs is an especially hollow victory.

One couldn't completely remove all the current available legislators from office and replace them with new faces in one election cycle, of course. Even if such a thing were technically possible, the existing system is too complex and convoluted; as such there is a need for at least a majority of veteran lawmakers who know where all the bones are buried. A populist response that vocalizes a complete frustration with the status quo needs to be tempered with the reality of the framework which which we have to work. There will always be a need for real change, but radical strategies rarely produce lasting benefits. I have always found it deeply ironic that for all of the effort expended in the radical Jacobin phase of the French Revolution, arguably the only real lasting and permanent measure that has stood the test of time is the Metric system.

We know now that progress often is delayed and stymied by a me-centric attitude of simple selfishness and with it pandering to financial gain and political advantage. We saw it this summer in the hordes of Town Hall Forum fanatics screaming and gyrating that no one was going to take away their coverage or put the government in charge of their health. Though it is certainly true that without health and well-being, no other life goal or ambition can be accomplished easily and sometimes at all, in this case many voices were afraid of losing the right to instant gratification and immediate care. Those who have faced a more than thirty-minute wait at a walk-in urgent care center and have disgustedly strode out the door are the perfect example of this way of thinking. Those who get a second or third opinion and cherry pick the diagnosis that best agrees with their sensibilities underscore my larger point. By contrast, the low-income government plan that I have no choice but to use schedules appointments for GPs four and five weeks out, and even urgent care clinics don't accept my coverage, but the reality of it is that it doesn't have to be this way. It doesn't have to be this incompetently managed and poorly networked. Most people wouldn't stand for it if this was their situation, and when enough people raise enough a stink, politicians are forced to take note. How they respond, of course, can never be predicted ahead of time.

I suppose at this point I could point the finger of blame towards some generational mindset or cultural deficiency, but that would be too fatuous a comparison and too easy an argument. It is true that we are beholden to an insistence that certain privileges ought to be within our birthright purview; this mentality can be observed in the decision making and consensus building process of Senators and Representatives. Many excuse their own selfish demands by stating that they are merely advancing the point of view of their constituents. This might be so at least on its face, but simultaneously romantic and Paternalistic notion of another age asserted that the role of the foremost deliberative body in the United States was that lawmakers were the supreme adults of the system as a whole. As such, these grey-bearded and wizened elders wisely wielded authority by taking into account the unique concerns of places and personalities. That was, of course, the mythology of a by-gone era, and in this cynical age, we are good at seeking first the Kingdom of Lies.

Last week cannot be spun or softened into something it is not. It was a disaster for both party, party faithful, and all lovers of reform. We have pointed fingers and let the desperate-for-revenue mainstream media go to town by using the Massachusetts defeat for its own purposes. In so doing, we have articulated a growing sense of weariness with a dream once seemingly so close at hand that has since shrunk in the heat of heavy scrutiny like a raisin in the sun. Still, I often think about the developmental theorist Jean Piaget and his theories of learning. Though Piaget's observations primarily dealt with children, postulating how they observed and processed information, I have often been intrigued by his assertion that it is only through disequilibrium, when everything is topsy-turvey and the previous strategies for comprehending the world around us are no longer helpful or valid, that true learning can begin. Disequilibrium has many incarnations but it should nonetheless never be confused for chaos, temper tantrums, or an all-out retreat, but nonetheless when the world is turned upside down, we have a fresh opportunity to learn from our mistakes.

I myself could never be confused for an optimist, but if it takes the loss of what was apparently more a psychological advantage super-majority than a mandate for cooperation and forward progress, then we are presented with an excellent opportunity for reflecting and beginning again. This new strategy rightly encourages a kind of urgency not present when, at least at face value, things were more stable and footing was surer. The success or failure of subsequent reform measures will depend on whether individual designs can ever take subordinate position to that of the entire nation's needs. President Obama often notes that reform is not about him and never has been about him, but it seems that several Senators and Representatives do not think in the same terms. Indeed, they should certainly think in these terms, else they have none of their own in a few short months. If humility has a way of putting priorities in order, I would hope that several Senators hoping to write their name large in history now recognize that taking the credit is not nearly as important as pushing the bill through.

I and others have begun to recognize that this country is slowly, haltingly advancing towards the very Parliamentary system our Founders eschewed. As formerly good British citizens, those who proposed and set into place our existing system observed first-hand legislative upheaval, awkward coalition-building, factionalism, calls for the Prime Minister to resign, pushes for a new General Election, and the power plays that went on behind the scenes. The new government they proposed, conceived in a the spirit of Enlightenment liberty, would not fall prey to these same divisive tactics. We have noted extensively ever since that this was not one of their best ideas to have seen the light of day. Perhaps we need to make a major overhaul, even though adopting a true Commonwealth system would necessitate that we scrap the idea of electing a President directly, leaving that decision up to party leaders. In that setup, the roles are reversed and the electorate votes for party more than personality.

One of the commonly attributed advantages to parliamentary systems is that it is often faster and easier to pass legislation[1]. This is because the executive branch is dependent upon the direct or indirect support of the legislative branch and often includes members of the legislature. Thus, this would amount to the executive (as the majority party or coalition of parties in the legislature) possessing more votes in order to pass legislation. It could be said then that the will of the people is more easily instituted within a parliamentary system.

In addition to quicker legislative action, Parliamentarianism has attractive features for nations that are ethnically, racially, or ideologically divided. In a unipersonal presidential system, all executive power is concentrated in the president. In a parliamentary system, with a collegial executive, power is more divided.


Still, a Parliamentary system is often antithetical to a peculiarly American perspective. To wit, The excitement of directly electing a President is that sole attention falls upon a single person or, in the beginning, group of persons. With this comes also an unfortunately obsessive and microscopic focus on one focal point and as such, cults of personality often spring up around Presidential candidates. There is also something intrinsically anti-American in this idea of party insiders picking the head of the government, something that hearkens back to oft-reviled smoke-filled rooms and with it lack of transparency and accountability to the whims of the voting public. It is for this reason that we will likely never adopt or at least never adopt wholesale, this sort of apparatus. Yet, as some have pointed out, with a now much more fickle public, one increasingly driven to third-parties and independent identification based on weariness with the two-party system, we are stuck in a halfway state between the two. While the Independent voter may be a free agent instead of feeling more inclined to identify with a particular third-party than an R or D, even those who would otherwise be counted on to reliably vote for either a Democrat or Republican are now contemplating getting behind whichever party can re-establish economic health and with it job security.

If we thought in terms of party rather than nominal head, we might have a better realization that consensus process is more powerful than individual desire and individual leadership. Once again, our mythology betrays us. When Barack Obama began his meteoric ascent to the top of the heap, many conservative voices snidely condemned his movement as Messianic, as though he was the new Jesus. In it, they may have been reflecting the reality that we built our own Christ figures along the same lines, since the motif of one person coming from nowhere to save the world from itself is so integral to cultural expectation. But beyond that, humanity has always sold into a belief that one being, one entity, or one figure might redeem our metaphorical and literal sins. The only requirement is belief and with it the desire to follow the example set in place. Though we may not consider ourselves religious people, we are still beholden to a religious construct.

If either party had made much in the way of headway or in actually accomplishing anything, voters might be accused of being fickle. This mindframe is not without precedent, and indeed populist anger once threatened to undo the entire system at several points in our country. At which point it was usually violently crushed or divided amongst itself through sabotage. What usually happens with any grassroots movement based in anger and dissatisfaction that the groundswell of public sentiment has its apex, is rendered toothless through outside force or through a lack of coherent strategy and cohesion within itself, then is sanitized and adopted into the platform of one party or the other. Right now we have an electorate behaving as though we have a Parliamentary system in place, but, and this is crucial, a system without any kind of majority mandate. Though this came as a result of bad governing, the question remains as to how we're going to reconcile our desires with the existing structure.

While the immediate loser is the party in power, the GOP should also recognize that if it manages to obtain control of one or both chambers in November, it will be expected to accomplish miracles and an impatient electorate will not give them long to do it. Prior conventional wisdom held that one never changed horses in midstream, but today's voters have at least contemplated the idea. And in my own personal opinion, they would be making a supreme mistake because as divided and dysfunctional a caucus is the Democratic Party, the Republican Party is even worse. We have managed to make the problem worse, but I trust the Democrats to minimize the damage. As we have seen, one election does not mend decades worth of rips to the sail.

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