03 November 2008

The Fate of Democracy in the US II: A Solution?

In my last article I identified what I think are two problems with the American political system:
  1. Political power, ideally in the hands of the voting public, is not and cannot be realized by that public because of a lack of actual information. Actual power is instead in the hands of those who control the information the public receives through advertisements and special-interest pamphlets.
  2. Actual power in the hands of the politicians is not often used for the common good. Politicians are beholden to campaign contributors and to the whims of the voting public -- uninformed, fickle, and often irrational. They cannot promote unpopular legislation for fear of losing their jobs, and they often make bad decisions purely to maintain their office.
I believe money is the root of the problem -- and so my solution is to remove it from the political equation as much as possible. End campaigning -- period. Advertising has no place in politics. There should be no television ads, no radio spots, no promotional political material from any special interest group, no pulpit commentary -- nothing. If money can influence a medium, the medium is unsuitable for the democratic process. In one fell swoop, we remove the main cause of political corruption: money. People can no longer be motivated by attack ads: their fears cannot be preyed upon. The politicians and interest groups will have no medium through which to lie. Because they no longer have to spend so much time cajoling the public, they can do their jobs. Because they no longer have to compromise their integrity to raise money, they can do their jobs more effectively. Democracy can become a public affair -- not a privatized, money-driven affair.

How are voters to make informed decisions in this new system? I propose a new way to manage and distribute information -- a rationalization of the democratic process. People who want to run for any given office must submit an election dossier -- a summary of their relevant qualifications, their stances on the issues, an explanation of why they think a given issue is important, and so on -- to a new "Voter Information Office". This office, before which all are equal, adds a summary of that person's voting record (if they have held office before) to the dossier, and all dossiers are made available online a year before the election. In this way, politicians stand on their own records and their own opinions -- not compromised by or to party interests, money, or lies. The dossiers can also be augmented by information from independent fact-checking institutions. A year should allow plenty of time for the voters to access and analyze all relevant information to make their decision. If necessary, we can have a two-day holiday season before the election day for voters to make last-minute decisions.

We can supplement this with televised town-hall meetings, although this could be ungainly if there are a large number of people running for the same office. Small local elections like mayor, city council member, and school board member can have actual town-hall meetings taking place in auditoriums and so forth. Positions for larger cities, state offices, and national offices would have to have televised forums in which the candidates debate. This would be very ungainly and hard to work out, not to mention the risk of giving charismatic people an upper hand. This is not a necessary part of my proposal, nor is it even a part I particularly like: it's a supplement, and that's all. It would only give the people an idea of who they were voting for, as well as given the candidates an opportunity to explain their stances more.

What about referendums? That is where televised forums become a necessity, I think. Whoever proposes a referendum can use the opportunity to explain why s/he believes the voters should vote "Yes" on it, and an opposition speaker will explain why the voters should vote "No". They can debate, then -- these two people or teams of people. These forums would be promoted, then televised or aired on radio stations. Television and radio stations could be compensated for the airtime or simply be made to do it as civic duty. I think the smaller, more financially unstable stations could be compensated, while the larger ones can just be told to do it or face losing their license.

The above is my major idea, but I do have three lesser ones. The first is to rationalize the election process by thinning out unnecessary elections. Do we really need to elect coroners and county sheriffs? Shouldn't those be experience-based, appointed positions? There are far too many positions to vote for, in my opinion. We should allow the voters to focus on the important ones -- city, state, and national positions -- not petty stuff like county coroner.

The second is to create better voters. Suffrage should not be universally granted: it should be earned. We do not allow people to drive unless they've proven they are familiar with the laws that apply to them on the road and have proven that they are familiar with the handling of a vehicle via a road test. The same should be true of voters. Beginning at age sixteen, anyone can qualify to become a voter providing they pass a series of tests on their national and state constitutions. "Current Events" classes should be added to our curriculum. People should know the law of the land. I live in a state with a spectacularly dismal constitution, and believe that if more people were familiar with it, we would be able to gain widespread support to reform it.

The third is to create better politicians by emphasizing education and public administration. I believe presidents should be well-informed of matters of history, science, economics, sociology, and geography -- for starters. Governors should know about science, economics, and geography. Mayors should know about economics, urban geography, and the importance of urban planning. School board presidents should be familiar with the importance of the scientific method, the importance of history, and the importance of education in general. I read recently that there is a university project just beginning: its intention is to be a university focused on education relating to public administrators. This pleased me because it's an idea I've held for quite some time now.

There is another idea, not my own, that says people should be able to propose legislation directly. This is called the National Initiative for Democracy, and it is something I am looking into.

That concludes my thoughts on how to make democracy better in this country*. I think reforming the process is a must: we live in a very different country from the one our forefathers conceived, and we need a system that takes the effect of money-culture and the mass media into effect. While the rationalization of democracy that I propose above will not be perfect, I believe it's a big step in the right direction.

* Of course, if we taught our children to be rational, we wouldn't need all of this -- but then where would businesses, corrupt religious figures (like Jimmy Swaggart) and so forth be? Life just wouldn't be fun without ghost stories, Santa Clause, horoscopes, and dare I say organized religions.

These two essays have been my attempt to articulate the problems of the current US political system and what I think we can do to change it. Neither my analysis of the problem nor my solution to it are necessarily perfect -- perfection is impossible. I think my analysis is fairly spot-on, but I'm not so sure about my major idea, that of removing money from the political equation and replacing it with a rational information management system.


Neurovore said...

I read part one and part two. Interesting posts. You might want to take a look at these two blog posts on a blog called Acid Test as they raise some interesting points.



The blogger herself is a biologist. Unfortunately, I do not recommend her blog as a whole as she has a vehemently anti-nuclear stance. Sigh, I digress.

By the way, you should run a series of posts on nuclear power.

smellincoffee said...

Hey, Neurovore;

Thanks for the comment. I'll look into those. :)