Thursday, August 18, 2016

America in 2016: Is Democracy Broken?

Disclaimer: I apologize in advance for the length of this post. It has been a long time since I have had ample time to organize my thoughts on any political issues and as such, I may tend to ramble a bit more in this post than I had intended. However, I feel that the issue discussed here is something that is certainly worth at least a cursory glance and consideration. I hope my attempts to express my thoughts are at least mildly stimulating, albeit exhaustive. – Evan
           Every election year has its share of challenges and disappointments. I want to make sure I am clear on that point before I go any further, because I feel it is something that many individuals tend to forget in the midst of the bloodbath that arises as we enter Q3 of a general election year. Elections are messy. They’re brutal. They’re full of misdirection, lies, and attack ads. Good ideas are discussed. Bad ideas are discussed. Democrats blame Republicans for our nation’s problems and Republicans blame Democrats. The media chooses favorites and feeds the horse race, not only in the primary but also in the general election. None of this is new.

        But something about 2016 is different than past elections – at least the ones that I can clearly remember. I admit that my own memory is rather foggy. Honestly, I can recall only vague details about the 2000 race between Gore and Bush. Most of what I know of elections, historically, is from my studies in college rather than from firsthand experience. Still, I find that I am not alone is calling 2016 a litmus test year for our nation.

        Only last year the GOP was positioned extraordinarily well - walking into this year secure in
the knowledge that Obama’s approval ratings were plummeting. Republican legislators had swept the House and Senate in the last midterm election, and we had strong Republican figures positioning themselves for the White House race. Jeb Bush, the clear establishment favorite – ideally groomed for the position and riding off of the success of not only a father but also a brother who had served in our nation’s highest office. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina joined Jeb as key figures that seemed to grasp the importance of winning. As Marco Rubio put it in an early GOP debate, “People are starting to understand very clearly that this election is going to be a turning point. That 2016 is not just a choice between Republican or Democrat, it is a referendum on our identity as a nation and as a people…we’re going to bring this party together and we are going to defeat Hillary Clinton.” I was optimistic. I liked the majority of the candidates on the stage. Oh. Except One.

        Donald Trump. It’s funny to think back to last fall. I honestly am stunned by how far he’s come. Sure, he was leading in the polls from the beginning, but that’s normal. Plenty of commentators expected Jeb or Rubio to rise up as the “real” candidate once the novelty of the brash and offensive business tycoon died down. The problem was – that never happened.

PC: Michael Dwyer/AP
        Donald Trump swept the rug out from beneath the Republican Party. He rose on a tide not dissimilar from the momentum seen in the Democratic Party, with a relatively unknown and open socialist, Bernie Sanders. Donald, like Bernie, appealed to the frustrations of the American people with the duplicity of politics. They didn’t speak the same language as the other candidates in either party. They called out political correctness. They pointed out the problems that existed: rising cost of living paired with more and more minimum wage earning adults. Rampant illegal immigration. Apparent discrimination against LGBT communities. Debt. International terrorism. “The System is Broken,” they cried. And Americans rallied behind them.

        Now, as much as I would love to explore the factors that led to a choice of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as our two front running candidates, I will refrain. There are plenty of fantastic political commentators who have analyzed the specifics of this election cycle in more detail and provided far better data than I could ever hope to present. But I want to look at one particular topic that I continue to hear echoed among my peers – that the system is broken.

        It’s not unique to Trump or Bernie. It’s a common message this year all around. Earlier in the election, candidates like Cruz and Rubio condemned the established party leadership as an obstacle to true conservative reform. Democrats also point to a broken system – rigged by powerful corporations and businessmen and special interest groups that fight for profit at the expense of “everyday Americans.” Honestly, I thought for a while that this was just the candidates attacking competitors (Jeb was an establishment candidate, Trump is a powerful businessman, etc…). Then about a month ago, I was chatting with a friend on social media, and I heard that phrase again – the system is broken.

        The only thought that I can offer is – Really? Is “the system” really to blame for this election year? For the political issues that exist in our nation and around the world? I would seriously question that premise. In fact, I would argue that our system is as near to flawless as sinful man is capable of crafting.

Our Founding Fathers crafted a system of government that combined the best of all worlds, as near as they could find. They rejected the authoritarian monarchy of Great Britain and looked instead to classical political concepts from the Greco-Roman world. They crafted a constitutional republican democracy where the American people have the ability choose representatives who would tackle the difficult issues of their communities at local, state, and national levels. The constitution was crafted as a way to prevent the expanse of government regulation from strangling the liberties of the American people. However, nothing about this era was particularly pure or perfect. There were many issues that presented themselves for representatives to debate. One of our earliest presidents pushed for radical legislation known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which garnered massive opposition and support. In addition, there was the looming issue of slavery that would later erupt into violence less than a century later.

However, the founding fathers were clever enough to plan for all eventualities. The three branches of government, vying over conflicting interests, slow the gears of government action to a crawl to ensure that bad policies are exposed and stopped before they can root themselves in established jurisprudence and legal code. Government in the United States was designed to be inefficient, messy, and overly complicated – it’s the entire purpose of constitutional “checks and balances,” which most Americans will recognize as a good thing for our nation. Unfortunately, the
structure of American society is only as strong as its foundation – the American people themselves. This is the “problem” with democracy. When voters abdicate their role, political elites reign supreme. Parties coalesce and build up their own members. Healthy compromise between ideas turns into quid pro quo exchanges between lawmakers seeking to create their own careers and legacies.

I think this is why many Americans see the system as broken. It’s normal and natural and all democracies eventually reach this point, throughout history. But the issue really isn’t the system, here. It’s the American people refusing to engage in the process. Whether through party alienation, indignation at corruption, or just plain apathy.

If a clock stops working, it doesn’t mean that it’s broken. It just means that no one has wound it for a while. The clock is not to blame – it’s only natural for the gears to stop turning eventually. All it needs is for a person to come and wind it up again and it will work just as well as before. The same is true with the American system of government. It isn’t broken. The gears have just lost momentum and have bogged down from the complexity of the mechanism. However, if the American people step up and engage in the political process, the momentum will return and the “clock” will start telling time again.
Now, you might object and say that “I haven’t disengaged. I’m not a part of the problem.” Well good for you. If you’re communicating regularly with your representatives on how you want them to vote, walking precincts, engaging in civil political debate of ideas, and making an informed decision at the ballot box, good for you! Most of us, however, are busy with our day to day lives. I’m a political junkie – I love to discuss American politics, weigh ideas, and consider alternatives. I try to remain an informed voter. But I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve contacted my representatives and urged their vote on a political issue this year. However, as responsible adults and voters, we cannot continue to lie to ourselves and shift responsibility onto “the system,” when we refuse to even participate. It’s time that we take responsibility for our own failure and take steps to repair the damage we have done.

Come on, America! We’re better than Trump and Hillary. Let’s be optimists again. Let’s fight for our nation, instead of tearing it down. Let’s be that shining City on a Hill that shows the world that Democracy works, when you hold each other accountable.

Let’s actually Make America Great Again. 

-        ~  Evan Gillespie, copyright 2016. 

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