Monday, April 8, 2013

Three endangered species


By Bill Kraus

Three elements in the public policy arena have become so undervalued and weakened that some of us question their survival.

Newspapers. The collection, validation, rating, and distribution of the events that drive all of our lives is essential to a working democracy. It is the first draft of history. Like all first drafts it is imperfect. It is even subject to being tendentious. Jefferson, however, was and still is right when he said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

If you are not thinking of creating a model for newspapers that will work economically and will restore newspapers to their full strength and coverage capability, you are not doing your civic duty.

If you have been lulled into believing that the internet is a substitute for newspapers, you are deceived. The internet is a marvel. It is also more divisive than unifying. It also is not yet, maybe ever, something that Jefferson’s “every man” receives.

Participation. A perfect democracy would have all citizens informed and interested and participating in selecting leaders and would be transparent enough so the citizens can hold those they select to account. It is unachievable. Those who are capable of participation and choose to pass that responsibility to others or who think that it ends with writing a check are not really participating. Haranguing is not enough. Viewing with alarm isn’t either. Participation means finding a way into the arena. The political parties before they were neutered in the 1970s were a gate to the arena. They have become, alas, a less powerful playpen for the hyper active, partisan, more extreme adherents. If they can be restored to their former eminence, I don’t know how. Governor Dreyfus in 1980 proposed raising the contribution limits for the then-emerging political action committees and mandating that their contributions be made only to the political parties. This idea was not rejected. It never got that far; never saw the light of day. Since then the power to slate, fund, and manage campaigns has gone entrepreneurial in several phases. That power now resides mainly with the legislative leaders who are by nature to say nothing of due to the other calls on their time and energy limits going to turn to professionals instead of the unwieldy citizen delegates who have largely walked away from this game which they probably rightly see as not worth the candle.

Outsourcing and participation by the monied, through their own or through other organizations whose views they share, is the growing norm. In the recent contest for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court the candidates’ organizations created and paid for the dissemination of less than 30 percent of the advertising which the professionals who do the creating and disseminating consider essential to success. “Spend all the money you have on TV ads,” they advise, “and if you have any left over, spend that on TV ads too.”

There isn’t, but could be, a sign on the doors of the seats of power that reads, “Citizen amateurs not welcome.”

Reformers. In the beginning the government that our founding fathers invented was a work in progress, and the work was being attended to by the elite leaders who did the inventing of this democracy. They participated in its operation, and devoted an inordinate amount of the time they devoted to governing to perfecting the process. Their present day successors in executive offices and legislatures have little or no interest in the process. Their focus is on outcomes and advantages. This leaves the responsibility for tending to the store itself to the professional reformers. Most reformers are reduced to nagging and are disliked. The rest are ignored.

The accountability for the way the government works, an essential ingredient since the need for governing was recognized and legitimatized millennia ago, is not there.

Willy Loman’s wife’s line in the play Death of a Saleman -- ”Attention must be paid” -- comes to mind.

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