Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Democracy's Death of a Thousand Cuts

It was Election Day yesterday, so naturally, I was sitting on my couch binge-watching my favorite program on Netflix.

It had not been a conscious decision -- to avoid election-related information on Election Day.

Rather, it was just that I knew I didn't have to be at work until 4 p.m., and so why not take advantage of having the house to myself?

But then I made the mistake of turning on the radio while I did the dishes, and something the host of program I was listening to said, made me pause.

He said something about hating elections and I realized, to my dismay, he was absolutely right.

I hate what elections are now in America, and, I'm not alone in suspecting, most Americans do as well.

Its not hard to find someone reminding us on Election Day about the sacrifices made by our troops over the years to secure and maintain the right to vote.

And they're right, they have.

And yet, we're more willing to put a yellow ribbon on our truck to honor that sacrifice than we are to exercise the vote they died to protect.

Not to worry, this is not a sanctimonious lecture about how we're all failing American democracy -- we are, that's a given at this point -- but more a rumination on why.

I have this James Madison quote taped to my computer screen at work, and I look at it every day: 
I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.
It's not quite on point, but it does catch the flavor of what I think is happening to us.

In fact, sometimes I think the single best way to increase voter participation would be to introduce a bill to eliminate it completely (I mean it's not as if they're using it), to force people to fight for it.

But it's not worth the risk, given the tepid response America has had to the "Voter ID" craze, an attempt in the name of democracy, to make it harder to vote, rather than easier.

Many blame the obvious villain. 

But it's not the media, or at least not the media in the traditional sense that most of us mean. 

As I pointed out in a Facebook rant several weeks back, the real tradition is American journalism is one of rank partisanship. It was there in the beginning even as it experiences a renaissance today.

The tradition of impartiality in journalism is relatively recent in the long view and those who bemoan our current state of news coverage and harken back for a simpler time would be amazed and disgusted at what passed for journalism in the time of the founding fathers. 

Nevertheless, quotes from Jefferson about preferring newspapers to government notwithstanding, the founders did see them as necessary, not because they were beacons of impartial truth; but because it was at least some way to get out a message about policy and information to a larger nation than democracy had ever been tried in before.

That's why they allowed newspapers to pass through the mails free of charge.

It was an imperfect system, but it was all they had.

Still, despite partisan and outright false newspaper reporting similar to what we have today, Americans still turned out for elections in droves in generations past.

Election Days of the past were marked by parades, riots, free beer, all for the purposes of gathering support at the polls. No, not the best environment for considered decision making, but let's remember the state of public education until the last century.

So if it isn't a partisan media, why don't we vote in large numbers anymore, particularly in the lower level elections which have such a disproportionately larger impact on our lives?

(Perhaps the exception in Pennsylvania proves the point. It's no accident that the governor's race will pivot almost entirely on the issue of public school funding, because voters have experienced it first-hand. When was the last time THAT was the major issue?)

Well, allow me to contradict myself now and say the media is certainly to blame, at least in part, for this voter malaise, to channel the spirit of President Carter

And by that I mean the media in the sense of advertisements, mailers, relentless e-mails and robo-calls and, yes, partisan television and web sites.

Remember, for the most part, this media is not reporting so much as passing along paid messages, messages paid for by the candidates or supporters. The media is merely the medium by which they are brought to your doorstep.

And, I think that's because those media vehicles work best in conveying symbols and simple messages. 

It's no accident that the term "optics" was born in Washington, and no one speaks to a camera in front of a lecturn anymore without the message of the day prominently and repeatedly splashed across the backdrop.

So in one sense, my journalism professors were right. "The medium IS the message."

But, like everything, it's not that simple.

My father often boasts that his single biggest responsibility in raising children was to teach them irony. He did that well.

I, on the other hand, spend a lot of time reinforcing in my son the idea of nuance, of complexity, of an outright rejection of the view that, with several obvious exceptions, everything can be seen as black and white, right and wrong, us and them.

We have complex problems. I doubt simple solutions will solve them.

So, in arguing for nuance, let's take this governor's race. 

I'll reveal a secret that's not hard to guess and say I voted for Tom Wolf, but even that's not entirely correct. 

I voted mostly against Tom Corbett, in much the same what that I did not vote FOR John Kerry, so much as AGAINST George W. Bush.

To further the cause of complexity, I will also tell you that I cast my vote yesterday despite the fact that I agree with Gov. Corbett on at least one major issue, the issue of public pensions. 

I agree, more pointedly, with the idea that reform is needed and that without reform, our public school budgets will continue to explode to pay for things that have nothing to do with educating the current crop of children.

But, having had the luxury denied most voters and having interviewed Gov. Corbett several times, I was pretty convinced he was not a skilled enough negotiator to successfully carry out meaningful reform. And despite his attempts to convince the public to the contrary, his undermining of public education was too extreme and too brazen to earn my vote.

And so I voted for Tom Wolf, even though I don't know very much about Tom Wolf, and that makes me nervous. 

I tried to be an informed voter. I went on his web site looking for his positions on pensions and how he would improve funding and results for public education, and what I found mostly was a list of things he would NOT do, and some vague assertions.

And so I pushed the voting button yesterday with very little hope that public pensions will be dealt with in any kind of comprehensive and fair way in the next four years, and that I will continue to write news articles quoting school district business managers talking about how much local tax money will be diverted to PSERS instead of classrooms.

And so I don't wonder if my experience wasn't duplicated, will thousands of local variations, a million times all over the country yesterday.

Those who did vote, whether in national or state elections, doing so listlessly, more as a civic duty than with any enthusiasm for a particular candidate or, even more pointedly, their program of solutions.

Voting, it seems to me, has become like going to the dentist. We do it because we should, not because we're excited about what's involved.

And, like the dentist, voting has become expensive.

Money, for the most part, decides elections but I am heartbroken at what that money buys, at the messages on which that money is spent

But the politicians and operatives don't do it to be undermine democracy. They do it because it works.

The simple truth is Americans don't have the attention span for the kind of detailed, comprehensive and issue-oriented campaign we all pretend we want.

And that brings is right back to us.


We could choose to ignore political ads and educate ourselves about candidates.

But we don't.

We could choose to go to the polls despite the fact that none of the candidates seem to possess many redeeming qualities.

But, increasingly, we don't.

We could even vote for third-party candidates in great numbers, just to shake things up and maybe put a scare into the two big parties and bring about the change we say we all crave.

But we don't.

Instead, we choose to do exactly what the pollsters say we will do and that which we say we abhor.

If we vote at all, we make decisions based on "gut feelings," on "optics," on, like I did, which of the candidates is the lesser of two evils.

And we blame the politicians, and the political operatives, and the Supreme Court Justices who have unleashed this idiocy even more fervently further into our living rooms.

And we should blame them.

And we hate them for it.

But I think we also hate ourselves for it as well; for accepting that this is just how things are, that there's nothing we can do about it, that one of us, or some of us or (dare I say it?) all of us, standing up and demanding something better, supporting something better, encouraging something or someone better would not make a difference.

And because we hate ourselves for our collective failure, we avoid the thing that reminds of us of that failure within ourselves -- the voting booth -- and so that failure is compounded.

It is a failure driven not, as it turns out, by violent usurpations, as Madison put it and partisan e-mails would try to convince us, but by slow, creeping "gradual and silent encroachments," each too small to cause a rise in us, to warrant a call to arms (or the ballot box) but collectively burying us over time in cynicism, indifference and inaction.

Happy Election Day.


  1. I agree with much of what you say about voting and thinking and trying to find out what the Candidate really stands for. People listen to the commercials not realizing that somebody will not say I not the person for the job, that I have no ideas that I wasn't paid to have.
    I would like to explore third party candidates but it is difficult with our system.

    I would love to see a strong third party candidate like Ross Perot (who had my vote until he backed out of the elections) who still got a really healthy 19% (If I remember correctly) I am tired of the two party system but I will die before I give up my right to vote.

  2. Whitman said that great literature requires a great audience. It is the same with politics. We are no longer a great country, merely a great power. There's a huge difference. I'm glad I taught you irony, which is a form of nuance. The smaller forms are harder to teach. Still, I'm quite proud of you, and this is an excellent column.