Venturing: Evolution

Posted Wednesday, February 1, 2012 in Politics

Venturing: Evolution

by David D. Platt

Sometime in the 17th century the British stabilized their political system so it began to look as it does today: a two-house Parliament, upper house hereditary and lower house elected, with the power to select a prime minister who could then form a government. The monarch’s power, once absolute, began to slip along with the authority of the hereditary House of Lords. After another 300 years, by the beginning of the 20th century, the House of Commons was supreme and the British had the system for choosing leaders that they do today.

On our side of the Atlantic the evolution has been similar: In 1789 the U.S. Constitution set up an elected Congress of two houses, one representing states (the Senate) and the other the population (the House.) Members of an Electoral College chosen by the states picked the president. Senators were chosen by state legislatures. Over 200-plus years the American system evolved from “representative” (where voters picked people to choose leaders for them) to something more “popular” where we pick presidents through a system of caucuses and primaries where candidates garner votes to get their parties’ nominations. In the end, if all goes the way it usually does, voters in November get to pick between two party nominees.

Beginning about 50 years ago the influence of our political parties began to erode. Mass communications meant candidates could go it alone, without parties to help them. The rise of more interesting things than political conventions to fill up TV time played a role, as did Americans’ historic reluctance to let others tell them what to do. Let’s face it: The Superbowl and lots of other things make far better TV than a political convention.

Today candidates are free to run any way they want. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the infamous 2010 Supreme Court decision, freed corporations and unions to spend anything they want in support of candidates, meaning that as long as Newt Gingrich can convince someone to fund the commercials, he can go on attacking Mitt Romney. It works both ways, of course, meaning that essentially unlimited campaign chests will allow our expensive presidential campaigns to go on and on, right up to the deadline for getting on the ballot. If you’re naïve enough to think this is democracy, you’re probably happy with this state of affairs. If you worry that the money being forked into all the various campaigns isn’t exactly representing your idea of where the country ought to be headed, you’re doubtless quite unhappy.

I’m in the latter group; have been for a long time. When the candidate with the loudest sound system, the biggest staff and the most paid organizers, all armed with some appealing message – jobs! Individual freedom! Get the government off my back! Bring back the good old days! Low taxes! Strong military! – can buy himself all the attention (and likely the votes), we’re in big trouble.

We’re in trouble because we’ve created a system that rewards big noise and over-simplified ideas. The “suicide march” or “circular firing squad” that we’re watching in this season’s Republican campaign, with candidates flush with Citizens United cash, is what we can expect for the foreseeable future. And once the Democrats no longer hold the White House and their nomination’s up for grabs, there’s no reason they won’t behave the same way.

I began with the British because up to a point, at least, their goals were the same as ours. Experience with absolute monarchy taught them of its dangers; by 1600 they desperately needed to develop democratic institutions. The road would be bumpy: In the 1640s Parliament staged a coup and executed the king; Oliver Cromwell and his army ran England for nearly 20 years. When the monarchy was restored, Parliament’s hand was strengthened. By the end of the century only Parliament could legitimize a king, and it’s been that way ever since. There has been plenty of corruption, election fraud, and parliamentary influence-peddling over the years, but the British have stuck with their two-tiered election system: Vote for a member of the House of Commons, and he/she will pick the leader.

We’ve continued to evolve on our side of the Atlantic too, of course. No longer do legislatures pick senators; no longer do parties present a unified face or nominate candidates at a convention; no longer (for this round at least) do we limit political campaign contributions. We skipped the monarch so that’s not our problem; we’ve still got the Electoral College for what that’s worth; we still think we’re nominating Republicans and Democrats. But we’ve moved into perpetual campaign mode and it’s essentially every man for himself out there. Representative democracy? Not exactly. Not a great way to govern, either. I wonder what the British think.

David D. Platt was editor of the old Maine Times.

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