Back from the Mountains

Having had my annual respite at high altitude, away from it all, I do feel renewed, and will try and make at least a regular weekly post here–reengage with the world as it were. It was quite refreshing to be away from it all. Imagine, a whole ten days without seeing John Boehner’s red face! Without hearing about congressional gridlock. Without hearing about wars in the world. Without being pummeled by double talk from our politicians. The thing I noticed most was how absurd much of our world is, particularly how absurd much of our politics are. And how when we are inundated with them every day we begin to accept them as normal, as okay, as though what is being said makes sense.

When I get away from it for awhile, and then come back, I see far more clearly how daft our public discourse is. A president can say a secret program that the public would know nothing about but for a leaker, calls that secret program transparent. Orwell would be proud. And we accept it. Our House of Representatives, rather than doing the people’s business, votes for the 37th time to repeal the health care bill, knowing the vote is symbolic and the law will remain.

Between fund-raising and voting on laws that have long been decided and are not going to change (at least with the current administration and senate), it’s no wonder they don’t have time to do any good work. We accept this as business as usual. And when you get away from it and come back, it shines very clear that our government is no longer functional, in any useful meaning of the word.

Jim, you said in your recent post on Majoritarianism that in America the trend has been to increase civil rights. I think that in the long view that is true, and I think there are bumps on the road. Certainly the move towards marriage equality is a good sign, and an expansion of rights to more people. In that case, I think the law has begun to change as the majority opinion has begun to change, not the other way around. And there are certainly areas today where civil rights are being restricted rather than expanded. We don’t mind being spied on until it affects us personally, individually, and the history of the world shows that by then it can be too late to do anything about it.

Daniel Ellsberg has a useful essay in the Washington Post comparing his leaking of the Pentagon Papers with Snowden’s leaking of the NSA spying. He makes the point that he turned himself in because he knew that he would be out on bail, and it turned out they let him out on his own recognizance, where for the two years until his trial he was free to (and did) give interviews and speak to the press. He shows that America has changed, and that if Snowden had turned himself in, he would be locked away without bail (see Manning, Bradley) and probably exist in solitary confinement at best until his trial some years down the line. You can argue that is right or wrong, good or bad.

I think Ellsberg is right that we have changed. And it has happened slowly, and we all find it quite normal. And when I escape to the mountains for a couple weeks and come back to see it fresh, to me it does not seem quite normal, it seems quite un-American. For all the problems we had 30 years ago when Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, we did not muffle his voice, we had a conversation about things, about what he had leaked. We heard all the voices.

Today we pay lip service to having national conversations about things, and then we don’t have that conversation. We can have 80 % or more of our populace wanting universal background checks for gun purchases, but our congressmen, paid for and owned by the gun manufacturers, simply vote no. Certainly in this and on many other issues, majoritarianism does not rule in America. Even in health care, where a strong majority of the country favored a public option, such a thing was not even allowed at the table for discussion. Much of it is due to the gerrymandering of districts that you mention, Jim, and that has taken away the rights and power of the majority in our “democratic” United States.

I miss the mountains already. And I am back to speak with what voice I have. You concluded your post by writing, “When enough people don’t get their way, they have the right to wake up!” The question is what that means. What does it mean to wake up? I think the Occupy movement was a beginning of an awakening, undertaken by many people who saw that their votes no longer had the power to affect change (thanks to both the aforementioned gerrymandering and the big money in politics). Neither of us want violence in the streets. And the system is so fixed that it is hard or impossible to affect change through the ballot box. So what is the alternative? What is the way forward? How do we restore a republic that is responsive to the people. Because right now, in the clarity of seeing it anew, our government has turned a deaf ear to the people. And that is not the America I was taught about in school.

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About JP

We're two guys who met in college, in 1980. We've stayed in touch, and like to talk politics, current events, music and religion. JP is nore liberal than Sid, but not in every way. We figure that dialogue stimulates ideas, moderates perspective, and is in general friendly. These are things we need badly in these dangerous times. The blog name is taken from a song by Bruce Cockburn.
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4 Responses to Back from the Mountains

  1. Jim says:

    JP: Majoritarianism is when the party that was elected does not represent the variety of views of the people. A true democracy involves public debate, and finds ways to protect the rights of both the majority and minority to exist, and to express themselves. Some of your examples fit this definition, some do not. The House that has little better to do than vainly repeal the Affordable Health Care Act is a Republican majority, and is trying to represent that minority of the public that is unhappy with the ACA. They are doing the same vain blocking with sensible gun laws, approving of judges and other appointments Obama has made, and over-blowing immigrant security rather than passing a holistic reform law. That party is doing other dumb things, such as incessantly trying to pin something on the Administration about Benghazi, Fast and Furious, the IRS auditing, and so forth. And you are right that the wishes of the 99% Occupy Movement have not really been heard yet. I am glad these debates are going on, they are signs of democracy. Still there are all sorts of indications the system is sad and broken. Money in politics, the twisted art of falsely portraying issues with spin and PR lies, and the Fourth Branch – permanent bureaucrats – that increase secrecy and red tape in Government. Many of our troubles stem from a lethargic public that created a vacuum into which corrupt politicians have slithered. Still, whether our particular side is in the majority or the minority, we cannot pick and choose when we will blame the system.

  2. JP says:

    I’m sure I got some of the examples wrong with respect to Majoritarianism (partly because it isn’t an idea that resonates with me, in part because I don’t understand it enough to find it useful). My examples stand or fall on their own–I didn’t mean them in relation to the idea of Majoritarianism.
    And whether you can or cannot choose when we will blame the system, the fact is that all of us, including you and me, do in fact, pick and choose when we blame the system. All the time. We should try to avoid it, and we all do it.

    I don’t believe that the house Republicans voted to repeal Obamacare for the 37th time to appease the minority of Americans who are against it or confused about it. I see it differently than you (and the variety of opinion is what keeps life interesting). They did it, in my mind, simply because they will do anything and everything against Obama–if Obama is for it, they are against it, and that is all that matters. In some ways, I think, there is such a momentum in that direction that they don’t even think about what they are doing. It’s just, this is Obama’s legacy and it’s a Tuesday, so we better vote to repeal it again. In the end, we can hope it will backfire against them. When Obamacare takes full effect and the country doesn’t implode and people find it actually helps them, a record of voting to repeal it 37 times may not be the calling card they hope it will be.

    • Jim says:

      First off, I neglected to mention before, welcome back. I am headed for a quick trip to Colorado for the same head-clearing benefits. Glad you had a good trip!

      Now, are you saying that Republicans act in Congress with no thought of Representing their constituents? You are aware, there is a significant faction that still opposes the ACA, and they are as autonomic-ally opposed to Obama as these rightist Representatives. Just listen to Hannity for a while. But you know all that.

      How is it that such a minority gets a disproportional voice in Washington? We can thank Tom Delay Karl Rove and his cronies on K Street. These guys did win, and now are really overplaying their hand in a majoritarian way.

  3. JP says:

    Short answer: Yes, that is exactly what I am saying.
    Longer answer: I see no evidence the Republicans in congress (also true of many of the Democrats) vote with thoughts of representing their constituents. Yes, I am aware there is a significant faction that opposes the ACA–in the country, a minority I think, and in congress, a majority. So there is one strike against their voting with their constituents in mind. And they mostly have such safe gerrymandered districts (and this isn’t just me talking, it’s you talking!) that they have no fear of losing, and therefore no need to concern themselves with their constituents.
    And finally, there are myriad other things that there are also significant factions would like to see repealed. Yet we don’t see repeated symbolic votes to repeal the Clean Water Act, the Voting Rights Act (on that, they didn’t need to; John Roberts had their back), to repeal new food safety requirements, to reinstate DODT, to repeal Dodd-Frank, to repeal the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, etc. etc. Why is it only the ACA they vote to repeal. And even if they are thinking of their constituents, what good is a repeated symbolic vote doing their constituents?
    You even seem to agree, when you say listen to Hannity, and they are automatically opposed to Obama. That’s what I’m saying; their only thought is to be against anything Obama does, not to think of their constituents.

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