Sunday, December 09, 2012

Loss of the Republic of Franklin

Version 0.5

Franklin's Republic Lost

Probably another apocryphal quote, but Benjamin Franklin was supposed to have been asked what the new American government was, and his answer is widely reported as "A republic, if you can keep it." Well, we just lost it. Not because President Obama won reelection, though that was a widespread lament of the right-wing authoritarians--but sometimes there is a grain of truth even in the rantings of nuts. There are plenty of extremists out there who are ready to be certified, but in this case they came close to a truth they couldn't see. The death knell of the American experiment with a representative republic was actually the victory of the incumbents in the House of Representatives.

Let me repeat that the crucial results in this election were NOT at the top in the presidential and Senatorial elections, but at the bottom, in the local elections for the House. In brief, most of the voters actually voted for Democratic Party candidates for the House of Representatives, and yet the result is that the Democratic Party only has about 45 percent of the members of the new House. The Congress went into this election with an approval rating around 10 percent, and yet roughly 90 percent of the incumbents were reelected to their positions.

Before considering the reasons, it's worth considering the rationale behind the design of the House of Representatives. The House was specifically designed to be highly responsive to the voting constituents. That's why their terms were set to only two years. The idea was that their accountability would make them responsible and for that reason they could be given the primary responsibility for controlling the purse strings.

On one level, the outcome represents the power of partisan gerrymandering, which is basically a triumph of the targeted investment of conservative money in lower-level elections, especially over the last few years. Entire States such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have had their Democratic voters packed into districts that essentially waste a large fraction of the Democratic votes. (My own district has been stretched 300 kilometers to flip away from the Democrats.) Meanwhile, the neo-GOP carefully distributes their own voters into statistically safe districts around 55% that maximize the number of districts they capture. At the presidential level, the Electoral College has the same effect of negating most voters as regards the presidency. (This pressure from big businessmen has been around for a long time, and it isn't the first time the GOP was trying to create a permanent majority. The major difference this time around involves the pro-money tilt of the Supreme Court, which certainly looks to be decisive as things stand now.)

There are several other factors that should be considered but mostly dismissed. One is the cooperation of the incumbents of both parties to insure their reelections. This is the only thing that both parties can agree on, but there is clearly a tipping point effect. It is quite clear that many states have passed the point where the Democratic Party has any influence on the redistricting process. Rather than cooperating with the more powerful politicians to make things smoother for everyone, they now target those opposition leaders quite deliberately. Another factor is the dominance of money, but correlation is NOT the same thing as causation. Yes, the candidate with more money usually wins, but the events are not independent, and it is more likely that the candidate who is most likely to win is going to have the easiest time collecting money. It's the motivation of the donations that matter. Some people donate as insurance, but the neo-GOP is now dominated by investors who expect specific returns in exchange for their donations. Let me reiterate that most businesspeople are fine and upstanding people who just want to play the game, but it is the LEAST ethical businessmen who make those investments in the most cheaply bribed politicians.

The next level is less obvious. The central idea of public elections is that the candidates are supposed to talk to the voters about the issues and their plans, and the so-called mainstream media is supposed to facilitate the political process by disseminating that information. However, what has actually happened is that the media coverage focuses on making the election look like an interesting horse race, and the serious, but difficult and even boring, discussions of the real issues get ignored.. The professional journalists are supposedly responsible to influence or even push the discussions so that the elections actually do involve substantial debates of the real issues facing the voters. What's wrong?

It's the money that drives the media to the horse races and away from the real issues. After this election, there has been some noise about how the neo-GOP wasted over a billion dollars in this election cycle, especially in the presidential race. Was that money wasted? Did it disappear? Absolutely not. The deeper story is where the money went. Most of it went to the media companies such as television stations that ran campaign ads, especially in the so-called swing states and hot districts. I read that the nonpublic SuperPACs sometimes had to pay 10 times the most favorable rates that the laws provide for the official public advertisements of the regular candidates. Talk about your windfall profits! It's also important to note that these profits were concentrated in only certain media markets. Not sure how large these profits were, but I am sure that the people who made them liked those profits and would be glad to get more in the next election.

So was the billion dollars wasted? If you got your beak wet, you wouldn't think so, would you? My new hypothesis is that the billion dollars wasn't wasted, but represents highly effective bribes invested in the mainstream media to insure they play the same games in the the next election. It's worth noting that negative money is less evidently less effective at the higher levels, both because the higher level candidates are stronger and because of the blow-back taint that sometimes affects such high-level candidates. In contrast, in the low-level elections, it's relatively easier to find and sling enough mud to control the results--and it pretty clearly worked for the House of Representatives quite well this time.

My final conclusion is that the presidential election was mostly just a distraction, the bright shiny object that kept the voters from actually looking at the real problems of the nation, including the problems in the election system itself. Yes, the presidential election mattered, and I think that Romney's performance as president would have been on the scale from harmful to terrible, but the real damage was being done elsewhere. The political system has been disrupted and destroyed in a way that makes a mockery of the intentions of the Founding Fathers.

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As a blogger from before there were blogs, I've concluded what I write is of little interest to the reading public. My current approach is to treat these blogs as notes, with the maturity indicated by the version number. If reader comments show interest, I will probably add some flesh to the skeletons...