March 12, 2006
A Conversation In Which I Do Most of the Talking

An email exchange between Bad Attitudes friend Len Hart and Jonathan Simon, who like Len wants to fix the voting system so that we have a real democracy again, started my thoughts wandering.

Len’s Initial Comment

News from the barricades. The tide has turned. CBS News reports Bush’s approval rating at 34% — the lowest ever. Some 60 percent of Americans have turned against continuing the war of aggression against Iraq even as Bush denies the threat of a civil war in Iraq. And every decent American is sickened unto nausea by the idea that our nation, under our Constitution, is perpetrating sexually perverted tortures on people at various secret Eastern European gulags like Nazis!

Jonathan’s Reply

Dear Len —

Means nothing. Bush (and Cheney) actually get off on being disliked. After all, friend, that’s what power is to them: not to be popular but to have your way against the will of the people you rule. That this rule will be perpetuated in a simulated democracy via the unthinkable computerized perversion of the electoral system just sweetens the joke for them. You’ve seen the smirk. Bush, like the more energetic Hitler, is a nihilist at the core and nothing is fulfilling to a nihilist unless it is the big lie (the bigger the better), the utter destruction of reality and of the truth. Bush really couldn’t bear his high approval ratings; they were, in a sense, disempowering. So forget your 34% and your conventional calculus, which would make sense and be heartening only if America were still a democracy. It is not. It resembles a democracy the way a stuffed animal resembles an animal. That’s all that’s left. Besides, Len, with the long-delayed “capture” of Osama on tap for this year (they need a cover story for the theft of E2006), prepare yourself for a reversal to 66% approval in the not-too-distant future (Bush will just have to grin and bear it somehow). Yes it’s highly irrational but Osama’s head on the platter will somehow make it all OK again with the American people. “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, save it for a rainy day…” It’s that choreographed. It’s that evil.

— Jonathan

Power and Nihilism

I certainly agree with Jonathan that Bush and Cheney (though not Rove) enjoy low poll numbers. Power, after all, is the ability to get the result you want against the opposition of those around you.

In my first stint at Oracle, the famously power-mad Larry Ellison had to sign every offer letter for programmers, tech writers, and so on. Sometimes we missed people we wanted because Larry wasn’t around to sign the letters. Sometimes, after a couple rounds of interviews, and a dozen relevant people agreeing that they had an excellent candidate, Larry, without meeting the candidate, would return the offer letter unsigned. I suppose our judgements were mistaken. (BTW, think “power-mad” is a little strong? When, after many cancellations, the group of about fifty techies I was in finally met Larry in person, the advance folks made sure that the room contained exactly one chair.)

Doing what everyone wants you to do is not power; power is doing whatever you want, and pissing people off in the process. To really enjoy power, you have to want to force other people to put your interest above theirs.

I even agree with the characterization of Bush as nihilist, in the negative sense of that word (not, say, the “Waiting for Godot” sort — I’m a big Beckett fan). Bush and friends, or I should say cronies, are not nihilists in the classic sense, though, because they expect to emerge from the whole adventure enriched.

Democracy on Life Support

Jonathan’s initial statement that America is no longer a democracy may be a slight overstatement. I prefer the way he put it in a subsequent email: democracy is on life support.

He and I would probably agree, along perhaps with many of our readers, on the current sorry state of the practice of democracy in America. But it seems to me that the ideals of democracy still underlie the US system, and a lot of citizens believe in them, however vague their conceptions of those beliefs. Chomsky often quotes polls showing that if the questions are asked in words that aren't loaded — “helping people” instead of “welfare” — most Americans have relatively liberal attitudes.

So the system’s still quite vulnerable to change in positive ways. As William Greider says in The Soul of Capitalism, the US system — he’s mainly talking about the economy, but there’s lots of interaction with mass media and culture — is very attentive to change, and to things that appear to be improvements. Thus, it’s possible to cause serious change to occur in our society by doing something in a limited, local context that works and makes people happy with the results. That kind of meme spreads rapidly, and it can change society more deeply than a head-on assault, or something enforced from above.

If we really think that the US no longer a democracy, then what the hell’s the use? We’ve got precious few options. Either pick a new nationality, which most of us have considered; or go underground culturally. I persist in believing that the accumulation of lots of different kinds of shit will cause regime change soon, though I admit to using a historian’s definition of “soon”. Given the current Republican hold on all levers of federal power, impeachment is unlikely. But if the Democrats can manage to semi-articulate the obvious positions on the obvious issues — “redeploy” the troops in Iraq; follow the laws, especially those on privacy, environment, and corporate behavior; do something real about health care — they have an excellent chance to take one of the houses of Congress. (The question, as Henry Banta incisively discusses, is: has the Democratic machine been bought lock, stock, and barrel by folks who would seem to be natural electoral opponents of the party’s long-held positions? Maybe they’re the ones who owned the Republican party before it was taken over by the premillennial dispensationalists…)

If the Democrats won the House with gains concentrated on the coasts, the new Speaker of the House would probably be a woman from San Francisco. If the Democrats won effective control of the Senate through alliance with some southern Republicans fed up with the war and the budget crisis, we might be talking a return to the relatively collegial times in the Senate — Lugar, Hagel, McCain — before the so-called Republican Revolution (an oxymoron if there ever was one). In any case, many of these scenarios might result in real investigations of the warrantless wiretapping and the torture. Those would be two giant steps. Then if we could get to the lies leading up to the war, we’d be talking. I’m not holding my breath on that one.

As the Tide Turns

Has the tide really turned? I think we in the reality-based community are looking at the situation in some ways too positively, and in other ways too negatively. Jonathan refers to some of this with his speculation that Osama will be captured right before the 2006 election. It doesn’t appear to me that the news from Pakistan makes this imminent; to me it seems that if they could produced that head before the 2004 election they would have done so.

I certainly agree that BushCo would have no compunction about putting the country at risk for pure short-term political gain; witness the Plame affair. But I claim that such a craven strategy, executed by such an inept bunch, will eventually and inevitably backfire. As heroic whistleblowers of the past such as John Dean and Daniel Ellsberg, not to mention former intelligence folks like Ray McGovern, continue to call for more people in sensitive positions to leak information that can help expose wrongdoing, more information leaks out.

I think we can become too focused on the short-term difficulties, such as investigations that don’t start or that go nowhere, and miss the long-term trends: even Republicans are pissed about the blatant illegalities and inept cronies of the Bush administration. If the polls are right, most citizens are, too. Change is in the air; will it have an outlet?

Democracy in America

The problem that Jonathan and Len are working on is finding ways to ensure that the vote is counted correctly. We’ll probably be the last major industrialized country to outlaw proprietary software in vote counting systems; but I don’t think we’ll hold out as long on that as we have on the death penalty. So there’s that.

It’s certainly true that we must do everything possible to make our elections as fair as they can be. Cheating is not a new phenomenon in elections; nor is it something we’re likely to eliminate through clever technology or strict oversight. But we should apply our cleverest technology and our strictest oversight to the most important problem we have as a political community: making sure that the will of the voters is acted on. Most of the ills that afflict us right now — Iraq, torture, warrantless eavesdropping, etc. — arose in part because the popular will is not really being acted on, but subverted, and propagandized into believing that miracles still happen: for example, that a peaceful democracy will arise from a occupation that sanctions torture.

Much of the population agrees with the slogans the Republicans use; few of those people actually follow the news or hear about the results of implementing those slogans. As Thomas Frank describes in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, a significant portion of the electorate votes for candidates whose actions in Congress hurt the very people who voted for them.

The right has come to dominate the discussion through clever, and not always honest, use of language and control of the definitions of terms. The latter was not so much won as conceded by the continuing willingness to compromise of their bargaining opponents in the Democratic party. For purposes of structural regularity, I would have said “on the left”; but there’s very little evidence to my eyes of any influence of left-leaning thought on Democrats’ actual candidates and positions for the last several election cycles. The Democrats, with a few notable exceptions such as Feingold, have been afraid to articulate any solid alternative to the Republicans; who, after all, you may despise, but at least you know what they claim to stand for. Whether or not you believe them.

The Real Issue

If we can get the election-rigging problem under control, I argue, then the issue becomes policy, not mechanics. For instance, the Democrats’ problem is not how efficient their machine is. Sure, an efficient machine is said to be worth two to four percentage points in an election. But take the effort by Harold Ickes et. al. to put together a potential-voter database outside the party structure, described by Thomas Edsall as “in part a vote of no confidence that the DNC under Chairman Howard Dean is ready to compete with Republicans on the technological front.” That strikes me as rich when coming from a Clinton Democrat, already involved in Hillary’s campaign-to-be; and when aimed at Dean, who with Joe Trippi and friends revolutionized the way Democrats raise money and made the small political donation useful again. Organizing such an effort outside the party while the party claims to be involved in one of its own seems designed to divert rather than focus party energy. If the DLC was on a winning streak they might have an argument.

Given what we know about the irregularities in the last two Presidential elections from sources like Mark Crispin Miller’s Fooled Again, we can continue to expect a certain amount of voter fraud from the less honest, and now dominant, wing of the Republican party. (What, the Democrats have never cheated? No, it’s just that their cheating was not as effective or as brazen on such a large scale.)

But I don’t believe we need a perfect voting system to win; I think the Democrats could win on their policies if they had the intestinal fortitude to articulate the natural Democratic positions.

To Win

To beat the Republican machine will, I think, require breaking free of the golden handcuffs Mr. Banta describes, and advocating for the less fortunate. You know, the bottom 90%.

As Molly Ivins says in “Enough of the D.C. Dems”, the Democrats have about forty good issues to run on, and they’ll probably run on thirty-nine of them. To me it seems obvious that the big issue is Iraq: the dishonesty and illegal behavior associated with the war and with the wider war on terror. And sure enough, Molly makes it number one on her list of issues the Democrats should emphasize, along with public financing of campaigns and single-payer health insurance. Personally I argue that insurance is a waste of resources; just give me health care, and I’m happy. But whatever, I could work with her position.

And, as she says, this paradigm gives us a new legitimacy:

I am tired of having the party nomination decided before the first primary vote is cast, tired of having the party beholden to the same old Establishment money.

We can raise our own money on the Internet, and we know it. Howard Dean raised $42 million, largely on the web, with a late start when he was running for President, and that ain’t chicken feed. If we double it, it gives us the lock on the nomination. So let’s go find a good candidate early and organize the shit out of our side.

I always thought the old Will Rogers line, “I don’t belong to any organized party, I’m a Democrat”, expressed a valuable truth, and one of the best things about the party: it welcomed a variety of viewpoints, because one of its shared values was tolerance, and another was curiosity.

If the Democrats are to regain their winning ways, I think they need to adopt the policies that most people, according to the polls, want their leaders to hold. Democrats don’t march in lockstep to a central beat, they coalesce around shared values and interests: Get out of Iraq as quickly as it’s practical to do so, and whatever you do, don’t lose the army. Fix the election trickery. Provide health care for everyone. And can we do something about public education?

But first and foremost, stop the war.

UPDATE: Just to make official an offer I made earlier in email: our pages are open to replies if Len or Jonathan feel moved to do so.

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Posted by Chuck Dupree at March 12, 2006 06:47 AM
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Len has posted some follow-on thoughts at Existentialist Cowboy. Check ’em out.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree (Belisarius) on March 12, 2006 7:57 PM

This is a terrific post. Not enough people read such analysis, and I am sure you don't get enough folks telling you what a fabulous job you. Well, I am telling you. Thanks, and keep up the excellent work.

Posted by: Chip Spear on March 13, 2006 6:09 PM

Just a quick thank you, Chuck for spotlighting the dialogue between Jonathan and myself. And, of course, a thanks to Mark Miller who kick started it by forwarding Jonathan's "spot on" comments. How refreshing it was to have a real debate and a real discussion on substance. I hope that kind of thing becomes fashionable again. For a period of at least 30 years, both political wings have raised sophistry to new levels and the nation has paid dearly for it.

Posted by: Len on March 18, 2006 11:52 PM
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