Archive for the ‘wasted votes’ Category

An End to Privatization?

January 19, 2009

For the past 28 years, Americans on all political sides have considered privatization the best solution to almost every problem.  Government, we keep being told, can’t do anything right.  The past three Republican presidents have, of course, gone out of their way to prove this, in a way they should logically never have been allowed to do.  (“If elected head of this government, which should do as little as possible, I promise I will do as little as possible.”  Gimme a break.)  Government, we are told, should not be allowed to run profit-making enterprises, like Conrail, because then it competes unfairly with private-sector markets. And of course it should not be allowed to operate at a loss, as with Amtrak, because then it is wasting the people’s money. All of its operations are full of waste, fraud, and abuse, except, I suppose, those that manage to exactly break even.

What are the supposed advantages of private-sector over government operations? These days, government often contracts with corporations to handle its dirty work, whether collecting office trash or driving trucks over the IED Highway in Iraq.  Most private corporations these days are not unionized, and are therefore able to pay their rank-and-file workers less in monetary compensation and benefits than government workers (or unionized private-sector workers) get.  In addition, private corporations can and often do save money by playing fast and loose with various governmental regulations in ways the government itself obviously can’t get away with.

But on the other hand, corporations by definition contain one more level of costs than government—stockholder dividends.  And they are subject to the whims of private executive management, including outrageous levels of compensation utterly unrelated to any kind of track record.

The major difference between governmental and corporate operations, however, is rarely even mentioned on either side of the political divide.  The ordinary citizen has no input into the selection of corporate management, except perhaps in one or two corporations in which s/he gets an occasional proxy, courtesy of a 401(k) or an IRA.  We all get to vote for the management of the entire government.  Reasonable people can differ about the ultimate efficacy of those votes, but there can be absolutely no question that the ordinary citizen-voter has a lot more effect on the government than the ordinary citizen-stockholder in one or two corporations has on the private market as a whole.

So let’s use this new beginning to start mentioning the unmentionable. Let’s get the government off the privatizing track, and back into hiring its own—make that our own—workers to do our work at wages and benefits we would consider adequate.  The corporate executives won’t suffer.  They will, as usual, land on their feet.  If being head honcho of a major corporation doesn’t buy you exemption from the struggles of ordinary people, whatever else it does buy you isn’t worth the trouble of going to Board meetings. I don’t want the people’s business done by minimum-wage no-benefit “part-time” workers contracted by overpaid private corporate executives.  Save that for the private sector.

Red Emma

2009 Update–What Is It About Illinois?

January 5, 2009

Sorry, no catchy titles, no earthshaking ideas.  My computer has finally been rejiggered and is back at work, thanks to the wonders of the barter economy.  Chicago is cold but the skies and streets are clear.

And Illinois is in the middle of yet another political crisis.  Our probably-soon-to-be-ex-governor has appointed Roland Burris to fill Obama’s senatorial seat, and all kinds of people are refusing to accept this decision.  The Illinois Secretary of State doesn’t want to sign the papers he is required to sign, indicating that Burris has been appointed by the governor, even though that signature is an utterly insignificant ministerial act.  The Senate Democrats are promising to refuse to seat Burris, even though the Supreme Court made it absolutely clear several decades back that they have no choice in the matter.  (That was back in the days of Adam  Clayton Powell, whose district kept re-electing him while Congress kept unseating him.)  Okay, I think the appointment was a bad move on the governor’s part, and accepting it was an even worse move on Burris’ part.  What the governor should have done was named Barbara Flynn Currie (who is, incidentally, the Wired Family’s state rep.), a perfectly qualified person who also happens to be the head of the State House committee on impeachment.  Which would have thrown the impeachment process into a cocked hat, while making nobody mad.  But Burris is reasonably honest and competent (and, full disclosure here, once endorsed me when I was running for office in 1984.)  He is perfectly qualified, and nobody has any legal grounds for refusing him the senate seat.  These theatrics are nothing but a waste of time, money, and attention.  Enough already.

Meantime, Bill Richardson has withdrawn his name from consideration for Secretary of Commerce because he’s being investigated back home.  Which I guess is classier than what Burris is doing.

Which brings me back to our original question: what is it about Illinois?  Five governors indicted within my lifetime (one acquitted, one not yet tried, the others jailed for various terms. And that’s not counting two others who left office just ahead of the sheriff and are now posing as Messers. Clean while pronouncing on the current incumbent’s sins.)  The lowest ratio of spending on social needs to per capita income in the country.  School spending only slightly higher per capita than that of Mississippi, and actually lower than Alabama’s.

As the Blog Which Shall Not Be Named points out, we certainly aren’t unique–there’s always Louisiana.

Maybe what we should be asking is: what is it about voters?  A friend of mine was declaiming vigorously the other day about why our governor was allowed to appoint the new senator in the first place, rather than having a special election.  I pointed out that Illinois law, unlike that of some other states, doesn’t provide for that.  I then pointed out that it might not have helped much anyway—who, after all, put the governor in office in the first place?  Us, the voters, that’s who.  Why do we keep electing these guys?

Which brings us back to the electoral process and how voters use it:

We vote for the lesser evil.

Or we vote for the person we know the fewest bad things about.

Or we vote for the person we know anything about.

Or we vote for the person who seems to resemble us in some important way, like race, or gender, or religion, or subcultural preferences.

Or we vote for the person whom we could imagine liking, if we ever met in person.

Or we vote for the person from the party we have always voted for.

In Illinois, we not only elect our governor, senators, representatives, and sheriffs, we also elect about half of our judges.  Our ballots, as a result, are long enough to trip over on the way out of the booth, and most voters know absolutely nothing about more than 75% of the candidates.  As a lawyer, I know something about several of the judicial candidates, having practiced in front of them.  I occasionally have input into the judicial evaluations of the various bar associations, and in general I think the evaluators know what they’re doing.  So, by voting the bar association lists except where my personal experience disagrees with them, I’m doing a much better job than most voters.  Like most lawyers I know, I get asked for information before elections by many of my friends.  Maybe that helps the process too.

But this was not what the Founders had in mind.  It is also not what communitarians and Catholic advocates of “subsidiarity” have in mind.  What they were looking for, I think, was an electoral process that starts among the 500 or so people any individual voter is likely to be personally acquainted with, and works its way up through “captains of tens” and “captains of hundreds” and “captains of thousands” and so on, as originally suggested in the Jewish scriptures.  Not unlike the precinct captain-based organization of the old Chicago Machine or Tammany Hall, when you think about it.  Which was certainly no model of good government.  In fact, corruption, cronyism, and wrongheadedness seem to cluster at the levels of government most beloved of the communitarians and subsidiarists, when you think about it.  This is getting too complex for me, and it’s dinner time.  We welcome suggestions.

CynThesis

September Miscellanies

September 17, 2008

1. As the Points Spread

Just heard NPR’s sports commentator, the only person I will listen to on that subject, inveighing on corruption in professional tennis, which is apparently rife but totally closeted. For some reason, this short-circuited my brain into what my dear friend Tim Preston, may he rest in peace, would have called an apostrophe. What is really going on in the presidential campaigns, and probably has for the last two or three elections at least, is that the opinion polls are rigged. This is a lot easier, and cheaper, than rigging the entire electoral system of the US. Pollsters work for private organizations, most of them publicly traded corporations responsible only to their shareholders. Certainly not to the people of the United States.

Somebody out there is betting on the point spread, and wants it as narrow as possible. So, right after the Democratic convention, the pollsters told us that Obama was way out ahead. Now, they tell us, just as in 2004, and 2000, the candidates are neck and neck. And the reason the hustlers want the point spread as narrow as possible is that a close election is easy to steal, with minimum expenditure of cash and energy. Repeat after me: nobody steals a landslide. If the voters keep being told that they are more or less evenly divided, they will come to believe it. And their voting patterns will then turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that close division will then turn the election into a victory for whoever is the most competent thief.

Red Emma

2.  Community and the Free Market

    A public housing project in Chicago is running into some interesting times. It’s called LeClaire Courts, and its legal structure is unusually complex. Half of it is plain old vanilla public housing, run by the Chicago Housing Authority. But the other half is a Section 8 project, funded by federal vouchers directed to the individual resident households. Regardless of legal structure, its physical structure is a mess, and CHA (which administers both halves) says it has no money for repairs and rehab. Instead, they want to close down both halves. This would entail moving the public housing residents into the admittedly shrinking number of other public housing projects in the city. Most of the residents involved are okay with this, hoping that wherever they end up will be in better shape than LeClaire Courts, or at any rate, no worse.

    The real problem is with the Section 8 half of the project. CHA is proposing to simply give the Section 8 residents their own vouchers and turn them loose in the private housing market like most other Section 8 voucher holders. And this is a problem for those residents, because many of them want to move into another Section 8 project together. That is to say, they have actually managed, under seriously adverse circumstances, to create a community in their project, and they want to preserve it.

    This is a problem, first of all, from the purely practical point of view, because the private housing market into which these residents are being thrown doesn’t support communities of people who want to move together. Indeed, it has problems even supporting extended families or unusually large nuclear families. There are very few affordable apartments in the private market with three or more bedrooms, which is what most child welfare agencies require as a bare minimum for families with more than two children of different sexes (one for the boys, one for the girls, and one for the parent/s.) Trying to locate an entire building in which multiple families can live together (no idea how many, the local news sources don’t say) is just plain impossible. The private housing market presumes that people move into and out of one apartment at a time, and the possibility of an entire building’s worth of apartments falling vacant at once is just plain unimaginable (unless of course the whole building is such a mess that nobody at all would want to live in it, in any kind of grouping.)

    But, from the social point of view (I think the official word these days would be “societal,” but I refuse to use an unnecessarily manufactured word when we already have a perfectly good one) there is also a question of whether we should encourage these particular people to maintain their community at all, wherever they may have to relocate it. We tend to presume that, if there is such a thing as a community in public housing these days, it is a pathological and criminal one, and should be broken up as quickly as possible, or at least allowed to break itself up under the pressure of market forces. The news stories on LeClaire Courts don’t talk about this at all. From what I personally have seen of public housing during my years at Juvenile Court, I don’t necessarily boggle at a community of decent people living in Section 8 project housing and wanting to stay together. I do not see public housing residents as a bunch of criminal ne’er-do-wells. But on the other hand, a lot of them do have family members connected with gangs, and maybe that kind of conglomeration should be broken up. This deserves more thought.

    Jane Grey

    3.  Cosmetics and Livestock

      Nobody listens to what people say any more. I once threw a roomful of intelligent, educated people into a tizzy by telling them that 2+2 was less than five. What Obama actually meant when he made his famous remark about putting lipstick on a pig, which would nonetheless still be a pig, was of course that the lipstick wouldn’t make it a sow. He was denouncing cross-dressing, a position with which McCain shouldn’t have any problem at all. Geeze, pay attention, John.

      Red Emma

      The Man Who

      September 12, 2008

      My mother used to label all of the political speechifying of her era as “Man Who” speeches. You know, the stuff that starts out, “My fellow Americans, I have the honor to present to you the man who brought us to victory in Europe in WWII, the man who successfully led a major university, the man who….” And so on. It was useful shorthand, but I only grasped the reality behind it many years later.

      We Americans aren’t looking for a president, we’re looking for a parent, or a messiah, or a monarch, or a star, or a sheriff. Most Americans think of themselves as political independents, even if they are in fact members of a political party. They consider the candidate’s personality more important that his party’s platform. Most Americans don’t really know the difference between Right and Left, liberal and conservative. They can tell you what kind of people become liberals and conservatives, but not what motivates them, what vision of the good they espouse.

      What are we looking for in a candidate’s personality? We want to feel that the candidate is an Important Person, but also that he understands People Like Me. Since most voters are not Important Persons, this is a tall order. Similarly, we want to feel that the candidate is smarter than the Bad Guys, but not that he thinks he is smarter than me. (Does this imply that the Bad Guys are not smarter than me either? Hard to tell.)

      We want to be sure that the candidate doesn’t make goofs or gaffes (which of course requires him to be smarter than most of us.) Or at least that he is competent enough to cover them up while it counts.

      We want to feel that the candidate is a decent person, but not “holier than thou” or “sanctimonious” or worse still, a “hypocrite.” Again, this is a balancing act of extreme difficulty. We want to believe that the candidate believes in obeying the law, but not necessarily in enforcing all of its provisions on People Like Me.

      All of this raises two grave concerns. First, as a practical matter, no candidate presents his or her real personality to the public. The candidate’s persona is a product, manufactured, marketed, and sold to a specific market for a specific purpose. If there is one thing the voter can be absolutely sure of in any political campaign above the level of mayor, it is that s/he will never know the real candidate’s personality. And second, even if it were possible to know the candidate’s real personality, that wouldn’t tell the voter much of what s/he needs to know about the candidate’s qualifications to govern the country.

      Is there a job description for POTUS? Well, yes. It’s in Article II of the Constitution:

      “The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States; he may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices, and he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.

      “He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.

      “The President shall have power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.

      “Section 3. He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in case of disagreement between them, with respect to the time of adjournment, he may adjourn them to such time as he shall think proper; he shall receive ambassadors and other public ministers; he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and shall commission all the officers of the United States. “

      None of this tells us anything about what kind of person is needed to do this job. So far as I know, no psychologist has done any kind of personality study of an ideal president, although there have been several thorough psychological evaluations of actual presidents, both successful and unsuccessful. (Bear in mind that one evaluator’s successful president may be another’s total failure.)

      And, of course, as a practical matter, nowadays it takes a lot more than one person to do it at all. The cabinet and other presidential appointees named in Article II are only a fraction of the staff the president needs to do his job. And any politician these days is essentially the sum of his staff. So the job description applies to a whole group of people, only one of whom is actually on the ballot or subject to being vetted by the voters.

      So while the voters obsess endlessly about whether they would be willing to have a cup of coffee with a particular candidate, the description of the job they are supposed to be filling goes unread and unattended to. And what we actually elect is somebody who may have no background or experience in the duties set out by the constitution, or, worse still, somebody who has all the wrong experience, in being a military commander, a business executive, or a media personality. On the other hand, we may elect somebody for all the wrong reasons and discover s/he is in fact just the right person. Both the Roosevelts were pleasant surprises, given their previous background. So were Eisenhower and Truman.

      So I would really appreciate not hearing so much about the various personalities involved in a presidential election. Personality can be faked. As George Burns said about sincerity, “If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Policy can, of course, be lied about. Those of us who remember Lyndon Johnson, during the 1964 election, saying that he did not want to send American boys to do in Vietnam what Vietnamese boys should be doing, can vouch for that first-hand. There are a lot more examples where that came from, for younger readers. But being lied to about policy somehow doesn’t hurt as much as being deceived about personality. The latter leads to a sense of personal betrayal that, ultimately, leaves almost all voters past their second election totally disenchanted with the process, and therefore totally incapable of doing anything serious to change it. This needs more thought.

      Jane Grey

      No Time for Party Politics II

      September 3, 2008

      I just got a call from a friend of mine who just got back from the Vets for Peace convention in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and told me about the numerous police raids on the homes of members of groups planning demonstrations against the Republican National Convention. This was the first I’d heard, and there hasn’t been anything conspicuous in the Chicago papers about it. Nothing on NPR, at least while I was listening this morning. After talking to my friend, I googled “RNC police raids” and pulled up a bunch of interesting stuff, such as:

      http://www.startribune.com/politics/27695244.html?elr=KArksLckD8EQDUoaEyqyP4O:DW3ckUiD3aPc:_

      http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2008/08/30/police-raid-headquarters-of-rnc-protesters/

      http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/08/30/more_raids/?refid=0

      and our own closely related:

      http://tpzoo.wordpress.com/2008/08/31/silence-from-the-press-about-rnc-police-raids-and-from-the-po

      as well as:

      http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washington/2008/09/amy-goodman-arr.html

      and:

      http://www.minnesotaindependent.com/6416/slide-show-sundays-veterans-for-peace-march

      Apparently the blogosphere is the last refuge of the free press. I plan to forward some of this stuff to the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and the Defender, just to embarrass them. Back to work.

      Red Emma

      The Political is the Personal?

      July 11, 2008

       Americans have been “voting for the man [sic] and not the party” for at least my entire conscious lifetime.  In fact, we do it somewhat less often now than we used to in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when we were mostly convinced, with George Wallace, that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between Democrats and Republicans as such.  I have voted for, I think, three Republicans myself, over a longish lifetime.  They were all good guys, they all won, and I don’t regret any of those votes.  But that was back in the good old days, when there often really wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference. 

       

      More recently, two things have happened roughly in parallel.  The political parties have become more different, and the political candidates’ personas have become more manufactured.  Unfortunately, neither of those developments has much to do with the real political issues confronting us right now.  The parties differ mainly over what we like to call “cultural” or “values” issues, most of them outside the scope of federal government control.  And the politicians, or rather, their handlers, plug into the handiest Jungian or Freudian or Frazerian archetype.  McCain is the old warrior king; Obama is the young challenger.  Hillary’s main problem was that the closest thing to an archetype she could find was a schoolmarm.  Female archetypes are scarce, and mostly ambivalent:  maiden (sexpot, airhead, virgin, whore)/mother (smothering, rejecting, controlling, Madonna)/crone (witch, grandmother, bag lady).  Anyway, neither reversing Roe v. Wade and stopping gay marriage nor overthrowing the grizzled old warrior will help us revive the American economy, save the middle class, end the war in Iraq, reinstate the Fourth Amendment, or stop climate change. 

       

      I think we got into this mess because we Americans don’t trust our own judgment about abstractions.  It’s easier to decide we like or don’t like a particular person, even if that requires us to ignore everything we know about the marketing of political candidates and the fabrication of persona. “I don’t know much about….but I know what I like,” is a lazy thinker’s approach to just about everything.  We have been encouraged to fall into it by an advertising-saturated culture that does its marketing by making us like the product, rather than giving us any useful information about it.  That may be okay when selecting a toothpaste.  Unfortunately, the system that has given us at least 150 different varieties of toothpaste can provide us with only two major political parties, and at most only one-and-a-half political ideologies.

       

      Red Emma

      Electoral Follies and Glimpses of Hope

      April 8, 2008

      I rarely get a chance to be proud of my home state. Illinois is something like 48th in spending on social services, 47th in education, and probably first in the number of governors and ex-governors convicted of felonies. But by george, I’m bursting with pride today. The governor of Illinois has signed into law a provision that requires the award of its electoral college votes to the presidential candidate with the most support nationwide. Speaking of stats, we are the third state to do so. For more information, or to follow developments nationwide, see http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/

      Until 2000, of course, most of us thought of the Electoral College kind of the way we thought about that old moose head Grandpa kept in the attic. You know, no earthly use to anybody, unlikely to do any damage, but one of these days we really ought to get rid of it. Most of us had never even heard of the Hayes-Tilden Compromise, which was what happened the last time (1876) the Electoral College vote and the popular vote diverged. Which is kind of a shame, because the Hayes-Tilden Compromise erased the last vestiges of Reconstruction from the South, and established Jim Crow legislation for another 80 years—scarcely a historical footnotes.

      So, while we all expected some kind of apocalypse in the year 2000 (our survivalist friends even had us stocking up on canned goods and distilled water), we anticipated it in January, not November. What we got instead of the universal off-lining of civilization was another election in which the Electoral College vote and the popular vote diverged. And what that got us, several months later, was a war we are still bogged down in, and the shredding of our civil liberties. Arguably, it has brought us closer to fascism than we have ever been before, except of course that nobody is promising to make the trains, or indeed any other system of common carriers, run on time.

      My original, grandiose, proposal for a solution was a trade with Congressional Republicans—we’d let them have the Schwarzenegger Amendment (abolishing the requirement that presidential candidates had to be born US citizens) if they’d let us abolish the Electoral College. But amending the Constitution is a slow and difficult process. The National Popular Vote movement is a lot faster and easier. It takes advantage of the fact that the US Constitution allows every state to choose its own Electoral College delegates any way it wants to, down to and including a hot game of draw poker or the Code Duello. Apparently a lot of states are considering signing on, mostly because they believe the Electoral College system discourages presidential candidates from paying much attention to states with small numbers of delegates, or because they believe it discourages the candidates from paying enough attention to more populous states—both of which, paradoxically, appear to be true.

      So, gentle reader, if your state hasn’t signed on yet, it’s time to contact your legislators and get them mobilized. In the meantime, I will keep on basking in the rare pleasure of my state being more or less first in something praiseworthy.

      Red Emma

      Hillary: Not a Party Girl?

      March 9, 2008

      Late last year, the Democratic National Committee promulgated a rule to the state parties, forbidding them to schedule any primary on or before the date when Iowa and New Hampshire held theirs (January 3rd and 20th, respectively.) The penalty for violation was that the delegates from the wrongdoing state would not be seated at the convention, and their votes would not be counted.

      States have been getting increasingly indignant about the primary process as the final results have happened earlier and earlier, well before many of the most populous states voted. Many of them have moved up their primaries in response. In response to this trend, the party wanted to put some sort of limit on early primaries. Was January 20 the best choice of a limit? Who knows? Anyway, Michigan and Florida held theirs on January 15.

      Obama chose not to run or campaign in either state. Clinton ran in both, and did some campaigning.

      The DNC responded by refusing to count the delegates elected in the Michigan and Florida elections, though they are now at least allowing them to attend the convention, wear funny hats, carry signs, and in general whoop it up.

      If one of the candidates had already pulled well ahead of the other, we would probably never hear another word about Michigan and Florida, since their delegates not only wouldn’t count, they wouldn’t matter. But Obama and Clinton are almost dead even, and likely to stay that way through the rest of the primaries. Both of them need those delegates.

      Obama says a rule is a rule and a penalty is a penalty. Clinton says “let the people decide.” She insists that the voters of Michigan and Florida have a right to have their votes counted somehow or other. Is this purely a matter of self-interest, given that she won all the delegates in both states? Not necessarily, because at the outset of the primary season, she urged Obama to campaign and run in those states too.

      Aside from which, what most people who want to repair this mess are talking about, is allowing both states to do the primary over, presumably with both candidates on the ballot this time. Of course, the major problem is money–a regular ballot-box election in both states would cost roughly $40 million or so. Neither state government is offering to supply that money. It has been pointed out that “soft [ie unrestricted] money” can be raised for the party organizations to cover those costs, and apparently that is being seriously considered in some quarters. There have also been proposals for elections by mail, which would be cheaper by some unspecified amount.

      The how-to problem will probably get resolved by some miraculous infusion of real or virtual money within the next few weeks. But the issues of political morality are more complicated. The courts, in previous decisions having to do with primary elections, have said both that a political party is a private organization with the right to make and enforce its own rules, and that sometimes it isn’t, ie when its rules infringe on the right of the voter (the most important cases on that subject were those involving the infamous “white primaries” of the Southern Democratic parties before the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1944.) Obama appears to share the former position. Clinton, although she hasn’t actually said so in any detail, seems to think that any party rule which denies the voters the right to have their votes counted is unconstitutional, no different from a whites-only primary.

      The closest the Supreme Court has come to enunciating the respective rights of state party organizations and state governmental electoral authorities was in the infamous Bush v. Gore decision, which started out with the explicit statement that it was not to be used as precedent for any later decision. So for all practical purposes the question is still open.

      I desperately hope the Supremes never get a shot at it, given the mess they made of Bush v. Gore. And I’m actually more interested in the ethical merits of the case. Who’s the bad guy here? Is there a good guy? Let’s look at all the players: the states, the DNC, Obama, and Clinton.

      The states chose to move their primaries up so as to have some real influence on the outcome, surely a legitimate end. But one of its major effects, as we are all well aware by now, is to stretch out the campaign season to an almost unendurable length. And the spectacle of the states madly jostling to be first out of the gate is, at best, unedifying, and at worst, obnoxious.

      The DNC, in an effort to keep the primaries from oozing into the year before the general election (or why not the year before that?) drew the line. They drew it so as to preserve the traditional First State status of New Hampshire and Iowa. Why? Who knows? Love of tradition? (Conservative Founder Edmund Burke says, “when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”) Some effective lobbying from New Hampshire and Iowa? Money under the table? (That seems unlikely, but cannot be completely written off.) The results of a hot game of draw poker?

      The DNC made the rule, and made utterly clear the penalties for violating it. Michigan and Florida violated it. Now, says the DNC, they must pay the price. Unfortunately, the price is actually being paid by the voters of those states. “That’s representative democracy,” the party tells them. “Like when the legislature passes a tax–even the citizens who opposed it are required to pay it. Your legislature moved up the primary in violation of party rules. They were the ones who chose to disenfranchise you, not the DNC. Don’t blame us, we’re just following our own rules.” The DNC might also be justified in pointing out that the decision to move up the primaries was a popular one, among voters who were tired of getting to the party after all the food was gone and the band was shutting down, so to speak.  This was not a decision snuck in behind closed doors at 2 AM in blatant opposition to the will of the people.  So let those people pay for the decision, why not?

      Mr. Wired, with whom we have had passionate arguments on this subject, says Obama’s acquiescence to the disenfranchisement of the voters of Florida and Michigan brands him as a party hack, willing to go along with whatever the bosses decide in their smoke-filled rooms.  Clinton’s “let the people decide” makes her the true populist, the independent thinker, the person who has taken a principled stand in favor of democratic (with a small d) process.

      Others (I’m not sure where I stand on this right now) would say that Obama is a team player, and Clinton is willing to countenance breaking the rules if it gets her delegates. (Which, of course, in a do-over election, it might not. So much for that argument.)

      Do we want to strengthen individual voters and candidates, as against party organization?  Does it matter that this time, the party in question is the Democrats? Maybe it does.  Which may sound strange coming from someone who, back in 1968 (see previous posting) actually tried to burn her voter registration card (which identified her as a Democrat) when the convention voted down a peace platform.  (BTW, the darn thing wouldn’t light.)  That convention was the last and biggest blast of the old-style party politics.  It selected a candidate who had not even run in any of the primaries, much less won.  Compared to that, what may or may not ultimately happen to the voters of Michigan and Florida is small potatoes.

      I’m skittish now about anything that weakens the role of the parties, especially the Democratic party, and turns the electoral process into more of a popularity contest than it already is.  It’s bad enough being restricted to our current one-and-a-half party system (why is it that a society that can give us 150 kinds of toothpaste and 60 flavors of ice cream can only produce two more or less different political parties?)–why make it any worse?

      Mr. Wired advocates a one-day nationwide primary sometime around April (for considerations of weather), with a runoff if necessary within one or two weeks afterward. He points out, reasonably enough, that in the national general election, we frown on  publishing East Coast state results even hours or minutes before the West Coast and Hawaii polls are shut down.  Why should primaries be different, with weeks and months between the various states?

      One of the reasons most often given is that we want the primaries to be a process,  in which the voters in the later primaries are affected by what has happened previously.  It’s the difference between the baseball playoffs and a round robin tournament, I guess (though I’m weak on sports metaphors, and may be totally wrong about this one.)  But maybe, given where we are now, that’s not such a good idea anyway.  We already spend too much of our electoral decision time looking over our shoulder to see what everybody else is doing or has done or might do.  Why can’t we bring back the secret ballot, for real, with everybody deciding simultaneously, in isolation?  At least try it for a couple of cycles, just to see how it works out. 

      All of our tinkering with party rules should be tentative anyway, and we shouldn’t be bashful about backtracking on any of it.  Were the 1972 changes such a great idea?  Do we maybe want the smoke-filled rooms back (but without the smoke, obviously)? 

      So anyway, reasonable people can differ on whether Obama is a team player or a party hack, and whether Clinton is an independent thinker or a hot-dogger.  And with any luck, the DNC will work out some sort of compromise, preferably on other people’s money, that expresses the will of the voters in Michigan and Florida, preferably as of now rather than back in January. 

      Red Emma

      And Then There Were Two

      January 30, 2008

      Just heard as I was brushing my teeth this morning that John Edwards has pulled out of the Democratic race. Last week it was Kucinich. After the Iowa caucuses at the beginning of the year, it was Dodd (I think.) Gravel is still officially in the race, but nobody has taken him seriously. Dunno about Biden. So for all practical purposes it’s down to Clinton and Obama. During the same period, the Republican field has also narrowed, as Giuliani pulled out, leaving Romney, Huckabee, McCain, and Ron Paul.

      Since I don’t get to vote till next week (actually I can vote early, and may do it today, but my vote won’t be counted until next week,) I’m kind of annoyed at having fewer people to vote for than the residents of South Carolina and Florida. But, on the other hand, this year, at least nobody’s getting knocked out of the race for some petty trumped-up pseudo-scandal like the ones that were all over the map in 1992 (like Senator Biden’s ghost-writer plagiarizing from some British politician’s ghost-writer, and Dukakis’ staff-person leaking the story about it to the paper) and 2004 (like Howard Dean’s barbaric yawp.) This time, people are just running out of money.

      The media, of course, have still played a malignant role, but a slightly different one from earlier years. Now they don’t bother trashing anybody’s reputation (well, okay, Edwards did get some flak about being a rich trial lawyer and espousing the needs of the poor, but it never really caught on and they never really pushed it), they just blandly state up front that certain candidates don’t count, and cannot be taken seriously. Ron Paul, for instance, and Dennis Kucinich, and Mike Gravel, and Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden. Even when the “don’t-counts” stay in the race, the media ignore them and do everything possible to keep their faces and their messages away from the public. But trashing them would require paying attention to them, and maybe even (heaven forbid) attracting the public’s attention to them. Can’t have that.

      So the tone of this race has been elevated slightly (well, not debased as badly as in previous years), but the range of media-acceptable political opinion has, if anything, narrowed. The field of candidates has narrowed, and the significance of the primary process has been eroded still further.

      I can still remember the 1968 Democratic convention, which happened right down the street from where I was working at the time. Most people, of course, were mainly paying attention to the protests against it. But it was the last blast of the old system of nominating presidential candidates. One of the things that some of us were protesting was the fact that the convention was nominating a candidate who had not won a single primary election. In 1972, our current system was set up to replace the smoke-filled room. Three dozen years later, it is becoming obvious that we have merely replaced one set of smoke-filled rooms with another. (Well, okay, probably nobody smokes inside any of those rooms any more–that would be illegal and unhealthy.) The old party hacks who allowed Lyndon Johnson to impose Hubert Humphrey on the Democrats have been replaced by media hacks and money-raisers. Most of the party hacks had, at least, been elected to something by somebody, somewhere along the line. The media hacks and money-raisers are answerable to no one but their donors and their own whims. Public funding, which was supposed to solve at least some of these problems, has been swamped into irrelevance by the sheer magnitude of the private money available for campaigning these days.

      And I am still bothered by the increasing number of voters, in person-on-the-street interviews before, during, and after the various caucuses and primaries, who come right out and say, “I’d like to vote for X, but Y has a better chance in the general election.”

      In the first place, if we haven’t learned by now how badly the official sources of information are doing at calling winners and losers this year, we just aren’t paying attention. I wouldn’t vote for dogcatcher on the basis of what this crop of experts predicts. They’ve been wrong over and over again, and anybody lazy enough to listen to them instead of watching the numbers themselves deserves to be bamboozled. So who knows which candidate has the best chance in the general election? The waitress who brought my soup at lunch today is as likely to be right as anybody else, and I might as well rely on my own hunches.

      And in the second place, “strategic voting” undermines the whole point of the secret ballot. Polls have shown again and again that if you ask a voter “Who will you vote for for X office?”, you will get an entirely different answer from what you get if you ask, “Who would you vote for if you thought s/he had a chance of winning?” Isn’t it about time we tried electing some of the people we’d prefer if we thought they could win? Maybe some of them could win. And if one of them did, maybe we’d be better off than we are now.

      It’s the old “neighbor” fallacy. During the early days of the Civil Rights movement, pollsters asked people how they would feel about living next door to, working with, or working for someone of another race. The answer, more often than not, was something like, “I wouldn’t mind, but my neighbor/co-worker/friend would have a fit.” Sometimes those answers were given in good faith but in ignorance of how the neighbor/etc. really felt, and sometimes they were disguises for the respondent’s own racism. But either way, they deprived the pollster, and the rest of us, of the respondent’s honest view of the possibility of racial justice, which we really needed.

      So here’s a modest proposal for this year’s election. For at least one office (not necessarily for president, since so many people are so fearful of “wasting” their vote by not voting for the winning candidate), vote for the person you most respect in the entire world, whether or not that person is on the ballot. Write him/her in if you have to. Real or fictitious, living or dead, involved in politics or just somebody you really admire. Your husband, your mother, your favorite teacher, Mickey Mouse, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa. The real “waste” of a vote is voting for somebody you really don’t want. This year, make sure that at least part of your vote isn’t wasted.

      Red Emma