Friday, August 11, 2006

Citizenship 101

I read an article (no longer online) by a young person who said that her generation “doesn’t believe in politics.” She made some interesting points, one of which is that older generations can remember a time when government was functional, when it did serve the people, but that her generation has seen only this partisan, corrupt, dysfunctional mess. Unstated in her article, but clearly implied, was that she believed that none of it will ever change.

“When I vote,” she said “it will be for the symbolic power of the action, not because I truly believe my voice will change anything.”

I agree with her that our system is broken, but it definitely can be fixed. And it is we the voters who can fix it. In fact, we are the only ones who can. Whether or not we will do so is another matter, one that worries me, but the solution is in our hands if we choose to use it.

It’s not politics, it’s democracy; and it works only when its citizenry is involved.

The current crop of politicians are in office because we elected them, and they remain in office because we keep re-electing them.

It’s All About The Power

The politicians have turned it into politics instead of democracy by disengaging the citizenry, by making it about personal, financial and ideological power instead of governance. It is to their advantage to keep it that way and if it is going to change then it is we the voters who must change it.

By the design of our Constitution, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are supposed to be contested every two years. In reality only about two dozen, approximately 5% of them, actually are. How can that be?

The politicians have carved out “safe districts” where they know how we will vote and they know their party will win the seat. The other party either doesn’t bother to run a candidate at all, or they put up someone who has about as much chance of winning as, say some retired movie actor running for governor of California. Well, okay, bad example.

The point is that we are voting the way they know we will. To change things we need to surprise them and not vote they way the politicians want us to, the way they have “programmed” us to vote.

It’s All About The Money

If a businessman simply pays a politician to pass a law favoring his business that would be bribery, which is illegal. So the businessman puts money into the campaign fund of the politician for no ostensible reason at all, or making the claim that it is purely because the contributor simply likes the contributee and in a very general way supports the contributee’s policies. Right.

What happens, though, is that the contributee then goes to work and gets a law passed that favors the contributor. He/she does that by “trading favors” with other legislators who have been similarly bribed (excuse me, who have also received campaign contributions) on a “I’ll vote for your contributor’s bill if you’ll vote for my contributor’s bill” basis.

Did you see the voters represented in that process? No, you didn’t. The politicians have taken the voters’ concerns and best interests out of the governing process.

You would think that politicians would care about voters, wouldn’t you? Isn’t it we who put them in office? No. It’s money that puts them in office and keeps them there. We let that happen and it’s up to us to change it.

It’s All About a “Circular Alliance”

Business and politics have formed a circular alliance that has disenfranchised the voters. That is a big word that means, quite simply, that they have taken away from us the power of the vote. (They have not, however, taken away the vote itself and as long as we have the vote we can work together to restore its power.)

A key player in this alliance, and the player that makes it circular, is the news media. The news media is owned by corporations who are paying the politicians for favorable legislation. You can’t curry favor with a legislator with cash while attacking that same legislator in the news, so…

In addition, those politicians spend huge sums purchasing advertising (those thirty-second spots) on, hello, the news media who, in turn, need to curry favor with one of their biggest customers.

As a result we have one network pandering shamelessly to one party and another network pandering with an equal lack of bashfulness to the other, while you and I are left wondering what the news really is.

It’s All About “Sound Bite” Advertising

In Dick Pohlman’s blog of Aug 22, about a conversation he had with Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd he asked Dodd about the Democratic Party’s apparent fear that “standing up for civil liberties is a loser on the stump, especially when pitted against visceral concerns about personal safety.” Dodd replied,

“It takes several sentences to explain to people what the Democratic position is.”

When that happens in today’s politics, you will lose. It doesn’t matter what your position is, if it takes several sentences to explain it you will lose because it will take only one short sentence for your opponent to destroy your position.

That short sentence is contained in a thirty-second television message, and that’s where the money comes in. The politicians buy lots of those messages and pretty much literally inundate us with them. Those short messages don’t even have to be true statements, and they frequently aren’t, but the politicians count on those messages, those “sound bites” to determine how we will vote.

And, like a bunch of fish hitting a dead worm on a hook, we bite.

Most of us say we are tired of the “negative campaigning,” but the politicians keep doing it. Why? Because it works. Because they run their spots and their negative, often untrue television sound bites and we re-elect them.

Solving the Problem

To solve the problem we need (pick one):
a) campaign finance reform
b) a ban on political advertising
c) term limits
d) all of the above
e) none of the above

The answer is e) none of the above. Campaign finance reform is well intentioned but, ultimately, doomed to failure and properly so. It is not the solution.

We don’t need to force the elimination of the television messages, we just need for voters to learn to ignore them. If a politician buys a few million dollars worth of television spots telling us that his opponent is a bad person and we elect that opponent anyway, is the next politician going to copy that routine?

On what should we base our voting decision? There are several ways that are far more informative than the politician’s sound bite.

Somewhere in your daily newspaper, on an inside page and in small print, is a record of the bills passed in Congress (usually listed weekly) and how your representatives voted on those bills. Look for the pattern of voting and you will soon be able to discern whether or not that legislator is representing your best interest.

Also published as a matter of public record (but you may have to work to find it) is a list of all persons and organizations from whom your candidate has accepted campaign contributions and the amounts of those contributions.

A comparison of the list of campaign contributions and voting record is going to tell you a lot about whether or not you want to maintain an incumbent in office. Do I need to tell you that in most cases today that comparison is going to tell you that business interests are buying the votes of your representative?

In addition, for an incumbent or a challenger, research the past actions of the candidate. What clubs and organizations has that person been a member of? In previous offices what has that person accomplished and what causes has that person fought for?

Yes, it requires some work. As Michael Douglas says in his kick-ass speech near the end of the movie The American President, “America isn’t easy. You have to really want it.”

The solution to “politics as usual” is an informed, active electorate. The solution is a set of voters that looks at the incumbent and says, “You voted for a bill that is against my best interest because you were paid to do so” and votes for the challenger.

It’s All About the “Other Guy”

Not too long ago I read that, while a large majority of people feel that Congress is doing a really bad job, an equally large majority feel that the legislators from their state are doing a good job.

That is pure wishful thinking; resistance to change. It represents a “cop out” of letting somebody else take action. Change begins at home. You, as an individual voter, are not responsible for the “other guy.” You are responsible for the person who you send to Washington to govern our country.

This is serious business. Too serious to be decided between segments of “Desperate Housewives” on Sunday night. This is Americans being the government of their own country.

It’s time to step up.

No comments:

Post a Comment