Saving democracy, part one

I’ve been making occasional visits to Front Porch Republic, which is a pretty interesting blog site with an intriguing tagline: “Place. Limits. Liberty.”

Most recently, I came across a piece by Patrick Deneen called “New World Order.” It is a bit of a downer (and the comments are even worse). He essentially frames the last century and a half as an uneasy marriage between two great forces – Equality and Stratification. He warns of their impending divorce and a scenario in which democracy is sacrificed in vain attempt to maintain our levels of prosperity.

It seems that this divorce is already underway in the health care reform process, and this has me thinking about how co-ops might be able to help save democracy.

My vote is much less meaningful if I am only allowed to vote between two “serious” candidates representing the twin capitalist business parties. I am free to vote otherwise, but that is regarded as somewhere between foolhardy and antisocial. (You voted for Nader?)

It should be obvious to anyone that concentrations of wealth are disruptive or even destructive to political democracy. Greater concentrations mean greater distortion, due to the great and growing fortunes needed to run for office. This actually threatens our prosperity AND our democracy; consider a recent NY Times op-ed by Frank Rich calling corrupt bankers (and their feeble regulators) a worse threat to our nation than al-Qaeda. Yikes.

There are all sorts of antidemocratic conventions in our political system, such as the Senate giving more weight to a voter in Wyoming than to 70 Californians. These conventions have always been around as checks to protect the (virtuous) rural voter from the (corrupt) urban one. We can debate whether they are wise or right, but they are enshrined in tradition and relatively stable. And as we shall see, stability is a very good thing.

What really has me worried is the increased frequency with which the Congress’ traditions are bent or simply ignored. I don’t mean the rapid erosion of civil liberties and snowballing security procedures, although those are alarming enough. Rather, my concern is primarily the rapid breakdown of long-held conventions within government.

Take the filibuster: Not long ago, this was used in extreme cases and required a concerted effort by the minority party to prevent the closure of debate. Senators actually had to get up and endlessly debate, or read the phone book, or recite poetry, or whatever. Now, the filibuster has mutated into a de facto requirement for supermajority.

This means the very presence of 41 senators in a party willing and disciplined enough could prevent anything from passing. This means that 50.1% of the populations of our 21 smallest states can effectively prevent anything from happening in this government. Theoretically, about 1/18 of the population can stop the show. Considering that smaller states tend to be more conservative and conservatives often vote Republican, it is easy to see this as the United States being held hostage by the Republican Party.

Unfortunately, the Democrats’ cure for this malady has been even worse than the disease, as demonstrated by their worsening contortions to get health care reform passed. As I observed with alarm last summer, Sen. Baucus did an end run around the usual committee process with his “gang of six.”

Now, it gets even worse. Typically, differences between House and Senate bills are resolved in conference committee, made up of a set number of representatives from each party and each chamber. However, “Democrats” are now doing something else in order to sideline the Republicans.

Has it not occurred to anyone that the Republicans will follow this precedent with gusto when (not if) they regain control of Congress?

There isn’t anything sacred about the conference committee process, but we cannot afford to be confused about how laws are passed at this particular point in our history.

I sometimes work with people who are just starting cooperatives, and one of my first tasks is to help them figure out how to make decisions. As I put it, one of the worst situations is when people use opposition to the outcome of a certain decision to challenge the decision-making process itself. In such cases, there are two decisions to be made simultaneously with one dependent on the other.

It becomes very difficult to look at what is in the long-term best interest of the group, because a certain decision on process will affect the outcome of the issue at hand. Further complicating things, there may be an air of frustration about the process challenge or an urgency to the first decision, making it impossible to take the time to have an open conversation.

Does this remind anyone of anything?

On the other hand, there’s a big difference between a dozen people trying to get a new food co-op launched and the United States Congress.

I often tell groups that they need to have a firm process in place before they do anything serious. It is one thing for a group that is still meeting in someone’s living room to have a blowout, break up, and stop meeting. But once they’ve got a lease signed and contracts to install their fixtures, the stakes are raised immensely. At that point, splintering may result in lawsuits and decades of hard feelings.

That is bad enough, but now we are facing the breakdown of decision-making in the world’s most powerful legislative body. We’re not at a critical point yet (that would come when the Supreme Court gets involved), but we are certainly headed in the wrong direction.

Whatever one might think about healthcare reform, it is more important that we have a functioning democracy. Otherwise, Deneen’s dire prophesy is already coming true.

NEXT TIME: How co-ops foster political democracy

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