The Best Way to Get the Vote Out

Note: this is the third in our series on Election 2006. The first two, The Democrats and National Security: Dzerzhinskii’s Dilemma and Electing the Unelected, were presented earlier.

One of the long-running whines about American politics is the low level of voter participation in elections. About this time every election cycle we are regaled with laments about how terrible it is that voter turnout in the U.S. is lower than every “major democracy” that people can think of. We’re also entertained with “reasons” for this problem, ranging from the effect of television (which is on the wane, but still important) to negative campaigning to banal candidates to the sometimes arcane system of voter registration and anything else that the “analyst” doesn’t like about American politcs.

To be frank we’re tired of this whine, which in presidential election years usually goes along with calls for the abolition of the Electoral College. We’re tired of it because it doesn’t really get to the bottom of the issue. People vote primarily because they believe the results of elections–and their particiation therein–will make a difference in their own lives. The simplest way to make an election irrelevant is to place the real power of a society in the hands of people who are not elected, and that to a large extent is why people quit voting or never vote to start with.

Back in the nineteenth century, we have many of the same problems we have today with elections: banal (and frequently drunk) candidates, negative campaigning that rivals or exceeds anything we see today, and plenty of voter fraud. So why did people turn out for these elections the way they did? The answer is simple: they either didn’t have civil service at all or did not have it to the extent that they do now. When the government changed, all of the officials changed. What you could get out of government depended upon who was there, and if you were an actual or potential officeholder, the stakes got really high. That was enough to get everybody’s attention.

Civil service at the federal level was triggered (literally) by the assasination of President James Garfield by a loser in the “spoils system.” The Pendleton Act (named after the Ohio Democrat who sponsored it) created the civil service, whose objective was to create some kind of merit in government positions free from political influence. By the time of President William McKinley, about half of the positions in the federal government were under civil service. It is not an accident, though, that the growth of civil service has been accompanied by the long term decline in voter participation.
The Republicans would rue allowing the creation of such an institution in the years they were dominant. Under Franklin Roosevelt the expansion of government meant the expansion of civil service. Roosevelt’s idea was the creation of an alternative form of patronage through Social Security and other wealth transfer mechanisms, all of which was administered by a bureaucracy that was further insulated from politics by the Hatch Act. By creating a large portion of government that was both “politically untouchable” and administered by “non-political” people who nevertheless had a vested interest in its perpetuation and expansion, Roosevelt took a great deal of effective power out of the hands of elected officials, both those of his opponents and those of his own party as well. And, of course, the level of voter particiation continued to decline.
This has dampened people’s enthusiasm for voting because it has dampened the need for them to vote. Today people can go on year after year, obtaining services and entitlements from the government without having to deal with an elected official. Although, as we commented last week, there are still many important positions in federal and state governments which are appointed by elected officials, there are still more that are not. A good example of this is our public school systems. Although these are certainly subject to political pressure, any elected school board member who will be honest about the subject will tell you that the bureaucracy of the system, from the superintendent to the organised teachers and so on carry a lot of weight as to how the system is operated.

And, of course, these people vote. Since their income is derived from taxation, it is difficult seeing them en bloc opposing tax increases, and we see this pattern very strongly when referenda on additional taxation are offered.

The existence of civil service has doubtless brought competent people into government. But it has also created a patronage dynamic of its own, one which, unintentionally in most cases, creates a long-term threat to the viability of meaningful representative government. By insulating government–and the beneficiaries of its services–from “politics,” it has created a constituency of its own, and it encourages people to ignore the electoral process and to trash the “noise of the renegades,” the voices of those who see the dangers of blindly going forth as we are. In doing this it imperils not only our freedoms but our existence as a republic. The obvious solution is to return to the spoils system, but this would create a total mess in the world we live in. It would, however, bring voter participation back to a high level, but it is unlikely that we want to or or should pay the price for that distinction.

Civil service or not, as they say at the NRA, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Roman Catholicism and Mark Foley: Maybe It Is Better to Wait to Convert

One of our more viewed pieces is Think Before You Convert, an overview of the pros and cons of Anglicans who are thinking about “swimming the Tiber” and becoming Roman Catholics.

It looks like we have yet another reason to think about it, because now we see that Rep. Mark Foley’s Maltese priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lake Worth did some things with the future Member of Congress that he can’t remember because of the drug-induced stupor he was in. He also did some things that he does remember, like teaching Foley some things “wrong about sex” and undoing the fly of another boy in the parish.

From a personal standpoint, such problems are too close to home because the two Catholic parishes I regularly attended in South Florida–St. Edward’s in Palm Beach and St. Thomas More in Boynton Beach–flank Sacred Heart in Lake Worth. (Click here for my reminiscence about my time at St. Thomas More.) I will say that I never had any bad experiences of this kind in either parish. But I was seventeen when I converted, and since my parish priests all looked up to me, that puts things in a different perspective. Perhaps that delay was the best thing of all.
It is the sacred duty of any man or woman who is called priest or minister to behave in a way that is reflective of the call from God that he or she has on her life. I have become hard to shock in my old age, but I find this kind of thing impossible to stomach, especially when it happened so close to home and during the time I lived “where the animals are tame and the people run wild.”

Electing the Unelected

One of the enduring fixtures of American politics is that elections are largely decided by a relatively small group of “independent” voters in the centre. Or at least that’s where we think they are. One of the great principles that such voters will enunciate is that they “vote for the man (and when called upon the woman) and not the party.”

On paper, this is admirable. The personal qualities of an individual in public office are crucial to their success. Some of these transcend party and ideology, although many do not. But this thinking in practice has too many pitfalls to be relied on for superior results in government.

To start with, most independent voters rely on the media for their ideas more heavily than, say, those ideologues on the left or right. This is scary in and of itself. No matter what you think of the bias of the media, the basic problem is that more often than not the mass media frequently does not understand what it is looking at when analysing a given situation, let alone a candidate for office. We discussed this problem in the aftermath of the Israel-Hezbollah war earlier this year and it applies to just about everything the media touches.

Beyond this, however, it assumes that everything in government happens because of the direct orders of the elected officials. If we don’t like what our government is doing, we change its officials and they will in turn change the government to do things the way we like it. That’s the idea behind representative democracy, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, things in reality are a little more complicated than that.

To start with, our legislatures–state and federal–are divided along partisan lines. It isn’t the belief of the senators and representatives that gives control of the agenda to a certain leadership, but party affiliation. A good example of how an entire group of people can be sidelined by their party’s position is that of pro-life Democrats. They can be pro-life all they want but their party has hung its fate on abortion and they have no effective voice as a result, either in their party’s internal system or in the legislatures they control.

Beyond that, we have the spectacle of congressional staffers, who control a lot more of the course of legislators than the legislators care to admit. If the staffers are drawn from the pool of party activists who helped get the legislator elected–or somewhere else–the legislator’s votes will be affected by those staffers, because no legislator is able to understand each and every vote that he or she makes.

Finally we must turn to the most important group of the unelected–the myriads of appointments to federal and state positions. In addition to having a larger than average number of elected officials vs. appointed ones, American government has a large number of appointed positions which are filled at the will of the ruling party. Most of these are filled either because the person is a reliable activist or more commonly for patronage reasons. This insures that people appointed tend to reflect the controlling ideology of the party rather than the diversity of opinions that might exist amongst the majority legislators. This is especially true in the Baby Boomer era, with its deadly combination of political polarisation and control freak methodologies.

The blunt truth is that we don’t vote for just people: we vote for all of the officials that they can appoint. And those appointments are generally reflective of the ideological bent of their party.

Today many conservatives are disheartened by what the Republicans have been doing the last twelve years. Liberals are energised by that prospect. But it’s one thing to have a party that suffers from patronage issues; it’s quite another to have a party that not only lives for them but wants to expand the role of government (and thus the patronage) to more and more aspects of human life. That’s one thing to remember as we go to the polls not only to elect our executives and legislators, but all of the unelected people that go with them. Your vote counts a lot more than you think; use it wisely.

Marriage in Massachusetts: We Knew It Would Be Like This

Somehow we’re getting a bad case of “deja vu all over again” in the proposal to restrict Episcopal churches to simply bless people rather than actually marry them.

This, of coure, is the usual practice in Europe. We still think that the long-term objective of many gay rights activists–inside and outside of the Episcopal Church–is to end the church’s privilege of performing civilly valid marriages in the U.S. This is one way to get around having to have a religious exemption for those clergy who cannot, in good conscience, perform gay marriages. That is, of course, if they can get gay civil marriage to stick in the U.S…

South Korea and their Neighbour: Calling Their Bluff

Although the press covers it as if it’s a total shock, North Korea’s nuclear test is anticlimactic. Everybody–well, almost–knew they were working on nuclear weaponry. Now it’s official.

The main loser in this blast is South Korea, and not just for the obvious reason. They have been obsessed with reconciling themselves with their northern bretheren for a long time, not only for reasons of kinship but because they wanted to eliminate and dependency upon the U.S.–whose troops in the present they resent–and Japan, whose troops in the past they resent. Now their idea that this would be attainable in the forseeable future has gone up in radioactive smoke.

Cold wars with really intrasigent communists (the Chinese are too practical to fall into that category) are endurance matches, one the U.S. won in in the 1980’s. South Korea needs to understand that. They need to get away from doing what we almost did in the Cold War and realise that they need to stay the course until the North’s economy implodes.

Turning to another debacle, we know that Henry Kissinger has been telling President Bush that he needs to do the same in Iraq. But Bush is dealing with an entirely different dynamic in the Islamicists he faces in the Middle East. As we have pointed out time after time, the Arab world tends to be centrifugal, and Bush needs to exploit this and quit fighting the last war.  But for those who still are, the rules are still the same.

The Democrats and National Security: Dzerzhinskii’s Dilemma

At long last, we are entering the season where most Americans who do take interest in the November election actually take that interest. I find this botheresome but inevitable. Back in the spring I sat on a school Superintendent Selection Advisory Committee, and even with all of the rancour we had experiened over the years on the subject of public education, things didn’t really blow up until we had made our decision, and by then it was too late.

There’s a lot more on the table now than one school superintendent. Our political system is so polarised now–and has been since the late 1960’s–that a significant shift in control in Washington can change the complexion of the nation. Unfortunately most Americans have not grasped this truth, and the result of this is our low voter turnout and the virtual control of the system by a relatively small group of “independents” in the middle, who all to often rely on our news media for their ideas (a dangerous thing at best.)

We’ve said before that we are surprised that the Democrats didn’t bag this political system a long time ago. Now they are within striking distance of taking control of one or more houses of Congress (which would really make it the opposite of progress) and take a major step forward towards recapturing the White House in 2008. But why is there doubt about the outcome? The inequities in our wealth distribution become more pronounced. The level of debt grows as the housing market–which collateralised that debt–softens. The Republicans have fudged on the principles which gave them that control in 1994. All of this should make this election a cakewalk for the Democrats.

It hasn’t. Bush’s popularity levels, starting in the cellar, are rising. So are the polls for the Republicans in general. Why is this? Along with falling petrol prices, the answer is simple: in spite of difficulties with the Iraq war, people as a whole believe that the Republicans are stronger on national security. The Democrats have passed up many opportunities to change people’s minds on this with everything from stalling the Patriot Act to constantly attacking just about every administration effort to deal with terrorists, from Gitmo onward.

Shifting one’s position to improve public standing is a part of political success. Bill Clinton proved that; his party should have gotten the message. But Clinton–who is very defensive on this issue–finds it easier to throw a fit on Fox News rather than to have dealt with it effectively when he was in office. He found it easier to eventually throw an important Democrat constituency to the wolves in welfare reform rather than to implement effective national security through a combination of police, military, and diplomatic action. Democrats waiting in the wings to pick up where he left off are, if anything, “softer” on this issue. Why?

To understand this, we must first realise that the Democrat party today is the party of the 60’s radical. That includes just about every major player in the party. At the heart of sixties radicalism is rebellion against authority, especially the military and the police. When they’re not worried about what authority can do to them at the present, they worry what it might do to them in the future. That’s why the ACLU constantly attempts to undermine anti-terror efforts by the government.

As a practical matter, one would think that they would realise that, if they ever did gain power, the police and military would be essential elements in their ability to maintain it. And sometimes they do know this; the Clintons have never been shy about using the power of law to protect them personally and to advance their own proper interests. But in general the Democrats are reflexively unable to empower the military and police to protect us out of a fear they will repress us, even in the face of Islamicists who would wipe out their way of life more surely than anything else.

To draw a contrast, consider another revolution, namely the Russian. Lenin had no illusions about what he was aiming for: the dictatorship of the proletariat. Left-wing communism was an “infantile disorder,” to be set aside for the good of the cause. Moreover Lenin didn’t have the luxury of a legal system such as ours: he had armed resistance to his revolution, and so, although a major objective was to get out of World War I (which he did through capitulation,) he had no qualms about forming a military and brutally defeating his “White” enemies.

His handling of police matters was no different; he had the Pole Feliks Dzerzhinskii to head up the NKVD, which became the KGB, to take care of internal dissidents through imprisonment and execution. His strategy worked; by the time he died the Communist Party was in control of what became the Soviet Union and would remain so for the next sixty-five years.

Unfortunately the security apparatus that he had set up turned on many of its creators. Under Stalin, many of Lenin’s comrades (Leon Trotsky being the most famous) ended up perishing in the purges, and the likes of Lysenko took centre stage. This is a historical memory not even the left can shake; it is one more reason why the flower children that dominate the Democrat party have an aversion to strenghtening the military and intelligence apparatus of the government. They know better than anyone that, in a modern society, today’s norms are tomorrow’s crimes.

So the Democrats are stuck. They simply cannot bring themselves to allow our military and intelligence services to do what they have to do. So the vote to keep them weak in the face of public opinion to the contrary. The Democrat Party and the American left is trapped in Dzershinskii’s Dilemma, where if they neglect national security we lose and if they beef it up they get wiped out. They never will find a way out. We vote for such people at our own peril.

Sailing the Last Voyage with Newton and Pascal

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