The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Tuesday, January 1, 2013
Politics ...

There’s a lot of disgust with our government leaders and our political system here in the USA these days. All the wrangling over the fiscal cliff and the borrowing cap is making a lot of people wonder if our country is becoming dysfunctional. Our leaders can’t seem to face up to big issues and make decisions on solutions; they have become experts in short-term stopgaps, “kicking the can down the road”.

We have all sorts of collective problems coming over the hill: immigration, global warming, economic competitiveness, education, the broadening gap between poor and rich (and the shrinking middle class), health care . . . With regard to the latter, it’s a miracle that the President was able to start a major federal initiative to make health care more broadly available and help control skyrocketing costs. But the political hurdles were so great that an extremely disjointed and bureaucratic system was cobbled together and brought into law by divisive “one time only” parliamentary tactics. As such, many doubts remain as to the long-term effectiveness and viability of Obamacare.

Increasingly, America seems like a deer frozen in the road at night as a tractor trailer approaches at 70 mph. Our decision-making system just isn’t making decisions. What has gone wrong with our process for selecting and guiding our political leaders — a system crafted by a brilliant federal Constitution and guided by over 200 years of history?

I sometimes wonder if things would be better if our nation would just select a definitive political vision and stick with it, and thus stop all the fighting. The Democrats want something more like Europe (and are roundly criticized by conservatives for this, given how Greece and Spain and probably several other EC nations are on the brink of bankruptcy). It’s kind of hard to point to a place that espouses the GOP’s vision, but perhaps the Mormon community of Salt Lake City and greater Utah might do. Both visions have a lot of problems, but battling between them seems like the worst of both worlds.

I have no personal knowledge of Utah and its Mormon politics, but I read that the population has a successful half and a not-so-successful half (basically, those Mitt Romney spoke about in his “47 percent” speech in Boca Raton back in September). There isn’t much government in Utah and what government there is doesn’t do much for the not-so-successful half. But the LDS church has a substantial social service network focused around some food warehouses where families and down-and-out individuals can shop cheaply or for free, depending on their circumstances. There are also various counseling and crisis intervention agencies. Maybe that set-up wouldn’t be so bad. To be honest, government programs meant to protect people do sometimes inspire laziness and dependent attitudes. With everyone on their toes, and enough food banks and charity health clinics, maybe life would go on despite the huge divides between rich and poor in a Republican world. But I’m in no hurry to find out how.

Actually, our political system was always based on fighting and struggle, right from the Revolutionary War. Our politics, our economics, and our legal system were inherited from England, and are all based on the notion of combat; of having two or more parties or groups going at each other for some big prize, with the notion that the best causes and most truthful ideas will carry the day and lead the people on to a better society. In a way, this is an improvement over elitism and dictatorship, the idea that all power should rest in one person or a counsel who oversee a mechanism to enforce their will. The German Nazi experiment and the Russian decades of Communist rule alone are enough to not want to go that route, however tempting it is to stop all the politics with a ‘big daddy’ who can get things done.

Another alternative — pure democracy — has seldom been tried, but generally seems too unwieldy. You can’t have votes on every government decision, e.g. what brand garbage truck to buy. So we have competing political parties to propose candidates whom we elect to carry out the people’s will for some set length of time. We give the winners of these struggles the keys to the system; during their terms, they wield a lot of power. We also regionalize these leaders in respect for state’s rights, such that important national decisions require a majority of regional assent. Thus, we have political parties and regional conflicts built into our governing system. (These regional conflicts of course were a key factor in the slavery crisis and Civil War of the mid-19th Century).

And yet, somehow it has all held together since the late 18th Century. But today, something is quite different, something the Founding Fathers didn’t anticipate. That is the rise of information technology. Politics were always brutal and regional conflicts always existed. But today, modern info tech makes the struggle all the more bloody. There is much more collateral damage than in olden times. Even through the 1950s, communication slow-downs allowed more room for quiet compromise, for back-room conversations between GOP and Democrats, between northerners, southerners, easterners and westerners.

Today, by contrast, ideology can infect politics much more easily because of the internet and 24 hour TV news coverage. The true believers, those who will not let the good get in the way of the perfect, find it cheap and easy to gain followings and censure any politician who will not give them full satisfaction. There are too many Grover Norquists, along with Democratic pressure groups such as labor unions and minority rights groups. Somehow our nation weathered the great crisis of slavery and a war that almost split it in two. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if abolitionists and plantation interests could have battled it out on the airwaves and web sites and using lobbying firms. Perhaps a great military war could have been avoided; but at the same time, perhaps the eventual reconciliation of a torn-apart nation might also have not been possible.

Perhaps our Constitution and our political traditions will hold together just fine, despite all the rattling and sickening ups and downs that we get from the President and Congress and the Supreme Court and the executive branches and military . . . but the world is changing faster and faster, and one can only hope that our faith in representative democracy can keep up with it all. Because we have no idea at all of what would work better, only a lot of nightmares about what would be worse.

P.S., there’s a recent article on the Foreign Affairs web site by Fareed Zakaria called “Can America Be Fixed?” Mr. Zakaria has also noticed that things don’t seem to be going so well these days with the great nation-state called “The United States”. But then again, the USA and its dynamic democratic process has always seems like a train about to tip over on a curve. For example, Mr. Zakaria cites a scholarly 1975 report from the Trilateral Commission saying that “the democratic governments of the industrial world have simply lost their ability to function, overwhelmed by the problems they confront.” Is anything different this time?

Mr. Zakaria is worried that this time the seams might not hold. The overall crisis is similar to what Japan faced a few decades ago, when its economy was booming but its aging population started to enervate its vitality while at the same time confounding its political decision-making process. Today, Japan is still in a tailspin, its GDP growth rate remaining below 1% while its relative per-capita income ranking in the world continues to fall. The entitlement demands of an aging Baby Boom population have put America today at the same crossroad; and unlike the past, where concerns about decline inspired new resolve and political will, the USA now seems infected by the same leadership division and paralysis that Japan has suffered for the past 25 years. Even though there are potential solutions, our leaders seem blind to them. Not a good sign, according to Fareed Zakaria.

P.P.S., some political trivia to lighten it up. First off, I found out today that there actually is a town with our President’s family name. Interestingly (or perhaps ominously), it is in Japan! The word Obama means “small beach” in Japanese, and the town by that name is home to a Zen temple.

Next, is there a future Obama (the American politician, not the Japanese small town) on the horizon? Perhaps there is, and he may be coming from my own corner of the nation. Newark NJ mayor Cory Booker is becoming something of a national celebrity among Democratic circles. I recently saw him on Meet the Press (he has appeared multiple times in 2012), and the first thought that struck me was “national ambitions”. Booker has announced his interest in running for Senate in 2014 to replace 88-year old NJ Senator Frank Lautenberg. To be honest, I believe that Mayor Booker is as interested in a career in the US Senate as Barack Obama was. Cory might not be so bold as to grab for the brass ring in the 2016 Democratic primaries, but he would be a natural for the VP slot.

Mayor Booker had been urged by some local Democrats to challenge the popular Republican governor of NJ, Chris Christie, in his re-election bid later this year. Booker had the good sense to refrain from that; but given Christie’s ambitions to seek the GOP Presidential nomination in 2016 (and his current popularity on the national GOP scene), it is not impossible that Christie and Booker will battle it out after all on opposite sides of their parties’ Presidential tickets.

Oh, and as to Booker’s replacement in Newark? If you are interested — my sources say it’s Councilman Anibal Ramos, despite credible challenges from fellow Council members Ron Rice and Ras Baraka. The demographic and political strengths in Newark are swinging from the African American communities to the Hispanic population. Ramos seems popular, intelligent and has a head start organizing for the June, 2014 election. Anything could happen between now and then, but . . . Ramos is the name that my sources are dropping these days.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:18 pm      

  1. Jim, To put what I think your point here is in my own terms, I too am disgusted with Congress — or maybe I should be more precise and say with the House of Reps. Or to be even more precise to say with some of the Republicans, especially those associated with and going along with the Tea Party – and there seem to be too many of them in districts around me in the area in which I live, that I must admit.

    I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said something like: Term limits should be required; throw them all out. And I couldn’t help but think – ah! There’s an idea, and perhaps a very good one. Setting term limits for all political offices would keep people from gathering too much power over years in office. Yet, considering the Tea Party people, many of them are newcomers who tend to think they know it all; or so it seems to me.

    As to our political system being “inherited from England”, which I too have always believed, I heard (on a late night talk show of all places where the First Minister of Scotland, think that’s what he was called), said that actually, America got most of its ideas regarding the Declaration of Independence from Scotland, believe it or not. Interesting. I tho’t why would the man lie?

    I do think that what would help the House is a lot more women who hold an office there. I have read an article about and seen on TV just this week that the Senate now has 20 women – both Republican and Democratic. They seem to be able to get along better than the men who seem to want to “exercise their power” and show off their power. Women take a less confrontational approach to things and a more cooperative approach, which is what is badly needed in the House and in the situation we have been and still must face to solve the problems we still have.

    Then too, once again I will say it but in a different way. I recently read, not from a political source but from a comedy source (and often such individuals have some very astute points to make) – the point was this: Isn’t it racist when we have a Black president and some individuals who are saying, “We must take America back”? Which brings me back to the point I’ve made quite a few times here: That I find myself wondering just how much of the dysfunction (as you rightly call it) in what seems to me the House of Reps (rather than the entire Congress) unconsciously (or perhaps more consciously than anyone is willing to admit) acting from fear that no longer will the right white man be in charge. Gasp! It may be that much of the “dysfunction” is based on pure and simple racism, namely, “that Black guy isn’t going to tell me what to do” kind of approach.

    There’s another thing I have noticed when it comes to politics, and this is more among “regular” people but seems to me the same thing must be rampant in the House particularly. (And here I am willing to say that it may be only the particular subset of individuals I know and deal with.) But I have noticed that it’s almost impossible to have a “simple” discussion with some individuals when it comes to anything political and/or economic. If they get a hint that I may even want to approach a political or economic topic on which they already have an opinion from some tangential and/or different point of view than they hold, they immediately become angry (and I don’t mean “upset”, I mean angry) to the point where all discussion must be stopped before there is a real “fight”, hard feelings ensue, and discussion (much less debate) is futile. It seems to me that if one puts liberals holding such emotional views with conservatives holding such emotional views, the result is what you have rightly called “dysfunctional”. It seems people of both sides have the view that holds, “I’m right and any perceived disagreement with me means you are wrong.”

    As to Mayor Booker: I really am unacquainted with him and what his ideas are, so am unable to comment. But as to Chris Christie (who can miss him), I must say he is an unusual man – one who, though Republican, is able to see the good in Democrats. Now he’s a Republican I could vote for (at least from what I know of him at this point). I found myself on a kind of “roaming thinking binge” the other day. I tho’t: It would be a difficult choice in the next election should Christie be the GOP candidate and Hillary be the Democratic choice! Now wouldn’t *that* be interesting!

    And lastly, I think what Congress (I say Congress here because at this point I’m not sure exactly who is responsible here) has *not* done for the people who suffered Hurricane Sandy’s ravages is unconscionable, irresponsible, and unbelievable.

    What could possibly be the matter with whoever is responsible for not acting on getting government help to those people who need it – and it’s been months now! Has power gone to their heads? Are they fearful of changes that are inevitable in our society? Is it a combination of these two things and perhaps even others unsaid, unthought of yet?

    Yes, you hit the nail on the head: Some individuals in our Congress are causing the whole to be dysfunctional. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 4, 2013 @ 10:59 am

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