All right people, settle in and mount up cause it’s time to rant about politics again. Let me start off by assuring all of you that the current situation is absolutely fucking hopeless. Nothing GOOD or USEFUL is going to get done. The rich are going to get richer, the evil are going to get stronger, and the kind are going to continue to get trampled. The state of the union is one of lethargy and despair. There now, aren’t you reassured?
Oh Archbishop, why is it so hopeless? I’m glad you asked. We’ll start our little discussion by looking at the political divide that seems to define every debate. Both parties in this country have some good points but, like all limited world views, they eventually run into evil squirrel territory. At their best Republicans believe in self reliance, a free market, and personal responsibility. When those positive impulses get taken too far they can quickly become callous or hard hearted. They’re also pretty damn useless during a national tragedy or when shit needs to get built for everyone’s benefit. On the other side of the aisle the best Democrats espouse collective cooperation and championing the poorest and least powerful. However if you give them free reign they immediately start telling everyone how to live and throwing money at useless shit. When our system works the two parties constantly negotiate a middle space between the common good and individual rights. The impulse toward self reliance keeps Democrats from forcing everyone into bubble wrap (for our own safety, of course) while allowing them to protect workers rights and makes sure the infrastructure gets repaired. Since, in theory, both sides are also restrained by the constitution we’ve tended to be a pretty moderate and reasonable nation. Damn successful too. All in all a pretty good system.
At least it was. Not so much any more. Now it’s fucked beyond redemption. How did that happen? Oh, the usual ways. Inattentiveness and unintended consequences. We made small decisions and indulged in lapses of judgment that created a system where compromise is impossible and extremism is rewarded. We disenfranchised the majority in a way that perpetuates these mistakes and ignored common sense. We gave in to our basest fears and prejudices. We trusted our system even when it had clearly stopped working. And, oh yeah, we pissed all over the constitution. Perhaps you’d like more specifics? Sure, let’s do that.
All over the television the punditocracy is wringing their carefully manicured hands over both party’s inability to find compromise space without terrorist threats or immediate capitulation. The average interview with the man in the street always seems to center around the phrase “we just need both sides to work together”. Well yes, but no. Part of the problem here is that both sides have worked together a little too comfortably. Not on legislation or anything useful, but on insuring that the both of them get to keep what they’ve already stolen. The obvious example is how they both strive to keep any kind of third party from gaining viability, but I’m not even talking about that. What I’m referring to is gerrymandering.
According to the constitution we take a census every ten years and divide up congressional districts according to population. Since we’re a pretty fluid country that population is always shifting and most states have to redraw their districts every time. The naive among you might think that these districts are drawn in order to insure fair representation or perhaps by reasonable geographical lines. Ha ha ha. Actually both parties get together with the goal of creating as many ‘safe’ districts for themselves as possible. A safe district is one that’s guaranteed to vote for one party REGARDLESS OF WHO IS RUNNING. An example: There are both very liberal and super conservative pockets of voters in California. The Republicans know they can’t get a majority of districts and would rather not take their chances in a fair fight. The Democrats want as many safe districts as they can get so they give the Republicans just enough conservative districts to keep the Democrats from gaining the necessary 2/3 majority necessary to pass tax hikes in the State House. Both sides are happy. Everybody wins, except for the people of CA who get to live with government shutdowns every year.
Over time both sides have gotten pretty sophisticated at this game. Today as many as 2/3 of all districts can be considered by one of the two parties to be ‘safe’. Well, good for them. Of course there are a couple of down sides to this system. From a philosophical standpoint it’s deeply undemocratic. In a ‘safe’ district you’re not really going to get to cast a meaningful vote because only one party can win. If you’re conservative in San Francisco you’re just shit out of luck. The real problems, though, aren’t just theoretical. Gerrymandering makes it nearly impossible to unseat incumbents even if they’re totally fucking corrupt. Assuming an incumbent has power in their own party they essentially get a free pass. In a very real way this means that many voters have representatives that absolutely do NOT have to vote in their interest. I know, it sounds like I’m being hyperbolic and lord knows I have that tendency but not in this case. Nancy Pelosi can vote any damn way she wants and she’ll still get reelected. There are Republican dudes who consistently vote against things that would be a boon to their own constituents. This isn’t democracy any longer, its oligarchy.
That sounds pretty bad, huh? Well, it might not even be the worst result of gerrymandering. Remember earlier we said that this country runs best when moderates of each party put checks on the other sides weaknesses? Of course you do. You’re a careful reader. So guess what? Gerrymandering means that moderate representatives can’t get elected! It’s true. Let’s imagine a district made up of voters scattered equally throughout the political spectrum. If the Democrats nominate a flaming liberal they’ll probably lose to a moderate Republican. The same is true if the Republicans nominate a racist nazi. He’ll lose because everyone in the middle will be disgusted. Either way a reasonable, moderate person will win much of the time. What’s more they’ll have to represent the district pretty well or they’ll lose next time. Too bad there aren’t too many of those imaginary districts. Instead let’s look at a district that’s been specifically designed to give one of the parties a win. Hell, it doesn’t even matter which one. The populace is, by definition, either more conservative or liberal than the average person. Now if you want to win you just need to get past the primary. You don’t need any of the moderate votes from the other side. Over time the candidates from these districts get more and more extreme and less and less representative of the country as a whole. This played out in the last election as we saw super conservative ‘tea party’ candidates run against Republicans in ‘safe’ conservative districts. None of these batshit crazy dingdongs would have stood a chance if they had to get even one moderate liberal vote in order to win. Crazy non masturbating witch lady, anyone? She won her primary but since she had to run state wide, she got crushed. If she’d been in a safe congressional district she’d be making laws right now. That’s why we have a House of Representatives that’s filled with extreme ideologues who don’t need to actually ‘represent’ anything other than their craziest constituents.
Okay, so gerrymandering has fucked up the House beyond any hope. At least we have the Senate. That’s true, and they’ve taken institutional hopeless to a whole new level. Their arcane rules and ‘senatorial prerogatives’ are the most undemocratic process in our now fragile union. Any small group of senators can pretty much kill every good idea. Nominations sit for months. Bills are filibustered. Whacky minorities with an ax to grind can destroy the best compromises. If you want to save the senate you’re going to have to overhaul their rules. Good luck with that. But at least they tend to be more reasonable because they have to win larger elections, right? Nope. Wrong again. The senate is the least fair elected body in the free world.
So you think maybe I’m being hyperbolic again. Okay, explain to me how it’s fair that the average voter in Wyoming has 73 times more power than I do? It’s true. There are about 500,000 people in the state of Wyoming. I live in California where there are about 36,500,000 people, or 73 times more. We each get to elect 2 senators. So every time the Senate votes the people of Wyoming get 73 times the representation. Besides being ludicrously unfair it means that the more progressive, urban states are constantly having their needs undermined by a bunch of smaller states who could care less about their issues. Want to build a better mass transit system up the East coast? Good idea. 80 million people would benefit. Too bad a couple million in Utah, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska can kill it. This isn’t democracy, it’s tyranny of the rural minority. I have the greatest respect for the men who wrote our constitution but they couldn’t possibly have foreseen that the mayor of small city like San Francisco would govern more people than entire states. No one in the late 18th century could imagine that NYC would eventually have more voters than the combined population of 8 whole states.
It’s beginning to sound pretty bad, isn’t it? I’m just getting started. Let’s talk about money. Elections are expensive. Television time and big organizations cost a lot. In order to get elected you have to have access to some very deep pockets. Remember when they asked Dillinger why he robbed banks and he replied ‘cause that’s where the money is? Well, election campaigns are exactly the same. They need a lot of cash so they have to go to where the money is. Let’s just apply a little common sense. Who has the most money? That’s right, rich people and big corporations. Duh. Under our current system you have to please the rich and the corporate in order to acquire the money needed to get elected. And believe me, those two groups aren’t going to give away money without getting something in return.
At some point in every campaign cycle it comes to light that some huge corporation gave a bazillion dollars to one of the candidates. The television talking heads dispatch a reporter to ask that corporation’s spokesman if they think they’re buying anything specific and the spokesman smiles and says all they expect in return is ‘access’. The talking head accepts this answer as reasonable and moves on. Of course even the most naive watcher thinks that might not be all they’re getting but let’s take them at their word for a minute. All they want is ‘access’? Access is everything. Who gets in to see an elected official and can plead their cause is likely to win. Why is it okay that their time is clearly only open to the highest bidders? Can you go spend an entire afternoon with your Senator to let them know what you want done? I bet not. But the dude who wrote him or her a big ass check can.
It gets worse. Elected representatives frequently want to get better jobs if they get voted out or choose to leave ‘public service’. The giant corporations who fund them just happen to have they jobs they want. Here’s how it works. Joe wants to be a congressman. Megamicrointeltech gives him a bunch of money and he wins. While serving he passes laws and gets rid of regulations and in general helps Megamicrointeltech make even bigger piles of money. After a few years he retires from his seat and goes to work for… I’m sure you get the idea. And it’s not just elected officials. Cabinet members, military officers, high ranking officials of all kind and in all branches of government play this game. It’s legal and not even newsworthy any more. If you want to pull your hair out by the roots get on the internet and see how many Treasury and SEC officials have or currently work for Goldman Sachs and then give a little thought as to why they were saved while their largest competitor, Lehmann Brothers, was allowed to go under. Or why the TARP money all went to Wall St.
Up until this point in our history there have been repeated attempts to control the amount of money and patronage in elections and governing. Now the Supreme Court has decided that almost any attempt to do so is unconstitutional. The Citizen’s United case broke down the last few remaining dams and now the money is flowing like beer at a Nascar race. Big donors can pretty much give whatever they want and can do so ANONYMOUSLY. We’ve reached the point where industries can literally buy a Senator. No, really. Look at the math. It might take 8-10 million dollars to win a seat in one of the smaller states and that’s petty cash to oil or mining or financial concerns. And remember that earlier we pointed out that every Senator is equal even if way fewer people get to vote for them. The system is for sale and brother, you ain’t in the bidding.
In a free country there isn’t a whole lot you can do to keep rich people from having more power. Okay, I get that. No problem. But there should be things you can do to limit corporations or specific industries from literally taking over. But not here in the good ole US of A. The Supreme Court has decided that corporations are individuals and therefor have all the rights guaranteed by the constitution. You can’t limit their speech or legislate their political involvement. What an unbelievable crock of shit. Corporations are NOT people. Corporations have one, and only one, function; to make money. That’s reasonable. They’re businesses. They should make money. Actually, if a corporate board were specifically not making money they would be voted out and perhaps go to jail for fraud. Humans are a little more complicated than that. Sure, we make money and have professional lives. But we also love and cry. We’re capable of altruism and charity. We breed and sacrifice. We sometimes choose joy or knowledge or spirituality over commerce. And therefor we should have more rights. As long as we’re willing to treat corporations as humans under the law we’re going to end up being ruled by them. End of story.
Since large corporations have taken over control of big pieces of the government they’ve gotten to change the way many things are regulated. A prime example is the media. Once upon a time we had strict regulation of the PUBLIC airwaves. That’s right PUBLIC. We decided that if you want to broadcast you’ll need to follow certain rules. You’ll need to limit how many outlets you own. You’ll need to abide by the ‘fairness doctrine’ and let both sides of a political issue have equal time. You’ll need to be clear about what’s sponsored and who’s paying for the content. Guess what? Those regulations are all gone. Now a couple of companies own almost all the fucking radio stations in the whole damn country. A few giant corporations own almost all of the big media companies. And a free press, one of the cornerstones of democracy, is no more.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time arguing whether the remaining media is ‘free’ or not. It isn’t. It all has to make a profit and those profits go into relatively few hands. Instead I’m going to talk about some of the results of media conglomeration. First of all the media is, rightly or wrongly, no longer trusted. Ironically this means that in this age of nearly unlimited access to data, voters are dumber than ever. Many millions of people think that Iraq was responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and that Obama is a Muslim. Since the media is inherently untrustworthy it’s easy to disbelieve them on the rare occasions they decide to actually point out that these ‘facts’ are totally wrong.
Our media has been completely ghettoized according to race, politics, and religious belief. I’m sure it’s easier to make a profit if you know EXACTLY who your audience is and what they want to hear. It also means that you can tell them any damn fool thing you want. Since they don’t watch other stations or read other publications they’ll never know the difference. And what outlet is going to report on the excessive power of corporations? It’s almost impossible to be too cynical.
I’m not really telling you anything you don’t already know. Look around you. Things are bad and people are scared. The feeling that your way of life is being stolen from you is real. In that the Tea Party and the whacky pinko left are absolutely correct. The problem is both sides are being manipulated into blaming each other. It’s the liberals and gays and Mexicans that are stealing your job and healthcare and education. The Tea Party is racist and ignorant and wants to destroy the country. Nope. Those things are happening, but it ain’t the other side doing it. It’s criminology 101. When there’s a crime look to see who benefitted. In this case it’s the rich, the ruling class, and big corporations. They’ve been busy overseeing the largest transfer of wealth in history while we’ve been busy rounding up the usual suspects and demonizing the ‘other side’. (I’ve reposted Wake Up below).
There is legitimate fear and it’s being craftily manipulated. That’s what makes this whole fucking thing so damnably difficult to deal with. The qualities and mechanisms that would help improve things are the very things that fear has taken from us. Debate, dialogue, trust, free speech, civil rights, tolerance and cooperation are the way out but we’re too fucking scared to give them a chance. And believe me, the perpetrators of these crimes know it. You can’t turn on any media at all without being told to fear something. The whole TSA charade is to keep us in line and afraid. As a people we’ve allowed a false choice between civil rights and security dominate the debate and in doing so we’ve soiled the sacred document of our founding. Both political parties are responsible but I’ve written on that quite a few times before. I’ll just reiterate how sad it is that we, as a country, turned out to be too cowardly to face the inner threats to democracy.
So, is all of this fixable? Perhaps not because both extremes agree on so much stuff. Both the far left and the far right are doing pretty well. They both think that people need to be told what to do and, having agreed, just want to spend time fighting each other for that privilege. Getting either side to change that primary fact is likely impossible. I also don’t think that the indulgently wealthy corporations are willing to give up their new found power. Change would certainly take many years and require constitutional amendments that take away corporate equality and alter the way we elect our government. Without those things we’ll need a revolution and those always get bloody. But who knows, it could happen. And revolutions are exciting!
I suppose we could start by everyone refusing to vote for either party. Ever. That might shake stuff up. Most importantly we need to stop defining ourselves through our politics. If every single person who reads this stops arguing left vs right we might have a chance. It’s a false choice anyway because there is ALWAYS more that we agree on once we stop demonizing. I kind of doubt that will happen. Of course being a little more educated and lot less fearful and way more joyful would help, but that sounds like a pipe dream. Oh well, so it goes.
The wisest book in the world, The Tao Teh Ching, teaches that when the country is corrupt, patriotism is born. The more patriotic a leader or movement the more likely they are morally deficient. It’s not a coincidence that patriotism seems to be at an all time high. The same is true for spirituality. When virtue is lost religious orthodoxy springs up. Those who have a real relationship with the universe or God don’t need to demand piety from others. Again, not a surprise that so much ‘”Christian” bullshit fills the air while so little understanding and forgiveness fill our hearts. It’s more important now than ever before to remember that no matter how fucked up this society may get, you can still control yourself and your own life. You can be a model of freedom and spirituality even if you’re the only one on the block. So get to it. Vaya con Dios and Viva la Revolucion.