Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fixing the unfixable


By Bill Kraus

My list has three categories. None of them are easy. Too many are impossible.


Gerrymandering. The maps reveal everything about the Legislature’s over-reaching to make more and more legislative districts safe. Legislatures in some 20 states have passed laws which are the equivalent of “stop me before I do this again.” Iowa’s law is the best. All that needs to be done is to overcome the opposition of the Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader to do what Iowa has done. Hard.

Disclosure. The theory is that if the voters know who pays for the ads run by third parties for and against candidates, the ads would be less effective. That’s the theory. It might be more than a theory if those running the ads had to identify their organizations or causes up front the way candidates do. The legislators who would have to pass a law to force disclosure are safe enough to be almost fearless, except they are afraid of or beholden to the big money sources who prefer not to be revealed. Hard.


Legislating by caucus. The debates on the floor were once important and meaningful. The only debates that count now are in the party caucuses, and the party in the majority won’t let legislation get to the floor until a majority of their caucus has agreed to vote for it. This enhances the power of the legislative leaders and a minority of the total Legislature. In the new version of our democracy, the legislative leaders who recruit, slate, fund, and manage most of the campaigns of the members of their caucus get what they want. They want this.

Demonization. The reigning wisdom is that ads based on personal attacks and opponent denigration are necessary to win elections. Politicians and their campaign advisors are bigger copycats and worshippers of the conventional wisdom than football coaches are in their business. The voters say they dislike these ads. Then they vote for the candidates who base their campaigns on them. Nobody ever said politics was logical. Demonization will end when demonizers start losing elections because the voters have a non-demonizer to vote for and do.

Transparency. One of the crucial legs on the stool of democracy is an informed electorate. Campaigning and governing today is cursed by the “lightly informed.”

Another manifestation of “spectatorship” is the organizations whose members hear and believe only what the staffs of these organizations tell them. And then there is the secrecy kool ade which insiders drink because they know that knowledge is power and is also finite so sharing it diminishes them. The demand for information is not strong. The willingness to tell all in ways that is intelligible and informative is weaker than the demand. Why go to all the trouble of bringing the voters up to speed? Because the politicians are doing the voters business? Not compelling enough.


The press. The economic/advertising model for the press was demolished by the need for segmentation and precise buyer targeting that other media do better and cheaper. At the same time the illusion that the internet, the main destroyer, was a viable, universal communication vehicle for news. It is and it isn’t.

The internet is specialized, segmented, and more a vehicle for punditry than reporting. It is a wonderful, portable, accessible library. How many of us go to the library to read the daily newspaper? Until and unless we adopt something along the lines of some European countries to restaff newsrooms everywhere, the unifying and policy and politician discipling 4th estate will continue to flounder.

Billionaire buyouts of newspapers keep the tradition alive, but at a cost yet to be determined. The press is not beloved. The cynics will say that putting more money into journalism will simply add another 100 reporters to the throng waiting for the new baby to emerge from the hospital in London. The politicians whose relationship with the powerful press corps of yore was no better than love/hate are unlikely rescuers.

The parties. The political parties of the big tent era who recruited, slated, funded, and managed campaigns for their candidates and provided a port of entry for anyone who wanted a route to political activity got a death sentence when the Watergate reforms eliminated their almost monopoly power to fund campaigns on which all the other powers depended. The moderates who had run the parties and marginalized the inevitable extremists in them decided the game was no longer worth the candle and left center stage to the zealots who now run what’s left, excommunicate the ideologically impure, and characterize everyone who runs under their label as small tent and small minded.

In 1980 then-governor Dreyfus proposed raising the spending limit for the Political Action Committees (PACs) who were siphoning off the parties’ money and who were predecessors to the now dominant SuperPacs and making these new funding sources give the money they raised to the parties instead of directly to candidates. Everybody laughed. They are laughing no longer.

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