Americans are overwhelmingly angry and apathetic about the state of the Federal Government and even their state governments because we, as a society, have entirely forgotten the concepts forged by our founding fathers regarding the fundamental processes that successfully govern a representative democracy. In order to restore collective satisfaction with government in these United States, it is crucial that the American people be reminded what a successful government looks like. History can be our guide, since we, the American People were by in large, happy with our government until the late 1980s.
The Five Pillars of Happy Countrymen:
1) Let the People Focus on Problems Affecting Them
One of the worst problems impacting the modern media, and thus, the political dialogue in this country is the sad lack of quality local news coverage in our print, web, and broadcast media outlets. Media is a business and always has been, but because online advertising is cheaper to acquire, reaches more people, and returns less profit to media publishers, the newsprint media is dying a slow and painful death. They got most of their money from advertising revenue, not from their circulations, which are also dwindling as more and more Americans find the fast food journalism offered online much more accessible during the course of their busy lives. News stories are reduced to memes in the minds of our citizens through Facebook and Twitter. The few useful political blogs devote most of their energy to covering national news stories because those are the ones that will draw hit counts, and broadcast media are forced to compete for viewers with shameless tactics of self-promotion, sensationalism, entertainment and death worship. More Americans get their news from comedian John Stewart than from real journalists, and more real journalists are becoming common pitchmen and talking heads on cable news channels than choosing the tougher and more honorable (but less profitable) path of writing quality print news…and the first people that feel the pinch as news media drift away from their roots in the local papers are the local reporters. Newspapers that once carried vibrant journalistic coverage of local politics, local culture and local current events are slashing community budgets and focusing on national news.
While all of that is going on, the American people are simultaneously becoming less interested in their communities as more and more, we are forced to frequently change jobs, move, leave our places of origin and our families, and scatter to the four winds. Gone are the legions of company men and women who worked for one employer for twenty or forty years. Those careers are almost impossible to find. Why be invested in a town that isn’t really your home so much as a place that includes your house? Why go and talk to your neighbors and learn about the problems affecting them when you’re probably going to leave in three years or less anyway? And why care about community when politicians on both sides of the aisle have systematically attacked traditional community centers with regulatory burdens, government subsidized faceless alternatives, and a total lack of interest in promoting community issues (those aren’t the things that launch political CAREERS, so why should career politicians care about problems with the saw mill in Muskogee or the the loss of that family owned restaurant in Newport News)? As our society has grown less local and more self-centered (that includes Republicans, so no accusations that I’m being unfair to a particular political cause), we find ourselves without community fixtures to help us with our problems and thus attract our loyalty in political fights. There are no elk lodges, no ladies clubs, no neighborhood watch groups, and no sewing circles. The churches are under attack, viewed suspiciously by leftists and too cautiously by conservatives outside the deep south. Volunteerism is way WAY down despite billions of dollars of spending by the Federal government on volunteer outreach – and what volunteer work we do still do seems largely to be politically motivated and cause-specific outside of, say, the Catholic Church and its many politically incorrect and wonderfully effective charitable programs. In fact, outside of churches, there is very little in the way of people congregating in person to discuss societal problems and come up with ways to solve them. We seem to rely entirely on what Facebook tells us we should do to fix problems that Facebook also told us existed, since we have no idea what our neighbors are thinking unless they posted it on their wall.
The great changes in American history began inside the community and spread outward organically as citizens realized these were issues they cared about too. Abolitionists formed a new political party one town at a time in the 19th century. Suffragettes agreed on their common goals in town hall meetings and within sewing circles. The Civil Rights movement that ended Jim Crow in the South began inside baptist churches. Now stop and think…is that how the issues of our current time are being discussed? Do we sit in the barbershop and talk about abortion or gun control? Do we decide whether raising local taxes to give the community’s school system a bigger budget is worth the cost inside of town hall? Or are those issues being resolved by a collection of isolated individuals making value judgments based on who said what on Hannity or Morning Joe or the Daily Show. To change the world for the better, you have to change minds. Yet how much of politics these days revolves around the same swing states, and, in fact, the same swing COUNTIES? How much is the political discourse changing from cycle to cycle now? How many minds are really being changed?
You change minds by talking to people where they live (and I don’t mean their homes…I mean inside of the issues that matter to them). Women convinced a nation that they had the right to vote without casting a single ballot (how could they? they couldn’t vote!)…they had to change the minds of tens of millions of men. And they did it by living the change in their own towns and cities; by showing men that this change was in their best interest inside of town halls and churches. The result? A sweeping change that drastically altered the debate in Washington, and forever changed how we viewed ourselves…and an explosion of happiness. Including among men. Now imagine what would have happened if the Supreme Court had deemed it unconstitutional to deny women the vote in the early days of the women’s suffrage movements. Can you picture the fury among men not given the chance to be convinced on their own? Can you imagine the bitter political battles that could have been fought? Instead, we got a healthy debate, a society convinced that any changes were as the majority wish it, and a happier and more prosperous union.
Politics must return to being local. People must change in their own time and must be convinced where they live, or the congressional approval rating will never get over parity (50%).
2) Representatives Represent!
It’s baked into the name of the political process, the wording of the Constitution, and job title of every politician, not to mention emptily quoted in most of the speeches those politicians give. A representative democracy only works if the men and women we send to govern us actually represent what we want accurately. Unfortunately, these days, the political parties (both of them) care not one whit about what their constituents actually want, and care even less about what independents want. Politics has become a sort of professional activism where you sign up for a particular party to get the funding they need to advance whatever causes they actually care about, and are then expected to mindlessly obey everything that the party stands for because, theoretically, the party’s platform represents what the majority of its’ members what on each individual issue. You therefore end up with representatives elected for Federal service who represent their constituents only when it is convenient for them to do so, choosing to advance their own personal brand of activism instead. Polling from multiple agencies suggests that over 70% of North Dakota’s residents oppose Obamacare, yet Democrat senator Heitkamp, representing all of North Dakota, has a long record of voting against Republican efforts to reduce the damage done by Obamacare in the eyes on North Dakotans. That is not how our government is supposed to work. Representatives are supposed to accurately represent the wishes of their constituents, applying their own judgment only as to how best to represent them, and siding against them only rarely and only for the most urgent of needs.
3) Transparency to the People
In order for the people to hold their representatives to pillar #2 above, it must be clear to the people precisely what is going on in Washington – they need to be able to understand the legislation being passed, at least in some basic, popular format, in order to decide whether the actions of their representatives match with their own values. Unfortunately, these days, almost everything that happens in Washington begins with a special interest group or lobby lawyer assisting in closed door meetings where new and ferociously complex legislation is drafted within thousand plus page omnibus spending bills that no one in CONGRESS can truly understand, let alone their constituents. This is happening because (a) lobbyists and Congressmen have established fallacious relationships to assure the political survival of the representative and the perpetual flow of money and power to the lobbyists and (b) the Federal Government is trying to do way WAY too many things at once, and so, in order to meet deadlines and keep the country functioning, they must decide on many things at once rather than voting on small new laws or individual expenditures one by one. Sadly, the founding fathers had no way of foreseeing the rise of PACs, SuperPACs, and invincible lobbies whose power in Washington far outstrips the power of the people put there by the Constitution in the first place. They didn’t envision such things occurring, and thus had no way to check the power of those groups. If they could see what has happened to their republic today, they would surely have considered those groups a fourth branch of government and regulated the power given to that branch. The result? The discussion about ObamaCare was largely about the legal and monetary ramifications of the bill on Capital Hill, but the American people didn’t understand ANY of that discussion. For us, the discussion was not productive, because it centered on promises and threats levied by politicians who, themselves, hadn’t yet read and understood the law they were discussing! You had conservatives convinced that ObamaCare would usher in a Brave New World of death panels and the collapse of private medical practices and liberals convinced that anyone not supporting ObamaCare simply didn’t understand the problems with the current health insurance system or didn’t care about the people who did not have coverage. There is little truth in any of that…it is all a sideshow meant to distract us while our overlords (for lack of a better word) decided the real issues relating to ObamaCare in an up/down vote. And that sort of thing happens CONSTANTLY. How many Americans are there that anyone would wager money they couldn’t lose who actually understand what’s in the currently debated “Gang of Eight” immigration bill? How many Americans realize that the law would provide immediate amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants without any guarantee of future enhancements to border security? How many Americans do you suppose believe that that conservatives largely oppose the bill because they are racist, rather than because they fear that without first fixing the border, amnesty threatens to cripple the economy and create a permanent underclass that will be exploited for cheap labor and constantly require government assistance for their basic survival?
4) The Fifth Column Must be No Taller than the Other Four
I know that is a loaded phrase, but if I’ve declared lobby lawyers and PACs as a fourth branch of government, then I’d have to declare the autonomous Federal agencies that receive little in the way of government oversight yet have almost unlimited powers to carry out frequently politicized missions a fifth branch (column). The Constitution made no provisions for Congress to grant unchecked power to outside agencies, and I doubt the founding fathers would be pleased with the results of our decision to delegate responsibility away from elected officials. The reason such agencies were created was to stop politicians from abandoning key services to the people for political favor. You can’t count on impartiality when the people in charge of a particular mission – say maintaining safe working conditions for factory workers or ensuring that legal medications aren’t harmful – are up for election every few years. While that is understandable, you can’t count on impartiality from those branches under the current system either. The IRS’s targeting of tea party and conservative groups for unfair auditing proves that point vividly. The reason? The people being appointed to run such agencies are generally lobbyists (!), chosen by a President with his own political agenda and their jobs depend on the approval of that President and his agenda, not to mention the pressures of the lobby lawyers and party big wigs who helped get them that job. No lobbyist should ever hold those jobs, and no agency should ever be without Congressional scrutiny.
5) Politics is the Art of the Possible and the Prudent
The GOP is presently violating the first rule (art of the possible) by obsessively passing dozens of ObamaCare repeal laws in the House, knowing that none of them will even receive a courtesy vote in the Senate. Repealing ObamaCare is currently impossible…you look like rigid ideologues with no focus and no responsibility when you keep trying to do something that is impossible instead of focusing on the things that you CAN get done. On the same token, the Democrats violate BOTH rules when they refuse to pass any budgets because they know that what they’re trying to accomplish is frequently financially imprudent at best and structurally impossible at worst. Both parties are motivated by burning desires to improve the nation in the way that they believe will work best, but both parties have a bad habit of insisting on getting 100% of what they want done IMMEDIATELY. NOW DAMNIT!!! And viewing any call for restraint as jaded or hateful to boot. You can’t always get what you want, ladies and gentlemen. But if you try to see all points of view and work at finding some common ground, you can get things done that make life better for your constituents without pissing half of them off. Let’s say you believe that we need to curtail religious activity inside public schools but are living in Alabama, where they generally hold very dearly to some basic recognition of Christianity in their public life. Guess what…you can’t have it your way all the time…but maybe you can convince your state to draw back on certain religious activities during the school day in exchange for allowing student to organize religious clubs after school (that actually happened, in a rare show of honest compromise). Why every “cause” group feels that its particular cause is so important that it trumps all other causes and they must get their way INSTANTLY and ENTIRELY or else the system is unfair is beyond me.
Those basic pillars inform my move toward conservative populism. I am motivated by a desire to see more people happy with their government and the services it provides…that means I want leftist havens like San Francisco to have the chance to implement their agendas on a local level and uber-conservative evangelicals should get the same chance to build their towns around their common beliefs. I’m talking about real Federalism. Such a system fails the minute the five pillars are violated, of course, but that should be the ideal we all shoot for, right and left.