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CHECKS AND BALANCES November 9, 2012

Posted by wmmbb in US Politics.
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A friend poses: What is the use in having a political system where the person chosen by the voters is unable to implement his policy agenda? Checks and balances I know, but unworkable without serious compromise of core principles.

There is much to be said. I am unable to give a comprehensive answer.

My first response is to jump in to defend the rational spirit of checks and balances, in particular the separation of powers, the existence of an impartial and independent court system and implicitly the rule of law.

Historically the failures of English Revolution in the mid-Seventeenth Century can be seen as a precursor to the American Revolution. Without offending the Tea Party, who for some reason refuse to attire themselves as native, indigenous Americans, or the mercantilism, imperial policies of the British Empire, or the homegrown democratic political culture develop from religious meeting houses, town halls and legislatures, the English Commonwealth under Cromwell despite their principled and legal opposition to absolute monarchy degraded into a dictatorship and rule by the Major Generals. The Diggers, who are appropriately honoured in Australia, got the wrong end of the shovel and the pick axe, although their arguments and actions still have the ring of truth and now relevance.

Deal-making is a political skill, for which experience is required, and experience is shaped by institutions.The extraordinary result that a collection of wealthy landowners, sometimes against their better judgment, including the wunderkind Alexander Hamilton, much like his descendants in spirit, produced such a democratically inspired statement. James Madison seems to have been instrumental. He had a pre-written set of drafts in his coat pockets and seems to have been persuasive, with the experience, as others, in his House of Assembly. There, as here, the Senate was a democratic excrescence, but one supposed the elite would remember the history and fate of the Roman Republic. It is noticeable, that the British Occupation of New York was removed, the war was won, and financial independence, which in subsequent instances did not always happen, was secured.

Federal union is the art of compromise, and those compromised who were not given seats at the table, let alone a voice. You might think that holding the wolf by ears works, but it was likely to cause trouble in the long run. And it did. Of course the re-election of Obama, is part of that story. One has to recognize the internal tension between a political system that emerged from a concordant between self-governing colonies and a central government with residual powers. What was striking to me was the level of coordination between Federal and State agencies in response to Super Storm Sandy, and where these efforts were deficient local initiative in the form in this case of OWS filled in some of the gaps.

Elections are the practical expression of the decision of the majority of the people. Television, by conventional wisdom, sets the tone, shapes what debate occurs, provides the greatest source of information, and focus of money and effort. Social media takes the voters away from the world of visual capture into another world of virtual reality, in which text plays a more significant role. The assessment will be made on the importance that social media played in the ground campaigns to get people to the polling booths and to protect their franchise once there.

The notion of the sovereignty of the people, is appealing but fails the test of reality in day to day politics. It is an odd thing to suggest that the executive and parliaments should be subject to law at the same time as positing that “parliament is sovereign”. We know how that works. Do the sovereign people have the prerogative to discard and ignore International Law to which they are signatories? That seems to be the case, for example, in the so-called “excising of the Australian mainland” in relation to refugees, or the assumed prerogatives of American presidents to murder people based on extra-judicial process. Then there is the contested assumed power to indefinitely detain people without trial in express defiance of habeas corpus. With this power Charles 1 would keep his head while others were losing theirs, as had been the long established custom, and thus the standing in principle in Common Law.

Whatever the people at the national party conventions for the Democrats and the Republicans were doing, they were not acting as delegates engaged in writing a political platform for the President or the Congress. The event seems to have been staged for television, hence the conceit of addressing an empty chair. The President, understandably, ran on his record, more of the same. Successful Senate candidates, from Claire McCaskill, to Tammy Baldwin, to Elizabeth Warren seem to have run on a personal agenda and platform.

This was a general election in a true sense. The two-party monopoly notwithstanding there was a plurality of outcomes. The Senate now has twenty female members, which belies the population in which females represent more than 51%. Too much can be made of simple demographic indicators, I would like to see legislative bodies representing some estimate of the range of public opinion, if only to remind us as democrats to respect and value minority opinions. In this sense the democratic deficit is not only evident in the US. Then there is the House of Representatives, elected every two years for four year terms. A Twitter commentator notes:

Please stop telling us that the electorate “elected” a substantial majority to the House. Those are gerrymandered, localized elections.

Denis Kuchinich, for example, from shoehorned out of his niche, primarily to stifle his point of view. Then again, Alan Grayson was reelected in Florida.

Conventional wisdom has it, because of Congress, the views and options for action of the President are greater in foreign affairs. The pattern and progression since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attacks on the Twin Towers, executive authority has increased, substantively disregarding the Constitution and with the acquiesce of Congress through the lack of accountability, transparency and control of the purse strings. Hence the argument that Obama was the lesser of the two evils. I am not sure he is compromising on core principles, rather I suspect in relation to drones, indefinite detention and the sanctions against Iran for a non-existent nuclear program, as if Americans or Israelis given their weapons have moral standing, which punish people reliant on essential medicine, he is advancing principles that compromise what were understood as core principles. In the worst case, he may simply being expedient, believing that the “folks” are those people who live within the imaginary borders of the US and make believe bubble of television. So I suppose that the reality of climate change, despite repeated unpleasant reminders, could not get a run in what passes for a debate.

Of course, the person who holds the office of president, assumes some importance, probably as much to people elsewhere as to those who live in the US. Bill O’Reilly and Anne Coulter, understandably disappointed may wish to continue to rage against the takers, as distinct from those who they regard as the makers. By contrast I recognize the primacy of human needs, and find it offensive that we sometimes dehumanize others, take away their dignity, and the possibility for meaningful engaged social life, the sort of life that makes democracy possible, and delivers on its’ potential.

The wants and needs distinction is important for public policy but not advertising. It is an implicit problem that advertising and PR has become the conversation about public policy.

Another implicit problem, is to understand political compromise, as least as well as James Madison.

The result unfortunately for some was not hypothetical. Bill prognosticates. What was that once said about Irish Catholics?

And then Rachel Maddow gets on her soapbox. It is true that reality is not just the stone that can be kicked by any shoe. As the drone murders, ordered immediately, signify and as the long count in Florida equally signify: Situation Normal.

(I hope this is not too boring and disjointed. I have an excuse. Since it is one I rarely can use, I should mention I was working off the effects of general anesthesia provided by the local hospital. Preventive medicine is for takers and equally has its’ corollary.)

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