05 October, 2012

The Democratic/Republican System

The leaves have started changing colors and falling to the ground, there is a crisp edginess to the air, and I had to scrape frost off of my windshield this morning. In other words, October is here, and so is the second part of my series on democracy/repblicanism today. As expected, politics have moved even more into the forefront of daily conversation since the presidential two party question and answer session/press conference debate a few days ago, and the casual citizen can hardly go through his or her day without being bombarded by the typical quasi-intellectual politically analytical fare.
The media at large that this typical citizen is likely to consume focuses its concern on what could be considered superficial issues- I recall specifically that on the morning after the aforementioned debates I saw articles on such pressing matters as which candidate's smile was better, which candidate's demeanor was more relaxing, and something about how Big Bird(!) has become a hot-button topic. This sort of coverage gives the appearance of being relevant and important, but it lacks any real substance. Unasked are the questions that I hope to explore briefly in this post- questions about the system itself, the issues themselves, and whether or not this republican system in which we live is really as great as everybody seems to claim that it is.

Our System, Defined
Before I go into my objections with the system in any detail, I think that it is necessary to describe just what sort of political system we have here in The United States. I know that this might seem a bit redundant (and perhaps ham-handed), but if you walk down the street and ask people what sort of government we have, they'll almost invariably say that we live in a democracy, which is both a) technically wrong, and b) insidious, since most of these people have been reminded several times that we have a republic, not a democracy, and they either don't care enough to remember or are positively deluded that the former were actually the case.
So, to rehash what I'm sure most of you knew already: the United States is a republic. Barring the occasional referendum or ballot initiative, Joe Civics Class has essentially 0 impact on the creation or approval of legislation. Laws in this country are written by special interest groups and/or lobbyists, then voted on by elected representatives who are influenced by (in descending order) campaign contributions, the special interests and lobbyists who wrote the bill, future career considerations and personal profit, election returns, and the merit of the bill itself. The voting records of some politicians seems to indicate that "just for the sheer hell of it" seems to be a consideration as well, but I won't let my cynicism extend to that level.
Even the referendum or the ballot initiative, which on their face seem to be stringently democratic in nature, are not. These pieces of legislation are created by professional rabble-rousers of various sorts, and then handed off to the public (many of whom couldn't be bothered to real the full text of the bills, even if they could understand it to begin with) for a usually sycophantic approval. A ballot initiative or a referendum's outcome is not likely to be significantly different than an identically worded piece of legislation; the split on party lines is as distinct and as identifiable.
The above paragraphs are not intended to be indictments of this particular system. They are merely descriptions of the way things are done in our nation-state. The indictment comes below.

Saying Our System Is Flawed Is Like Saying Paris Hilton Has Slept With A Few Men
The problems with our system are myriad, and mostly obvious. All of us have grievances with it. When our pet policies are defeated, we bemoan how our will is not felt in the legislature. When our policies are passed, we complain that the legislative process is too slow and plodding. When the policies we hate are passed, however, we object on the grounds that other people's voices are heard too much, and that the legislative process is too rapid and lacks real consideration.
And so on, and so forth.
The flaws I'd like to draw attention to are ones that are probably less obvious (and are certainly less talked about)... problems not with implementation, but problems in conception and problems in design.
Probably the largest problem with our government today is that it culls to the public will far too easily. 
Yes, I said it. Our government listens to what people (say that they) want far too much, and acts based on public desire far too often. An astute reader might here register the rejoinder that politicians are, in fact, more influenced by special interests, lobbies, and money (tailor to your own level of cynicism) than they are the public, and that is true. But those influences are denounced commonly and are almost universally regarded as negative in practical impact, whether or not they are regarded as negative in theory, so I'm passing them by and focusing on (as I said above) the less-well-known problems.
There are several problems with a government 'by the people,' so to speak, and these problems mainly come as a direct extension of the nature of the 'democratic voter,' as described in my previous post. The democratic voter, and by extension the public at large, is mostly uninformed. The public is largely uninformed, influenced more by emotions than rational thought, et al. Not to beat a dead horse, but think of your average voter. Think about how ill-informed, biased, emotional, and irrational they are. Now realize that, because of the law of averages, half of all voters are worse than that! This perforce means that any government which automatically and totally reflects the will of its constituents is to that extent ill-informed, biased, emotional, irrational, et al. If your goal for government is to be a stabilizing and enabling force (in the vein of Hobbes' state that protects us or Locke's state that grants us the framework to exercise our freedoms in), then clearly these tendencies run counter to it.
But lets give the public the benefit of the doubt and assume that they can, collectively, be right from time to time. Even in this case, slavish adherence to the popular will is not advisable, since the public's will seems to twist and shift in the wind more than a tumbleweed in a tornado. The public opinion seems to be all too readily controlled by advertising and rhetoric to be judged as a guidepost to truth and reality. Any government which reflected popular will would be one that is internally inconsistent and changes radically on a seemingly endless basis. Clearly, this sort of government would be one that is chaotic and destructive, but this is the ideal to which our present system aspires!
Daily, it seems, we hear calls for greater public control of the state, as if the people of this nation are a vast yet relatively untapped spring of knowledge and insight, and if we were only to identify and follow the guidance of this supposed collective wisdom, the capsizing ship of state would be instantly righted and would sail true forevermore. What stumps economists is easily remedied by an Idaho potato farmer. What is still undecided by sociologists is resolved with the opinions of a rural yokel in the Midwest. What keeps statesmen and ambassadors up at night with concern is put to rest by a garbageman in New York City. What gives pause to a general is seen through clearly by a high school student from Pensacola, FL who plays Call of Duty every night.
And so it goes.
What utter nonsense. Our system's chief flaw is that it was designed initially to give limited voice to the people (which is probably inadvisable, but is at least excusable on the philosophical grounds of the day) and has been retrofitted haphazardly since to take more and more authority and power from statesmen, experts, and meritocratically advanced people and to transfer this power to those most ill-equipped to exercise it thoughtfully and appropriately.
This flaw is compounded by weak-willed politicians who would rather do what is popular than what is right. Government in an ideal world would be one composed of principled and gentleman/gentlewomanly individuals. In our system, it is composed of demagogues and charlatans who will abandon any principle however sound or adopt any principle however unsound to gain votes. Their chief concern is not the welfare of the state that is their charge, but is instead the preservation of their office (and their occupation thereof). No person may be elected to popular office in this system without compromising his or her beliefs and pride, and no person upon attaining that office may retain any shred of dignity. Our system positively degrades the unfortunate few given public office to the status of boot-licking sycophants with no will of their own. To wit, no person capable of winning an election to hold a public office is fit to hold that very office!
It has been the experience of any honest person (and the experience of all dishonest people, though they will deny it) that all politicians lie. That much has become a cliche in our society. But nobody seems to care. Sure, they care when they are opposing a particular politician, but they never extrapolate their accusation of bold-faced lying to the rest of the political world. The tragedy of our political system is not that, in the course of an election, both sides seek to prove to its constituents that the opposition is fraudulent, unfit to govern, and immoral, but that they are both correct in so doing.

Democracy Is To Government As Masturbation Is To Sex
Despite all of this, our system is hotly defended by men and women across the entire political spectrum, across the entire socioeconomic range, and across all levels of education. My supposition is that this is largely because our system has morphed over time into one which feels good, even though it is vaguely pathetic and accomplishes little of what is reasonably expected of an effective government.
It has changed in this way because it must (increasingly) reflect the public will, and the public will is (increasingly) that they wish to feel good: they wish to be secure against any threat real or imagined, that they wish to be coddled from cradle to grave with entitlements of myriad scope, that they wish to live their lives in utter opulence disconnected from the real and mundane day-to-day process of living. The government in our system is only too happy to oblige, given that by so doing it both a) panders to the public will, ensuring it continued electoral success, and b) gives it more power, which all governments naturally seek by definition.
Because of its genuflection to populism, our government has become little more than an entangling web of programs, laws, regulations, and procedures designed to insulate people from any sense of responsibility to the maximum extent possible and an apparatus designed to seek out and respond to the every whim of any electorally significant margin of the public at large. And because the government created by our system must spend so much time on these two functions, it becomes unpracticed and inept at things that it ought to be doing. All of this is true because it reflects to a large (though not total) extent the will of the people, and the people are essentially idiotic.

There are, however, a few things that can be said in commendation of our system. For all its shortcomings, it has not totally imploded, and there are a number of reasons that this is not so.
First, in spite of itself, it does provide a basic national security and manages to scrape by from day to day and year to year. Though this is far more a testament to the stubbornness and resiliency of the people (and their will to survive and prosper under any circumstance) than it is to the credit of the government under which they labor, it is still a good sign that our system is not totally bad, or totally irredeemable.
Further, it seems to (generally) make people happy, which is and end that most people see as desirable. If you are of the opinion that the proper function of government is to satiate its constituents, then ours mostly succeeds.
Most of all, though, our system of government provides a wonderfully entertaining and dramatic spectacle every few years that is somewhere between performance art, schadenfreude, old Tex Avery cartoons and slapstick humor, and daytime drama. The rites and rituals of our system, which have already begun this fall and will continue for another month and a half or so, accompanied by their associated incantations, chants, and somber liturgy, are enrapturing and fascinating (though the latter might for the same reason we often can't look away from a terrible car wreck about to happen).
More on that next time.