Monday, August 14, 2006

Incumbents Don't Need No Stinkin' Democracy

We love big choices here in New Orleans. Fast on the heels of the mayoral election, we have a nice, round baker's dozen of candidates for Dollar Bill Jefferson's seat. Twelve people have officially declared against him, which is good news. The investigation/indictment/appeal process could easily stumble forward through election day, and Dollar Bill's determined to run again; so much so, I think he'd do it even if he did get indicted. At any rate, he's on the ballot now, and I don't think he can pull himself off at this point (see the whole DeLay thing for an example of those complications).

Anyway, I was beginning to worry that I was going to have to run myself if we were going to have any choice beyond the Republican who declared against him early, but happily a whole slew of Democrats, independents, Libertarians, and who knows what all else have jumped in the fray. Since we do run-offs instead of primaries, clearly we will be getting our choice of the top two after election day in November. Given the number of candidates, and the near impossibility of unseating incumbents, I would not be surprised if Jefferson is one of those two even if he is indicted in between now and then. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if he won.

On the flip side of the coin, up in Connecticut, Joe Lieberman lost his primary run and declared himself an independent candidate for his Senate seat (and is ahead in current polls, by the way). Oddly enough, two other incumbents lost their primaries, too, (in the House - one R, one D) a pretty unprecedented development, indicating a fairly serious anti-incumbent feeling among voters. Which, by the way, is I think about the only meaning to be derived from the Lieberman loss. Everyone seems to want to spin it one way or another, especially the right-wing and their media mouthpieces with lots of talk of the Democratic party being hijacked by the extreme anti-war left-wing. Considering that the majority of the country and the vast majority of the Democratic party now favor some sort of planned withdrawal from Iraq, anti-war sentiment is either the very definition of "mainstream" or the administration, with its bungling, incompetence, and refusal to learn from its mistakes, has turned most Americans into pot-smoking, patchouli-scented, hippie pinko peaceniks. Either way, Joe's loss looks like good ol' fashioned democracy in action, also known as "majority rules."

But what do these two things, Dollar Bill's determination to run and Joe's independent candidacy, have in common? Politicians nakedly trying to cling to their power for no other reason than their own greed. Clearly Dollar Bill is no use to New Orleans, Louisiana, and the country while fighting the inevitable indictment, and just as clearly Connecticut Democrats have said they don't want Joe. Despite their similar protestations of running to serve the people they claim to represent, those people are really, really hoping these guys won't represent them anymore. So why do they continue? Greed, for both money and power, and the fact that they are very, very likely to succeed.

How likely? If you're an incumbent, your chance of getting re-elected is better than 99%. Condoms are more likely to fail than incumbents. Looked at another way, since Katrina and the levee failures caused a "hundred-year" flood (as in, a flood that bad only occurs once every hundred years), an incumbent losing is an event as momentous as Katrina.

As Louisiana's favorite ex-governor and current convict Edwin Edwards put it, he wouldn't lose unless he was caught in bed with a "dead hooker or a live boy."

What keeps incumbents in power? Money, obviously, since the money all flows to those who can grant the favors as opposed to those who promise to grant favors while assuring voters they won't do any such thing. And money rules politics. With campaign costs long since rocketed out of the sky and currently heading beyond the solar system, legislators raise money full-time, while actually governing the country is more like a hobby. They noodle around with it in the garage in order to get away from their wives.

But even worse than the money is the gerrymandering. Again, see DeLay as a perfect example. The people in power, usually the representatives and/or their parties, arrange districts block-by-block to construct inviolate Republican or Democratic voting communities. Combine that with a two-party stranglehold on our elections, and we have congressional districts that resemble monarchies, little medieval fiefdoms, more than democratically elected offices.

So what do we do about it? Solutions abound, though given that the only people who can change the rules are the ones in power, and they have no desire to change the rules that got them that power, the chance of any of the solutions getting enacted are remote at best.

Getting the money out of the election equation is a good first step. There has been some campaign finance reform lately, but it's just a start, and some of it has been derailed by the courts. (A Supreme Court that doesn't believe money is the same as speech, and thus unregulable, would help, but that would take replacing at least two or three of the conservatives with moderates.) Leaning on the broadcasters could also make a difference. After all, they were granted access to the public airwaves under the requirement that they air a certain amount of content for the "public good." That all got de-regulated with Reagan and further deteriorated under Clinton, but forcing them to show political ads for free during election season in return for broadcast rights would strip away a lot of the necessity for campaign money.

However, given the rise of cable, the web, and other media sources, I'm not sure how much difference jumping on the broadcasters would have. Not to mention the fact that if the money is there, the politicians will find a way to spend it. Personally, I'd like to see political ads completely outlawed and/or strict public funding of campaigns, though both risk running afoul of the First Amendment.

Term limits could help, too, though again trying to get those elected to sign off on their own eventual ouster is damned difficult. Remember all those Republicans that came in with Gingrich, taking the House, advocating term limits, and promising to leave after they had served a term? Most of them are still there, and none of them quit of their own volition, and nobody has said squat about term limits in ten years.

All of that would help, but none of it would address gerrymandering. I re-read the Constitution, and it doesn't actually lay out how Representatives and Senators are to be determined; that's left up to the states, so theoretically the states could put the district-mapping process in neutral hands, like California is trying to do by leaving it to judges. That, however, only works if judges are actually neutral, which is asking a lot, especially in states like Louisiana where judges are elected.

It also doesn't say anything about dividing states into districts, though; it only mentions population, so I'm wondering when and how districting became the law of the land. Because I think we need something more radical than finance reform, term limits, and altered district-mapping processes. I think we need to re-do the way we elect officials entirely. I think we need proportional democracy rather than our current winner-take-all system.

Sidenote: I also think we need to re-structure the Senate. Why do the 100,000 people in Montana get two Senate votes the same as the however many millions in California or New York? It violates the basic democratice principle (1 person = 1 vote) besides currently tilting the country towards rural and conservative interests. And I think we need to directly elect the President. A majority of Americans think we should get rid of the electoral college, though talk of it died almost immediately after George II's initial election, despite the obviously debatable nature of that election. Both of those work against one person, one vote, which is actually exactly what they were designed to do. Despite their obvious smarts and vision, the founding fathers were distrustful of the common man, even the white males they restricted voting to when they wrote the Constitution, so they created buffers. That said, I'm going to try to stay focused on gerrymandering, though you guys know how hard it is for me to focus. ("Oooh, shiny! Hey, do I smell beer?")

In a proportional democracy, you would vote for a party's slate of candidates statewide, which makes sense given that these Representatives are supposedly representing the state to the nation. Then, given the percentage each party has, that determines how many of their slate goes, so if the Democrats get slightly more than fifty percent in Louisiana (for instance) then 4 Democrats go and 3 Republicans. I know, that's actually who we have right now, but bear with me anyway. This also avoids the possibility of one party getting slightly less than fifty percent of the vote in every district, leading to a nearly evenly split electorate being represented by just one party. District-by-district winner-take-all voting definitely defeats true democratic representation.

Plus, by making people vote for a slate of candidates from a party, it would de-emphasize the person, and elections might actually be about issues instead of a bunch of Brie-eating Republicans raised in privilege buying a pair of cowboy boots and accusing Democrats of not being in touch with the "common man," whoever the hell that might be.

This would also, by the way, allow third parties to do more than act as spoilers, because if they got enough votes, they'd get a representative, too. Imagine a Louisiana that sent 3 Democrats, 3 Reps, and a Green or Libertarian. Politicians might actually have to learn to work together instead of simply bashing everything the other party wants.

With sincere apologies to John Lennon, you may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm really not the only one. Besides, I say dream big. If I'm going to advocate and hope for reform that will never happen because the Joe Liebermans and Bill Jeffersons of the country only care about staying in power and will never change the system that put them there and keeps them there, then I might as well advocate for the reforms I really want.

Finally, while I'm on the subject of incumbents clinging to power for no discernible reason (and to return to New Orleans, since that is F&L's supposed raison d'etre), what's a guy gotta do to get mayor recalled in this town?

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