Thursday, March 24, 2016

The system isn't broken

The other day, I read a comment thread discussing the Republican nomination system.  It's admittedly very complicated, which led some of the commenters to feel that it was secret and being hidden from them.  In particular, they felt the mechanism of the "brokered convention" was unfair.  This is what happens if no candidate gets a majority of delegates.  At the convention, the delegates are "unbound" after the first ballot to vote for other candidates than the one they were originally bound to vote for.  That way, the convention can reach a true majority for a single candidate, as the delegates for less-popular candidates group around one with a better chance for winning.

What this means is that if Donald Trump gets 40% of the delegates, and Cruz and Kasich each get 30%, on subsequent ballots, Kasich's supporters can switch their vote to Cruz (or vice versa) so that the 60% of people who don't want Trump can get not Trump.

Unfortunately, the people in this thread felt that this was a failure of democracy.  It was proof that party insiders could ignore the will of the people (after all, more of them appear to want Trump than any other single candidate) and just pick whoever they want.  It just shows that they weren't paying attention back in 2012, when this very strategy was the hope of Ron Paul supporters to overthrow the establishment.  All they needed was to keep Romney from getting a majority, and then all the delegates would group around Ron Paul.

How could they do that?  Well, by making sure the actual people who went as delegates were Ron Paul supporters, even if bound to some other candidate.  How to be a delegate varies from state to state, but in all cases, these people are chosen by the local members of the party.  All you have to do, then, is register as a GOP member, get the support of other members, and get elected as a delegate.  And you have to be willing to travel to the GOP convention in the summer.  And, most of all, you have to have enough people backing you to get what you want.  That's the real reason Ron Paul failed.  It's not because the system stopped the people from getting what they wanted.  It's that more of the people wanted Romney than anybody else.

When I read this comment thread, I was filled with a sense of sympathy.  I remember feeling that way, feeling like the system was rigged against me, feeling that no matter how hard I tried or what I did, some mysterious group of elites would always do what they wanted anyway.  I felt that the people had no real power, that democracy was just for show.  Sometimes I even wondered if there was a vast conspiracy behind everything -- government in cahoots with economic and cultural elites to seize all the power and money in the country and make sure no ordinary people got any.

But there are things that don't jive with this viewpoint.  For one thing, the economic elites don't usually agree with the cultural elites -- that's why the left demonizes "the 1%" while the right demonizes The New York Times and Harvard.  And of course there are rich mogols on the left (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett) and conservatives do have influence on the media and education (Rush Limbaugh, prayer in schools).  If Gates gives a ton of money to the Democratic candidate and Koch gives a bundle to the Republican candidate, don't they wind up canceling out?

Of course, there are some things that do operate like I imagined.  Our food system and the Federal Reserve are two I can think of where certain special interests have a disproportionate level of influence.  In both cases, it's because most people don't know or care what's going on, while those most affected by them (Big Ag, Wall Street) know all about them and spend all the efforts on influencing them.  But in most cases, the government is too incompetent to control everything the way I thought, and most politicians aren't really as clever and evil as on House of Cards.

Then why don't we get what we want?  Well, sometimes we do get what we want.  When everyone in the country agrees on something, it's pretty uncontroversial and it just gets done without fuss.  But on most topics, either we disagree entirely on the end goal (some people want there to be gay marriage, and some don't) or we disagree on the means (we all want to end poverty, but some of us think we can do it with more welfare and some think what we need is lower taxes and less regulation).  In each of these cases, a maximum of one side can get what it wants.  More often, nobody gets what they want.  Some of us wanted socialized healthcare, some wanted free-market healthcare, so we got Obamacare, which we all agree is awful.  Some want to deport all illegal immigrants, others want to give them all amnesty, so we do neither and the problem of millions of undocumented workers, which we all agree is a problem, steadily gets worse.  This problem is compounded when a problem has multiple possible solutions instead of only two.  If there are five different ways to cure poverty, and each is only favored by 20% of people, of course we're not going to make a whole lot of progress.

Now, it's not as bad as all that.  I happen to be of the opinion that America in 2016 is a great place to live.  Sure, it's not perfect, and you all know I have a sentimental attachment to medieval Europe which makes me a little dissatisfied with the modern world.  But crime is falling, even the poor aren't usually starving, we've wiped out smallpox, and we have Wikipedia on our phones.  Unemployment is higher than I'd like, but not Depression-level bad, and it's slowly getting better.  Certainly there's a lot that should be done, but I don't believe that the sky is falling.

And insofar as there are problems, many of them could be solved with a little more effort.  I mean, our founding fathers pledged their lives, their liberty, and their sacred honor to change their political situation to one they preferred.  The average modern American thinks he's a hero if he shows up to vote and does nothing else.  I'm not denigrating voting, but voting isn't the only thing or the most effective thing you can do politically.  You could try to influence other people's votes -- that has a surprisingly large effect.  For instance, you could volunteer for a phone bank or to knock on doors for a candidate or ballot measure you support.  Money makes a difference, and it doesn't have to be given by Wall Street.  Sanders is doing quite well fundraising mainly from individuals.  Or you could try to influence your representatives by calling them when an important vote is coming up in the legislature.  I've done that several times, since I found out legislators really do listen to that sort of thing.  Of course that requires you to keep up on what's going on, instead of only paying attention to what the government is doing once every four years.

If you're interested in doing more, you could join a political party.  You then have the chance to push forward that party's goals within the country -- and to push forward your goals within the party.  You can find party members who agree with you on key issues and strategize to bring those issues forward.  You might even run for office.  While there are loads of people who'd like to be president, there are surprisingly few who are willing to do the thankless work of local and state politics, and there are plenty of people who'd like to vote for a trustworthy person if one would ever run.

While I think that working within a party is probably your most effective route to pursue change, if you don't like those, there are also political advocacy groups you could join.  Sure, Monsanto has a big lobby, but real food also has lobbying groups.  In order to compete with the corporate lobbies, these groups need money and volunteers.  If you haven't given them any money and you haven't volunteered, you can't expect them to get results for you.

These are just a few of the ways you can make a difference beyond just voting.  I list them because they are things most people don't do, which you can have a disproportionate level of influence if you do.  No one is stopping you from having a say in how the country is run -- except you.

Of course it's a heck of a lot easier to say "the system is broken," because then you're completely absolved from getting off your butt and doing something.  If the system is broken, you can whine about it in internet comboxes and fantasize about the government coming to get you or the coming apocalypse.  I know how that feels because I've been there.  The reality is more mundane: the machine works, but you're asleep at the wheel.  You go and vote, and then if you don't get what you want, you whine that the system is rigged against you and you never could have won.  But what if you could have won, if you'd done more?

There is no system for organizing human beings that runs smoothly with no effort from anyone.  Democracy is no exception.  Left to itself, it tends toward either oligarchy or demagogues.  But it doesn't have to be left to itself.  It can be influenced by the hard work of individuals like you.  Or, if you do nothing, it will be influenced by people looking for money or power who are willing to harm the rest of us to get it.  It's a free country -- the choice is up to you.


Belfry Bat said...

Sitting on the outside, up North here in the land of the Occasional Minority Government, I'm happy to agree with everything you say up until "If you're interested in doing more, you could join a political party". Even that, I more-or-less agree with, except... It's not even a real disagreement... It just strikes me as profoundly weird that there are ONLY two parties, for most purposes. And, from my particular outsider perspetive, one gets the impression that party-membership is hugely more prevalent in the US than North Here. Maybe that's a mistaken impression, and while we do hear of "swing votes" and bel-weather districts, still it's easy to form an expectation that a very large fraction of Americans are decided "red" or "blue", and stay that way for rather long periods of time.

And on the other hand, we hear the equally-weird notions that neither Party is nearly as monolithic or coherent on any policy question as our smaller parties can seem to be, which leaves us scratching heads to ask "then what is the point?"

Well, I suppose there is the obvious feature that, as you mention, so long as there are only two real parties in any chamber, or two candidates in any race, in that chamber or race one of them will hold a majority, while if there were a serious three contenders, one might have unclear contests. And I've long maintained that the purpose of our otherwise-weird elections up here is also to produce a majority government as often as possible, whether it were hugely popular or not, so I can concede that as a genuine feature.

Sheila said...

I often wish we had multiple major parties. The Libertarian Party, for instance, would be a great counterbalance to the other two, but it's just impossible to get traction. It's much easier to try to take over one of the major parties. That's why Ron Paul quit running as a libertarian and got into the Republican Party, and encouraged his followers to do the same. Each party is already a mishmash of groups which jockey for power -- unfortunately, not usually in ways you can see, so people get the impression that it's just decided by some bigwig somewhere. But the people get more of a say than they think. For instance, there have been pro- and anti-immigration Republicans, but as the anti-immigration ones win more elections and the pro-immigration ones lose, it becomes an expectation that Republicans are going to be against immigration.

And periodically a big sector of one party abandons it and goes over to the other. For instance, Catholics used to be reliably Democrat (because they were working class, mostly) but when opposition to abortion was picked up by the GOP, all the conservative Catholics switched over. Meanwhile blacks used to be Republicans because they had opposed slavery, but later became Democrats because the Republicans were opposing civil rights. So you could kind of say that each party is composed of smaller, unofficial "parties," and they form a coalition behind the scenes long before the election goes down.

I actually have very little idea how the Canadian government works. I know it's parliamentary, but that's about it. And, of course, Republicans say it's a horrible socialist wasteland and Democrats think it's the Promised Land. What do you think? Does your system work well? Does it give the people what they want, or does it seem to be in the pocket of special interests more often?

Sheila said...

Oh, I should add that most people *aren't* members of political parties in any official way. I'm not. Even when people register as one, they'll often qualify it with, "but it's just to vote in the primaries, I don't agree with everything they stand for." I guess we treasure the appearance of independence, even while many of us wou1ld not even *consider* voting for the other party. Most Catholics I know, when they get really disgusted with the sort of candidate the GOP offers, threaten to vote third party. But they will never vote for a Democrat. So in that way they're very solidly "red" even if they're not registered.

And remember, a longtime "red" state might really be voting only 55% Republican. Our town is very heavily Republican, meaning maybe 70%. Enough that we always go red, but in reality there are plenty of Democrat yard signs at election time, plenty of "Coexist" bumper stickers, and a third of the town council is pretty Democrat. (I say "pretty" because it's nominally non-partisan, but we all know they're blue to the core.) But for our town to go blue, all you'd really need is for all the Democrats to turn out to vote while the Republicans are discouraged and mostly stay home. That's why candidates do not appear to care very much about appealing to the middle -- there is less true middle all the time. Instead, they are trying to fire up their base and convince them to come out and vote. That's why the rhetoric is always "my opponent will destroy the country and I am the only one who can save you," rather than, "you may have voted for my opponent in the past, but let me convince you to change your loyalty to me." Because no one really does that.

And when I think of what it would take to change over -- I imagine telling my family, "Mom, Dad, I voted for a Democrat." They'd have a conniption! So that's how party loyalty goes; friends and family expect it and in some circles you'd never admit to supporting the wrong one. Despite insisting we're not members of a party, and griping that the parties don't speak for us, we're roughly as loyal to them as we are to our religions. Given the rate that people change religion, maybe even more so.

Belfry Bat said...

A-hah! Hmm... and interesting...

Of course, first, thank you for addressing exaggerated impressions.

So, yes, we call the system Parliamentary (perhaps we should say, roughly Westminstrian), the Federal level being bicameral, the provinces unicameral (and the three Territories have their own smaller legislatures; Nunavut's local government, I'm told, is supposed to enact law "by consensus", for which I guess it helps there's only a dozen or so members).

The most important contrast between the Canadian and American constutions is, I think, that whereas the US constitution encodes "Separation of Powers", the Westminster system works more like a "filtration of powers", though I can't recall it ever being put that way. A maxim that has been used is "Parliament is Supreme". In the UK, for instance, even the judges of the Superior Court are styled "Lord Justice" and are indeed connected to the House of Lords somehow (though I expect they hold themselves or are held to judicial discretion); even the Crown is essentially (by custom with roots in the Barons vs. John Plantagenet) a creature of Parliament, the construction of the line of succession being encoded in Law. And the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the governing party are all in the first place Members of Parliament, what they do is (supposedly) examined in Parliament and (ordinarily) subject to Parliamentary approval. Of course, the dynamics of that tend to concentrate effective power around the PM --- it is very very unusual for voting in Parliament to not match party blocs, at least at the last reading of any Bill. Still, the simple fact that most things do have to be put in the public record via Parliamentary Debate is a significant check and/or balance, on many things.

Canada's working constitution is fairly similar, with some adaptations owing to the general impracticality of consulting with Her (or His) Majesty on a regular basis. Among the most notable is that the Canadian Cabinet's discretionary powers are famously heftier than similar bodies have in many other Liberal (sensu vetior) Democracies. For instance, Cabinet (meaning the PM plus quorum) can deploy the army in certain emergencies without convening a Parliamentary quorum. The Senate also is appointed, as vacancies arise, by the PM, and there are some things they actually do.

Now, how well it works... is something for another time. In recent years, at any rate (I'm sure you have heard) many things have become Law, against which I do object, but which are at least fashionable (though I don't know if a majority of Canadians actually approve of them). ... but, anyways, if I think of anything more that is coherent, I'll return.

Belfry Bat said...

Oh, there is another important check-type measure in the current Constitution in that in the Constitution (such as it is) certain realms of legislation and spending are delegated to the Provinces (... I'm not clear on how the Teritories relate) and in particular any ammendments to the Constitution must be approved by eight of the ten Provinces; in a curious circumstance, if I remember correctly, only eight of the Provinces have actually approved the Constitution itself, but that's enough for The Constitution...

Bacaladitos do Putugal said...
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Sheila said...

To my mind, the measure of success of a given democracy is how well it serves the people -- does it actually enact the policies the people want enacted? If the policies are bad but the people want them, that's either an indictment of those particular people, or of democracy itself -- the democracy is functioning, but the people want bad things; or else one might conclude that people always want bad things and therefore we should have philosopher kings instead. (I used to think this latter one, for a brief while; maybe I should post about that sometime.)

Belfry Bat said...

I will propose a middle notion: a successful democracy is one where the people approve their leaders, and where the leaders are (on the whole) good lawmakers. My point is that the will of the people is not actually the purpose of democracy (or of a benign despot), that rather good government is. You use the phrase "philosopher kings" in opposition to "democracy", but I'm told (in a TechEdDesign talk) that the Founders thought of using "King" as title of the head of the Executive Branch, even though the office was up for election every four years. Particularly, the time of revolution was well into the very constitutionally-bound Hannover dynasty, and the objection to a King wasn't that he'd sometimes do unpopular things, but that he'd get used to power by being born and bred for the office and then living in it basically forever. The rebellion wasn't really against George, but against the British Parliament.

(This is part of a thought that has been simmering in my brain for a while now, and may turn into a blog-post)

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