For a moment this morning, I stepped back from thinking about the individual candidates and let a surge of hope for the country as a whole wash over me. Like most Americans, I've felt that the country has gone off the rails in recent years -- in preemptive aggression, massive tax cuts and deficits, a tenfold increase in lobbying, and, most importantly, in the Bush Administration's shredding of the Bill of Rights and assault on the separation of powers. I thought, 'the great virtue of a democracy is that it can self-correct -- as long as it's still a democracy. But are we?'
Doors were slamming on multiple avenues of choice and change. Start with the K Street Project, an enterprise corrupt to its core and breathtaking in its arrogance. Think about the premise - to coerce lobbying firms into hiring agents of one party only and to contribute to one party only. That's not only pay-to-play, pure and simple, but a move toward a one-party state. Couple that with ever more radical gerrymandering techniques, a national Rove-led attempt to disenfranchise as many poor voters as possible in the name of stopping imaginary 'election fraud', the selective prosecution of Democratic elected officials, the stacking of the judiciary with right wing ideologues who would support the power of the state at every turn. Then pile on the Bush Administration's assertions of unchecked executive power - in signing statements that negate key parts of laws passed by Congress, in twisted legal documents that assert the President's right to abrogate any law in the name of national security, and in the assumed power to deem anyone the executive branch chooses an "illegal combatant" who can be detained indefinitely and tortured at will.
You had to wonder: could restrictions on media freedom and assertions that Administration critics were security risks and ultimately "illegal combatants" be far behind? (Bill Kristol, who called for the NYT to be prosecuted for breaking the warrantless wiretapping story, was fired up, ready to go.) The path to step-by-step demolition of democracy was nicely marked out by Vladimir Putin, embraced as a soulmate by Bush.
Those dangers are still real. Elect a Giuliani or a Romney, and who knows what new executive powers they would seize in the wake of a major terrorist attack? But in the interim, democracy has struck back. A self-correction is in mid-course. Political choice remained real enough, and the media free and robust enough, to make it clear to two-thirds of the country that we were led to war on false premises; that the war was disastrous to our national interests; that the nation was being bankrupted to fund tax cuts for the wealthy; and that the environment was being terminally neglected. And so, in 2006, despite all the gerrymandering, the imbalance (over many years prior at least) in campaign funds, the 95% incumbency return rates, we had enough of a turnover to change the balance of power. On a state level, changeovers in legislatures and governorships reduced the overall power of Republican assaults on voter eligibility and equal access to polls.
Now, say what you like about this primary season, the choices are real and manifold; the debates have their moments of lucidity amid all the idiocy; money has been proved already not be decisive, and there is no way anyone claim that the results are not in the hands of voters. In the general election, there's still a danger that the electoral college or faulty voting equipment will skew the results. But those dangers (substituting old-style ballot box fraud for dicey electronic equipment) are as old as the Republic.
The electorate is smarter than all of us. That dawned on me about a dozen years ago, while I was reading a biography of Eisenhower; it occurred to me that I probably would have voted for Stevenson as my parents did, and I would have been wrong. Later I came to feel the same way about Reagan - who did not 'cause' the Soviet Union's breakup but certainly midwifed it, smoothed the glide path, gave Gorbachev the running room to do the job. So the electorate is at least smarter than I am, and I'm no dumber than the average voter.
That's not to say that the electorate doesn't make mistakes (sometimes pushed over the edge by our creaky Constitutional machinery) , just that it always eventually corrects them -- as long as the arteries of choice remain unclogged enough for information to flow.
Plaque builds slowly; our hearts can function with up to 95% blockage (as Bill Clinton's did just prior to his quintuple bypass). Democracy is resilient (if ultimately killable) like that. Sweeping statements that we're not a democracy because of lobbying, or incumbency, or widening income gaps are false as long as there's enough 'democratic function' to change course. I can see a descent past that line. But we're not there yet.
Short of a terror-induced executive power grab, the greatest threat to democratic functioning is the proliferation of lobbying. The most important chord in Obama's aria melody might be his promise to change the rules of the game so that lobbying is held in check. Edwards of course also promises to "take on" "lobbyists", but the weakness there is personalizing the battle, as if the problem will go away if an evil coterie of individuals is smitten. On this question Robert Reich's Supercapitalism is helpful. According to Reich, the escalation in lobbying is a function of supercapitalism, i.e. the hypercompetition in which each company and industry strives for competitive advantage on the legislative front (as in every other arena). Companies lobby not because they're conspiring to squeeze out the public interest, but to fend off rivals' attempts to gain advantageous legislation. The result is near-complete corruption of the legislative process as companies compete to buy legislation. The good news is that corporations are not reveling in this relentless arms race. Changing the rules of the game may be in everyone's interest.
Obama and McCain may both have the will and the skills to do this. Both have had more than one success on this front. Another day, another post for that one.
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