For Sale: Slightly Used Country; Needs Work

(Well, I certainly hope macho dentist Walter “Small Dick” Palmer is returned to Zimbabwe to enjoy a few years in one of their prisons or better, shot.)

 

The non-American readers out there may be a bit in the dark concerning the government of the United States, inasmuch as it is virtually unique among the great powers. (Well, in addition to electing some truly stupid people to office.)  Unlike the parliamentary systems in Europe, where the actual head of government, the Prime Minister (or Chancellor), is elected by the members of the assembly, the parliament, the US has a presidential system, in which the head of government (who is also head of state), the President, is elected by the people (well, more or less). The Prime Minister generally remains in power so long as he holds the support of the parliament, either through his party or coalition of parties, whereas the American President serves a fixed term of four years and can be reelected once. There are many variations on these two basic systems, but the result is that the US has a representative democracy very different from those organized along parliamentary lines.

A Chancellor

A Chancellor

The President

The President

A Prime Minister

A Prime Minister

One major difference is the essential separation of the executive from the legislative assemblies, the Congress, which means the President and his party may not control the legislative bodies (as is presently the case). Many feel this is something of a virtue, since the two branches can check one another, and given the composition of Congress these days, getting nothing done may not be such a bad thing.
On the other hand, the system lends itself well to an increasingly powerful executive, who does not depend upon the support of the assembly to stay in power, at least for the next four years. He can veto any legislation, and while his veto can be overridden, it takes a two/thirds vote in both houses of Congress, not an easy task. Congress can impeach and throw out the President, but this is extremely difficult: only two Presidents (Andrew Johnson and Bill “I did not have sex with that woman” Clinton) have had Articles of Impeachment passed against them. In both cases the motives were blatantly political, and both were acquitted.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton

Andy Johnson

Andy Johnson

Meanwhile, the power of the Presidency has grown steadily, both because of the changing nature of the country and world in the last couple of centuries and because no political institution, particularly an executive, is going to surrender any power if it can help it. And crises like World War II and 9/11 always result in new powers that are virtually never given up – the President can unilaterally send military forces into combat and more recently, execute without trial anyone deemed an enemy, including American citizens. Further, the President can game the system established by the Constitution: Executive Privilege, for example, is routinely abused, and the Executive Order, whose Constitutional basis is vague indeed, allows him to circumvent Congress.
The other big difference is the fixed term, which means loss of popular support has no immediate effect on the incumbent. After the experience of FDR the President was limited to two terms, a wise decision (despite my admiration for Roosevelt), but no such limitation exists for the Congress, and big money, citizen stupidity and the power of incumbency almost guarantee lifetime tenure, especially in the Senate with its six year terms. And regularly scheduled elections mean non-stop campaigning and money-raising.  No country in the history of the world has a campaigning period even remotely as long or expensive as America now does; it is at present more than a year to the general election and the candidates are already out in full force.  Members of the House of Representatives serve only two years, which means these guys are already sniffing out new money and prostituting themselves the moment they are elected. The single most important event in the life of a Congressman is not the vote but the fund raiser.
Along with being familiar with British parliamentary government, the Founding Fathers were also steeped in classical history and looked to Greece and Rome for models of democracy. They rejected the Athenian democracy, in which the assembly had the absolute last word on everything, as too inclined to instability and mob rule and favored the Roman Republic, which was successful over a half millennium. The Republican government was in practice an oligarchy of wealth centered in the Senate, but it was structurally democratic in that the citizens, through their assemblies, elected and legislated. This might actually be a description of the American government, except that the American oligarchy of wealth is not a group within the government but rather individual billionaires and corporations, who are essentially interested in their own concerns. The Roman Senator was of course motivated by enhancing his image and influence, but for four hundred years that came from actually serving the state.

Just right (the Senate did not look like this)

Just right (the Senate did not look like this)

Too democratic

Too democratic

Besides, for all their democratic inclinations the economically successful men who wrote the Constitution did not completely trust the common folk. They knew what had happened to Athens. So, there would be a “people’s” assembly, the House of Representatives, where members would serve only two years, mimicking the amateur assemblies of Athens and Rome and insuring the body reflected the changing ideas of the common folk. The Senate would be more akin to the like-named body in Rome (and not so much the House of Lords), and serving for six years, the Senators would constitute a wiser and more capable group of legislators. (And also a somewhat less than representative body: every state has two Senators regardless of population.)
Further, the President (and Vice President) would not be directly elected by the often uneducated and easily misled people, but by electors selected in some manner by the states, presumably from the pillars of the community. There was apparently also some anticipation that the process would not always produce a clear winner, allowing Congress to make the final decision.
Finally, there was the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, which essentially states that there are areas where even the theoretically sovereign will of the people cannot go – at least without incredible difficulty. This of course limits the power of the people and makes the state less democratic, unlike fifth century Athens, where a majority in the assembly, which any citizen could attend, could pass any law it pleased. Period. Now, that is really putting your faith in the political wisdom of the people. I am, however, unwilling to trust my free speech to religious zealots, politically correct airheads, professional patriots and above all politicians.

The greatest political document ever

The greatest political document ever

Well, a marvelous and incomparable document, but it did not all work out as the Fathers had hoped. Parties rapidly emerged and the growing need for money followed, gradually producing more or less professional politicians (but not necessarily good rulers), even in the so-called people’s House. Gerrymandering, party power and economic clout conspired to make even a seat in the House a potential life-time job, for which one needed to continually campaign. Incidentally, in Republican Rome once the candidates were formally announced – only twenty-four days before the election! – a candidate seeking votes identified himself (as if the huge entourage were not a clue) by wearing an artificially whitened toga; it was candidus (lustrous white), and he was a candidatus.
For reasons not entirely clear to me – the winner takes all rule and the broad ideology of the parties are certainly important – the United States has essentially developed a two-party system. It is extremely difficult to achieve federal and even state office if you do not run as a Democrat or a Republican, and third party challenges seem only to guarantee one or the other of the two major parties wins the White House. This locks out differing ideas, since although there are factions within the major parties, they after all are parties, with a national party line. The parliamentary system provides a venue for new groups to appear and influence decision-making in the legislature, and the need to form coalitions schools the representatives in comprise, which is desperately lacking in the American system.
In the United States it is almost as if the Democratic and Republican parties were part of the governmental structure. They are the only parties to regularly hold state primaries, which are paid for by the taxpayers, even though many of those citizens will not be permitted to vote in them. Further, the two earliest primaries, which attract immense media attention, are in Iowa and New Hampshire, which are primarily rural, white and well off, hardly representative of the country as a whole. And Iowa is apparently packed with Tea Party and Christian screwballs, compelling the Republican Party to make stupidity part of its platform.
In fact, in some ways the United States is a one-party state. True, the underlying ideology of the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans is different, especially when their less moderate members are considered, so their legislative agendas differ. Yet, the basic concern of the vast majority of the politicians of both parties is getting reelected, which means raising money. There are a few, like Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, whose money comes primarily from the small folk, but this is extremely rare, and most all candidates are going to head for the big teats, which means billionaires and corporations, especially the latter. Granted, George Soros is not going to give serious money to a conservative nor Rupert Murdoch to a liberal, but corporations are not so fussy and will dish it out to anyone who might aid their business environment, which appears to include people in both parties.

Sheldon Adelson - part owner of the Republic Party and Israeli agent

Sheldon Adelson – part owner of the Republic Party and Israeli agent

Koch brothers - majority owners of the Republican Party

Koch brothers – majority owners of the Republican Party

George Soros

George Soros

Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch

The American democracy is being bought and sold every election cycle, while candidates who have accepted millions from this or that individual or business are claiming such does not make them beholden to the donor. Sure, multi-nationals love to throw away money.
How did it come to this? The Fathers created a wonderful document in the Constitution, one that with some revisions has carried the nation through two centuries of dramatic change in the world. They were on the verge of the industrial age and knew serious developments were afoot, but one thing they apparently did not completely fathom was the potential impact of marketing. In the eighteenth century marketing was hanging a sign outside your pub or placing a simple ad in a newspaper; candidates marketed themselves with rallies, speeches and broadsheets. As mass marketing developed in the twentieth century, especially with the advent of radio and television, politicians had no choice but to take advantage of it – and the cost of trying to get elected skyrocketed.
Further, large corporations began emerging in the nineteenth century and businessmen certainly appreciated the advantage of political influence, especially when the government began attempting to regulate them in the late nineteenth century. The development of multinationals has made matters worse, inasmuch as they control huge amounts of wealth and are to a good degree stateless. They consequently have even less reason to be concerned with the interests of any host county, and buying politicians, however self-serving, ignorant or destructive to the country they might be, is now part of doing business. What’s good for General Motors (or Exxon or Goldman-Sachs or Bank of America) is clearly not what’s good for America, but since the Supreme Court decided corporations are “persons” they are entitled to contribute staggering sums of money to candidates who will help them makes America a better place – for shareholders.

Some of the good folks whoPfizer.svg[1] are bringing you America:200px-Boeing-Logo.svg[1]Apple_logo_black.svg[1]250px-Bank_of_America_logo.svg[1]300px-Lockheed_Martin.svg[1]Microsoft_logo_(2012).svg[1]250px-Time_Warner_wordmark.svg[1]Koch_logo.svg[1]Halliburton_logo.svg[1]New_Walmart_Logo.svg[1]ING_Group_N.V._logo.svg[1] Monsanto_logo.svg[1]194px-General_Motors.svg[1]222px-Exxon_Mobil_Logo.svg[1]150px-Goldman_Sachs.svg[1]150px-General_Electric_logo.svg[1]
My mother country is screwed.

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What a Choice!

Why is there no Democratic Policy Guide to match the Republican version?  Well, most simply, while Democrats are as self-serving and dependent on big money as their Republican friends, their party is not nearly so blatantly anti-science, pro-Christian, heartlessly pro-wealth and abusive of females as the GOP.  The Democrats may not do as they say, but what they say – with some glaring exceptions – generally makes sense for an industrialized society in the 21st century.  Their geopolitical thinking of course appears firmly rooted in the 20th century, but even that is attractive contrasted with the Republicans, all of whose policies seem appropriate for the Gilded Age (excepting of course that the Robber Barons of that time actually produced goods and services for the country).  The economic ignorance – or dissimulation – of the GOP is breath-taking, especially considering that even a superficial knowledge of the last hundred years of American history reveals that laissez-faire capitalism can only damage a modern society and generate massive economic inequality.  They are classic extremists, who have set the bar very high.  What positions would Democrats need to take to be as radically to the left as the Republicans are to the right?  Stalinism?  Maoism?

Now, candidate Obama.  Granted, he actually knows (or has people who know) some basic economics (e.g., austerity and deficit pay-off are the worst thing to engage in during a recession) and granted, he inherited a mammoth mess and has lately faced a hostile Congress (including his own party).  But his actions bespeak a man who cannot be bothered to exert himself to fight for his promises and who is just as enamored with the apparatus of national security and the power of the government, especially the Presidency, as any red-blooded conservative.  In fact, this may be the one area where the Democrats outdo the Republicans: hypocrisy.

Being a “progressive” politician apparently does not mean any more commitment to the truth than being a conservative does.  His campaign lies are not as staggering as those of Paul Ryan, but the lies are there (Obama: 1 of 50 statements false; Romney, et al.: 1 of 10), and he avoids the serious media as diligently as Mitt.  After all, they check facts.  Better to talk to People magazine and friendly local radio stations than the White House Press Corps with their annoying regard for facts.  Better the social networks, where disregard for truth is pretty much part of the system.

Obama promised the most transparent White House ever.  That used to be emblazoned on the official White House web site, but I can no longer find it.  Wow!  Are they being honest about their need to be opaque?  All governments want to control their image and avoid letting the public know anything embarrassing, but the present administration might be considered the most opaque ever had it not been preceded by the Bush administration.  Actually, in one area of image control Obama is outdoing his predecessor.   In 1917 Congress passed the Espionage Act, which, as the name suggests, was designed to provide the government with the tools to prosecute those supplying American secrets to a foreign power, i.e., spies. In the 95 years since then the Act has been used on nine occasions to prosecute Americans responsible for leaking classified information not to a potential enemy state but rather to the American media, and thus the American public.  Of those nine instances of the Espionage Act being thusly misused six fall under the Obama administration.  And now he is apparently putting incredible pressure on London to get Julian Assange in a position where he can be extradited to the United States.

Only one aspect of the Bush security apparatus has been eliminated, torture in interrogations, which probably still goes on in the back rooms and undisclosed locations of our countless intelligence agencies. Otherwise, Guantanamo remains open, detainees will receive military trials, we still have detention without trial and none of the provisions of the Constitutionally questionable Patriot Act have been rescinded.  On other fronts, the “too-big-to-fail” banks are now even bigger, and the financial industry appears to be no more regulated now than it was when the economy collapsed.  We are still in Afghanistan, and despite the fact that both the American and Afghani peoples do not want us there, despite the increasingly obvious evidence that the war is a failure, we will be keeping – and losing – our troops there for another year.  Is he afraid of “looking weak” or perhaps the huge collection of war contractors have been on the horn to their purchased congressmen?  To be fair, however, were the Republicans in control, we would be sending more troops to Afghanistan and would still be in Iraq.

Oh, the drones.  Clearly, Bush was a piker when it came to blowing up people around the world, and if anything, Obama is even more oblivious to international law than Bush was.  He has no concern for national sovereignty beyond our own, and while his rhetoric on the Middle East was promising, he has done absolutely nothing in that area except to get more entangled in Israel’s plans to wage a war of aggression.  Perhaps I am unfair here, because who knows what is going on behind the closed doors of diplomacy?  On the other hand, his Attorney General has publically assured us that all of his boss’ activities around the globe are perfectly legal according to international law, a staggering expression of self-serving nonsense.

There seems to be something wrong with Barack Obama, something that goes beyond just being another politician, but for all his faults he and his party are so much better than the increasingly screwball Republicans that were the economy in slightly better shape he would not have to campaign at all.  Nevertheless, I am sick of voting for the lesser of two evils and will drop out of the system.  I am tempted to think in Baader-Meinhof terms and hope that Romney and friends have their chance to ruin the country and demonstrate how utterly wrong they are about most everything, but it is after all my country, and all they are likely to produce is extremism from the other end of the political spectrum.  The nation is in serious trouble.

Marketing Our Democracy

In the
Constitution the Founding Fathers created an amazingly flexible charter, able
to accommodate the social, economic and technological changes of the next
couple centuries, yet one difficult enough to change that it has been largely
protected from the fleeting whims of society.
But something the convention delegates could not imagine, even standing
at the door to the Industrial Revolution, something that two hundred and fifty
years later has dramatically undermined our democracy is marketing.  Economic power is political power, and
history has amply demonstrated that any economically powerful group must gain
access to the political apparatus or revolution will result.  Traditionally that has meant that the
economic elite are in fact identical to the political elite, but modern
corporations and nations, particularly the democracies, have opened the door to
indirect access to and control of the political system.  Rather than actually occupying the seats of
power, wealth can simply manage those who do.

Bribing or
buying politicians, functionaries and princes has of course been around since
the birth of civilization, but it is marketing, itself little more than a
century old, that has institutionalized such corruption and carried it to
undreamed of levels in the industrial democracies.  Having money has always helped in attaining
political office, but when campaigning essentially comprised personal
appearances, speeches, debates and pamphlets, getting elected could be achieved
on a very tiny budget.  The geographic
growth of our country made electioneering more difficult and expensive,
especially for national office, but men of modest and even humble backgrounds
could still be viable candidates for state houses, Congress and even the White
House.  And party supporters could help
cover those train rides, rented halls and newspaper ads.

This began
to change dramatically with the development of radio and television and the
concomitant burgeoning of mass marketing.
Access to air time rapidly became the key to a successful campaign,
dwarfing even the character and competence of the candidate himself.  It became clear that you could market a
candidate as easily as you could market a detergent and that the approach was
essentially the same: hammer the voter over and over with a simple
message.  This has resulted in two very
pernicious developments, a continuing and staggering increase in the cost of
election and a continuing and often staggering decline in the quality of
candidates.

Foolish or
stupid candidates are certainly nothing new in American politics, but marketing
now makes it far easier for these people to get elected, which can only
encourage more intellectually unfit candidates.
A candidate can mostly avoid the personal exchange and debate that would
reveal ignorance and instead bombard the voter with slogans and images.  This situation is not helped by the
precipitous decline in American education, which exacerbates the inherent flaw
in democracy: that high school dropout with his pants around his knees has a
vote equal to yours.  Democracy rises and
falls with the educational level of the electorate, and we seem now to be
considering for office some very ignorant and consequently dangerous
individuals.

Having
stupid politicians is bad enough, but having politicians, stupid or otherwise,
who are essentially controlled by the economic powers in the society must be
ultimately fatal to the democracy.  And
this is the price of marketing.  The
incredible cost of a serious campaign, especially on the national level,
absolutely demands that the candidate be funded by others, by the corporations,
banks, unions, organized lobbies and wealthy individuals that constitute the
economic muscle in and increasingly, out of the country.  And their protests notwithstanding, these
donors all expect something in return, and the potential office-holder is
already compromised.  His protests also
notwithstanding, he has been bought.  This is all nothing less than legalized
corruption.

The two
major candidates in the 2008 Presidential election together spent a billion
dollars, most of it on air time.  The
average voter simply can not compete for political leverage in such a fiscal
environment.  All he can hope to buy with
his contribution is the election of his candidate, while the big donors are
buying influence over the candidate once he is elected, which influence
typically pulls the official away from what the voters were led to expect.  The so-called “soft” money
contributed to the party rather than an individual candidate follows the same
rules, the two major parties being concerned less with ideology than electing
their candidates.  Reelection, the
apparent goal of virtually every politician, means the collection of money does
not stop on election night, and the big money sources can thus continue to
pressure the office holder, who in turn gains an advantage as the incumbent,
since unlike the challenger he can offer action instead of promises.   With no term limits the office thus tends to
become a life-time job and the incumbent part of a very slowly changing
political oligarchy.  The American Senate
has become almost a mirror of the Roman Senate, whose members served for
life.  Indeed, during the 1980s there was
greater turnover in the Soviet Politbureau than in the American Senate.

These huge
amounts of money are also one of the reasons that two parties, the Republicans
and the Democrats, have managed to monopolize the political process and become
virtually extensions of our political structure.  Party organization has always provided an
edge in political activity, and now it provides an edge in what has become
perhaps the most important aspect of that political activity, raising
money.  Further, the constant need to
raise ever larger amounts of money has rapidly lengthened campaigning almost to
the eve of the previous election, which in turn fuels the need for money.

Campaign
finance laws have been a complete failure.
Politicians are hardly likely to be enthusiastic about limiting their
own access to funds, especially if their party is better at raising money, and
in any case limiting what an individual or even a corporation can donate
immediately runs afoul of the First Amendment.  Exclusive public funding of elections will
also have constitutional problems, and in any case would never be passed by
Congress.  Perhaps the solution may be
found in the joke that politicians should dress like NASCAR drivers, covered
with patches identifying their supporters: a candidate can receive any amount
of money from any source, even foreign governments, but it must all be
publicized on websites and in major newspapers.
Failure to do this would result in the immediate ejection of the
offender from the race.  If voters
nevertheless still elect candidates bearing suspicious financial strings, then
we deserve what we get.