Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Education of an American Voter

I was going to make a set of broad observations about all of American politics, but I began to realize that I was talking more about me than about the country as a whole. Still, I think my comments have some relevance to others. Just bear with me.

A little foreword, though. I was not part of the 1960s. Many who were part of the 1960s took part in cultural wars, not political wars. The countercultural movements of the 1960s are often portrayed in nonpolitical terms. This is part of effort to render this period politically inoffensive to those promoting music from that era, I think. I mention this because I think you have to realize that I became politically aware at the end of the 1970s for these comments to make sense. I think for Americans under 40, my comments have some resonance.

Politics in America has always seemed to me, and I think to many Americans under 40, to be pretty basic, and pretty square. Elections were one-person, one-vote, for all persons over the age of 18. Elections happened regularly, were clean, and without incident. Government functioned according to broadly accepted principles. Governors and presidents were presumed to make policy. Change was slow to happen. Unwritten rules governed many aspects of political life. For the most part, politics was for political junkies and people who wanted to feel mildly patriotic and proud of their civic involvement, the kind who like voting but think politics is too controversial. Remember the cartoon on "how a bill becomes a law"? Something amazing has happened when people can seriously consider describing the successful working of parliamentary machinery as a nonpartisan, content-free triumph for the bill.

An analogy can be made to international politics in the Cold War. While tumultuous and punctuated by crises, the truth is that international politics moved at a glacial pace from the 1950s-1980s. There were no wars between big powers, nothing really changed hands, nothing really changed, at all. Then came 1989. Suddenly, things that seemed impossible began to happen more quickly than anybody could imagine. The Berlin Wall was taken down. In a week, the people of Czechoslovaka brought down a tyrannical government that had held sway for two generations. I like to say that "I believe in miracles - I saw them on the streets of Prague." It was as if international politics woke up. In 1908, Andre Tardieu said of the United States and its isolationist tendencies, "It is seated at the table where the great game is played, and it cannot leave it." Yet, for most of the latter half of the 20th century, the great game was like watching pong on autopilot. Then, in the 1990s, the players began to assemble again. But even in the 1990s, we paid little attention. International relations was the province of history buffs. Then came 9/11. That day was nothing so much as a warning that the Great Game was on again. Among young people, especially, interest in international affairs soared. Suddenly it became clear that things could change.

Well, US politics, it turns out, had never really been the gooey Parade of Progress to consensus, and Democracy that they taught us in schools. Real rowdy rough-and-tumble politics was not just a thing of the past. Politics was just hibernating.

In the 1990s, we began to learn that constitutional details mattered. Impeachment could happen. In 2000, we learned for the first time in more than a century that the electoral college was still here, and could matter. For some of us, it was the equivalent of an Englishman blinking and realizing that the House of Lords could still block legislation. After 9/11, we learned that liberty was not a safe cornerstone of American life, but a contested political value. Some would trade it all, even the liberty to be free of torture, to assuage the fear of terrorism. Seemingly basic things such as the separation of powers were actually contestable and political. In the Senate, Republicans tried to abolish the filibuster in 2005; in 2007, they raised it to new heights never before seen. Old ways, old agreements, all the unwritten rules lay in tatters. America is not a simple democracy or a parliamentary democracy. We are a federal republic with very, very complicated rules. And even the idea of western liberal democracy itself it contestable. The Republican party today more or less stands against liberalism in favor of authoritarian state control. Which of the Bill of Rights (other than #2 and #10) would they not abolish if they could? Constitutions can be amended.

Now, to bring my tale forward, the deconstruction of American politics has entered another phase: the party conventions. Nobody thought delegates mattered until this year. Now we are hearing about details of the delegate selection process, which was normally thought to be arcana. It matters that the Republicans in California assign delegates to each congressional district on a winner-take-all basis, and actually weight the districts equally, so that 20,000 Republican voters in San Francisco (80%+ Democratic congressional district) will get as many national delegates as the 80%+plus Republican congressional district with ten times as many Republicans. It matters that Democrats assign most delegates on a proportional basis, even within congressional districts, but have some 20% of all delegates unelected "superdelegates." Suddenly, we are realizing that these arcane rules are not like the rules for calculating the date of Easter. They are politically motivated, and have political consequences. They are to be politically contested. It all really matters.

If so much is the subject of political contest, then political contests - however vapid they may appear -are actually deciding these incredibly important things. Will my daughter grow up in a country like the one I did, or will she ask me someday, in hushed tones, what freedom was like? Or will she ask, in angry tones, what I did to keep it for her?

These are my thoughts as I go to the polling booth tomorrow to mark my inkavote. I was always a student of government and a political junkie. It has taken years to become more aware of what politics really means. It is not just "the struggle over scarce resources." That's economics. Politics is the struggle to define the future of the human community.

So thanks, USWest, for making this all possible. Because I forgot to mention that what you do in running the polls, and in trusting that your efforts matter, makes it so that we don't have to have our political fights on the streets.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

A nice piece, LTG. A question for you. You say that the selection of the delegates is important whereas it previously seemed -- my paraphrase -- unimportant. Is this a desire for change given the inequalities, or simply an acknowledgment of the importance of the process?

We are getting coverage here every day of the primary race, and it seems from afar that Tuesday's vote is the most important contest for decades.

As an aside, as you know, Australia has had a new government since November. Even though parliament hasn't yet met, Kyoto was ratified, unpopular workplace relations policy is to be repealed, the "Pacific Solution" -- our version of Gitmo -- closed, and the Stolen Generation will receive an apology. This may be little relevance to you, but the main point is that here there is a palpable feeling of positive change. I can only hope you get the same soon.

Best wishes,

Spotted Handfish

The Law Talking Guy said...

I'm certainly in favor of substantial change. I am voting for Obama, after all. I've said many times on this blog that a vote for HRC is just a vote to continue stalemate and political division. But the point I wanted to make is that voting in the election is just a small part of a much bigger process.

This is a stark contrast also between American and parliamentary political systems. Parliamentary rules are much, much simpler. In most parliamentary systems, you just vote (on irregular occasions) for a party you like at a national level (sometimes at a sub-national level too), and that's the end of the matter. The government that results from the subsequent coalitionmaking has almost no checks on its ability to make changes.

In the USA, however, political coalitions are formed before elections through this extended process (rather than having parliamentary negotiations between ideological parties after the elections). That process, largely opaque to the public, involves chances for citizen participation down to the precinct level.
That's what we're doing now. The process is a complicated one where procedural rules can be outcome-determinative.

It's just not true that everyone votes for their preference and the majority gets its way.

Dead Parrot said...

LTG, to round out your articulate and very enjoyable treatise, you might think of your observations about the last few years on the political scene in the context of Watergate and Nixon's resignation and the 2000 Supreme Court decision on the election. While it may have appeared that politics were hibernating, there has been a struggle below the surface to alter the checks and balances between Congress and the president and the Supreme Court over the past 35 years. I think this has shaken the stable foundation that might have been apparent. The foundation has been challenged further as states and Washington attempt to redefine their relationship.

Politics to me has always been about the battle for power and influence. But the details of the political processes really matter. They are not just for show so people are really paying attention.