Saturday, June 18, 2005

Michael: Gitmo, Too Much For Democracy to Handle?

In a telling and troubling quoteSenator Arlen Spector (R, PA) summed up the utter failure of Congress to fulfill its constitutional role of oversight of the handling of prisoners in the 'war on terror': "It may be that it's too hot to handle for Congress, may be that it's too complex to handle for Congress, or it may be that Congress wants to sit back as we customarily do."

The GOP controlled Congress isn't motivated to ride herd on an Administration which has proven all too willing to bend the rules. It's politically explicable, but that doesn't mean it's healthy. The Congressional majority are acting out of Republicanism, not Americanism. The GOP has gone to great lengths to stop the minority from unofficial public hearings, or form special committees (which allow equal representation of the parties), which have been traditional tools of minority agenda-setting. The House leadership has even gone so far as to restrict minority party Members from introducing their own legislation. In an environment where the minority is treated like a nuiscance on the Hill, a near majority of Americans are effectively denied representation in Congress. No wonder then that this Congress is allowing potential war crimes to stain this nation's honor.

What does it say about the state of our democracy when one of our Senators thinks that a critical issue of foriegn policy is 'too hot', or 'too complex' for our national legislature to handle? It means a failure of leadership and failure of will by Congress to fulfill its duty as a sovereign body. One has to wonder, is this just a failure of the those leading the institution, or of the institution itself? The answer isn't facile. If the roles of the parties were reversed, would Congress be doing a better job? I'd like to think so, (Democrats do tend to snipe each other more than Republicans, after all) but I have sincere doubts.

If we must rely on partisan antagonism for our government to work, then we are ruled by parties, not by the constitution. If democracy is to work, it must provide for the right of the minority to question and bring to task the majority for illegal conduct. The principal political organs of our federal government are so brutally majoritarian that it is highly unusual for a minority to be able to stop a determined majority. This is why the propect of eroding the rights of the minority to filibuster in the Senate is so alarming; it is one of the few checks to majority power.

The obvious counter to abuse of power and illegal behavior in a democracy is the ballot box. But with micro-gerrymandered districts and a 98% retension rate, even in the most hard-fought election seasons, the likelihood of the electoral discipline of an out-of-control majority is low. Does that mean that democracy is failing us? I don't think so, but the times we are living through demonstrate that the majority can seriously abuse its position before the electorate responds to issues that are, frankly, less than bread and butter. This is a strength - think Roosevelt's New Deal that saved the nation but was so hated by a vocal minority they actually planned a coup - and a weakness - the currently leadership is able to pretty much ignore half the country with little backlash. The leeway given to a strong, or even a slight majority, by our system is extraordinarily broad and growing as the Executive finds ever more ways to parlay the advantage of initiative and broad discretion over international affairs and defense into ever more power.

What is the answer to America's rather primitive winner-take-all electoral system? Maybe nothing can realistically be done. But I think in a very significant way the growth of Independents, to the point where they are now the largest bloc of voters, points the way. Americans must become, and in fact, are becoming, less strongly attached to party affiliation. More ready to swing their vote from one party to another quickly and often. In the abscence of viable third parties (an artifact of our districting system) to act as governing coalition partners and discipline the two major parties, maybe it is incumbent on the voters to be less attached to the two parties to in order to compensate. In the current environment, that duty of independence calls upon Republicans who truly love their country, not just their party, to use their votes and the voices to discipline a party leadership which is out of control and have slipped the fetters of the Constitution.


At 10:44 AM, Anonymous JaneAZ said...

the currently leadership is able to pretty much ignore half the country with little backlash

I think it's even more than half the country. Everyone I know who voted for Bush did so because they didn't think Kerry could handle the wars, not because they approved of Bush or the GOP.

It's funny you bring up micro-gerrymandering. I think it works pretty well, for its intended purpose. It's given our state Jeff Flake and Trent Franks and Raul Grijalva, all extremists but all fairly representative of their respective populations.


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