Since November 8, I have refused to watch any cable news. I was so shocked by the outcome of the presidential race that I just couldn’t believe anything I heard on CNN or MSNBC.
Since then, I’ve tried to find media sources I can trust and while I haven’t watched cable news, I’ve seen the endless headlines about why Trump won and why Hillary lost and what the Democratic Party should do to rebuild. As I’ve thought about this from somewhat of a distance, I’ve come to see a larger truth that I think is the main driver of what happened.
I’m an engineer and we’re taught to look for the root cause of a problem by asking the question, “Why,” over and over. Usually 5 times gets you there, so I applied that thinking to the election problem:
- Why did Hillary lose the election? Because she lost the electoral vote.
- Why did she lose the electoral vote? Because the Obama coalition didn’t turn out. As a matter fact, neither did half the voting age population.
- Why didn’t half of the population bother to turn out to vote? Because they think their vote doesn’t count, that voting doesn’t matter, and that the system is rigged and corrupt.
- Why is the system rigged and corrupt? Because our two political parties have corrupted it to gain political power.
- Why do the parties want power? To advance their own personal agenda, which differs from an agenda that would benefit the common good.
This got me to an insight that is rarely addressed; the thing that corrupts our democracy and turns people away from participating is not policy, but politics, specifically the politics of the Democratic and Republican parties.
This is not a new idea. George Washington issued a strong warning against the corruption of political parties in his farewell address. Unfortunately, no one heeded his warning as the political parties had already formed at that time and have only grown in power since.
It is a tragedy beyond words that our Senate has become so contaminated by political intent that it undermines the democratic process.
Democracy is an excellent idea, but it has to be improved and refined over time. Our Founders understood this, and allowed for amendments to the Constitution. However, our political parties spend their energies trying to bypass democracy rather than improve it and refine it.
Politics is arguably an activity that attempts to take power away from the people in order to benefit a select group, a special interest group. In this way, politics undermines democracy. Our two political parties — the ones that make it impossible for independent candidates to have a chance of running without having millions of dollars in campaign funds, the ones that make it impossible for independent candidates to even appear on the debate stage, the ones that have the cable news channels lined up behind them feeding biased news to their bases, the ones that extend the political campaign to an unbearable two-year timeframe, costing billions of dollars, most of which goes to the media — are undermining our democracy.
It’s not that we can’t find common ground on policy; it’s that we won’t find common ground because of politics.
It’s not money in politics; it is the politics.
Washington was right when he said in the farewell address, “[political parties] are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
As further support, consider the politically motivated procedures in our Senate that undermine our democracy. Our Senate is the premier legislative body in the world, operating in the most powerful country the world has ever known. Every other country looks to our Senate as the benchmark and leader in the advancement of democracy and human rights. It is a tragedy beyond words that our Senate has become so contaminated by political intent that it undermines the democratic process. Consider the following:
The average senator is nowhere near representative of the average American.
The differences are dramatic. The net worth number is incredible! It says the average senator lives completely outside the average American’s life experience.
This is not “by the people.”
Second, the fact that each state is allowed two senators undermines the “majority rule” principle of democracy. According to Hendrix Hertzberg’s 2011 article in the New Yorker: “Hamilton hated—hated—the compromise under which the Constitutional Convention was blackmailed into giving every state the same number of senators regardless of population.” The small states made a non-negotiable demand. Madison, Hamilton, and the other grownups realized that the only alternative to giving in was the failure of the Convention and a reversion to the Articles of Confederation.
If you add up all the votes over the past 6 years that put our 100 senators in office, some 126 million votes, the 51 Republican senators who hold the majority received only 50 million — or 40% — and because they are predominately from the smaller states, they represent only 30% of the population.
This is not equal representation. This is not “of the people.”
Here are other ways in which the political nonsense in the Senate undermines our democracy:
- No term limits – if it’s wise to limit the president to two terms, that same wisdom should apply to senators. Of course, that wouldn’t serve the interests of the senators, some of whom serve for 30 or 40 years.
- Committee head assignments by majority party, further increasing their political power.
- Committee heads not introducing bills, completely stopping legislation.
- The Senate majority leader not introducing bills, completely stopping legislation.
- The filibuster – another way to stop legislation.
- Pork barreling – sticking unrelated amendments on a bill to get them passed without debate.
- Campaign financing – Senators spend half their time fundraising. This is legalized bribery and should be a crime. In any other field, a person would be terminated or face jail time.
- Lobbying – there is no other activity that says, “I don’t care about the average Joe” louder than lobbying. This too should be punishable by termination or jail time.
All of the items above favor special interest groups, which is standard operating procedure for the Senate. In no way is this “for the people.”
The point of all this is that if we want to attract the non-voters, which is half the people, twice as many as either party has, we need to focus on democratic process rather than policy. The process is clearly corrupt and rigged. That’s why it’s such a struggle to get any policy issues addressed. That’s why people have such a low opinion of Congress and why so many people supported candidates that were from outside either party, Bernie and Trump. The solution is not to come up with even more polarized policy, but rather address the real heart of the problem: the corrupting effect political parties have on the democratic process. Once the process is cleaned up, it will be possible to address policy.
That’s why in 2018 and beyond I’ll be searching for independent candidates who are not poisoned by political party affiliation. They will receive my support and vote and I’ll be holding their feet to the fire to make sure they deliver on their promises — especially in regard to cleaning up the process. If we want a democracy that works and continually improves, we need an informed and engaged electorate. In other words, we need to pay attention and vote.