Friday, August 3, 2012

How we got here and why it isn't going to get any better

America has a problem. We elect jackasses. We elect people because we don't like the alternative or the guy he is replacing. Then, the people who complained about the previous guy don't complain when the new guy is just as bad or worse. He's their guy. He can't be bad.

Four years ago, things were looking good. We had a president who claimed more power than any president before him. He believed in the power of the Unitary Executive. That basically means that the president can do no wrong because he is the president. He invaded other countries. He killed people around the world. He wiretapped our communications. He had protesters caged in Free Speech Zones. That time looked like it was about to end. The leading candidate promised Change.

The Change that was promised was fairly vague. It was accompanied by Hope, which gets you a long way when you don't have much to say. Many of us took it to mean that there would be a change from the ways of the recent past. For those of us concerned with human rights and how our country interacts with the rest of the world, we thought Change might mean an end to the imperial policies of the previous administration. We thought it might bring about an end to some of the death and destruction. We had railed against the abuses of the previous administration. We said they were taking away our rights. They were. Rights that very few people ever use and fewer would notice they had lost were being taken away in the name of security. We thought the Change would fix all of that. We were wrong.

Change did come. Much of it was good. We gained better protections against inequality in the workplace. We set up a whole new regulatory system to make sure that more people had healthcare and it covered them better. The economy that was badly damaged under the previous administration began to recover, though it recovered very slowly because the opposition did everything they could to stop any real recovery effort. What passed was mostly so badly compromised that it was no better than the regulations from the time in which the recession started. There were some big wins and some little wins, but the Change was mostly good.

But the Change was not what many of us expected. The funny thing about change is that the word itself neither directly states nor implies any judgement about the variance it describes. It merely states that there is a point in time after which something is different than before. Changes are sometimes beneficial but they can also be neutral or disastrous. Not all of the Change turned out to be good.

The Change had a dark side. The Change was a beast fed by blood and rights stripped from unsuspecting people. As bad as the previous administration was, there was never a reason to think that hit lists were used. People died because they got into combat with the wrong people at the wrong place and time. After the Change, it wasn't that simple. There was now a hit list. Anyone on that hit list was hunted down and killed. Not hunted down and arrested and sent to a fair trial. They were hunted down by robots piloted by remote operators far from harm's way. They were killed with the push of a button because they were deemed a threat. They were summarily executed by a country that prides itself on its justice and respect for human rights. Some were even American citizens, a class of people usually protected by the government that was now killing them.

Back home, the Change was smashing rights as well. In addition to being able to be identified as a threat and summarily executed in a remote country far from any battlefield, there was a new law that allowed for American citizens to be arrested by the military and detained indefinitely.  This could happen anywhere the United States military was operating, including at home. It relied on the removal of the right to habeus corpus, which was stripped by the previous administration. If you were suspected of doing something that the military didn't like, you could now be imprisoned for life without trial.

Of course, the circumstances to allow an indefinite suspension to occur are very unlikely. It is bad enough that it is possible, even though the likelihood of its use anywhere but on a battlefield is very low. It gets worse, though. Another part of the Change was the loss of the rights to free speech and free assembly. Protesting was banned. They'll say they didn't ban protesting. Technically, it is still possible. They just banned protesting in places where protesting might do some good. Basically, any event large enough to attract Secret Service attention is off limits. This is a huge expansion of the Free Speech Zones that the previous two administrations used. You can't protest at a parade anymore if an important person might see. You can't protest outside a political debate. You can't protest where a presidential candidate can see. You can't speak up when the speaker tells a lie. If you do, you can go to jail for up to a year. Speech and assembly, Constitutionally protected rights, were now reduced to privileges that you don't necessarily have to ask for, but not asking might mean finding out the hard way that you don't actually have them.

Now we're approaching another election. The candidate who became the president who offered and delivered the Change is again a candidate. The supporters who complained about the abuses of power and restrictions on rights of his predecessor continue to support him. This is why things will not get any better.

Due to the way we decide elections, it always comes down to two candidates who have any chance at all of winning the election. The system makes other choices almost mathematically impossible. The two parties that hold power now have entrenched themselves into the system so that they cannot be moved. It would take a radical restructuring of the electoral system to change that. The two major parties control the legislative process, so that isn't going to happen. It always comes down to two choices.

The two choices are not really choices at all. They differ radically on some issues but on others, they are as near to identical as makes no difference. On the human rights and foreign policy issues, they are different enough to make a distinction but similar enough that no major change would be likely should the country switch between them. One wishes to return to the types of abuses of the previous administration (not realizing that they never ended) while the other wishes to maintain the current abuses, which are largely amplifications of the previous administration's policy. I can see little practical difference between these two positions.

The people who supported the previous administration support the challenger now. The people who wanted the Change still want the candidate who promised and delivered the Change, the candidate who now says Forward, presumably to more of the same kinds of things that came with his Change. The people who were against the previous administration when it did terrible things overlook the same abuses just because he's their guy. This factional, two-party thinking is how we got here. Sticking to it is why things will never get any better.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can call for an overhaul of the electoral process. We can demand that they change the law to a more equitable system that allows for the people's views to be represented in government rather than the views and goals of few but the party officials and the donors who pay for the elections. Demanding won't change anything as long as they feel secure in their place running the system. We need to start voting out Congress. Stop reelecting people. Start electing new candidates. Try it within the existing major parties if possible. Organize massive efforts to elect minor party candidates to take their seats if necessary. Cause the status quo in House to be disrupted by massive turnover of membership. Do the same for the Senate. This should destabilize the parties and cause their grip to weaken. Once that happens, we can change the electoral process. Once we have a proportional system, possibly with some kind of weighted preference based ballot, we may just start to get input from more than just the two main parties. We may finally have an actual choice and a voice in the process. We won't have to vote for the lesser evil anymore. We can vote for whomever we actually prefer rather than the candidate who scares us the least.

It is too late for this election. Ballots are closed. State parties have held their nominating conventions. It is too late to collect enough signatures to get on any ballot that may still be open and there is little time left for campaigning. Even if it were not too late, it will take years, possibly decades, for this to work if it ever does. In the mean time, acting like the system is working better won't hurt it any. This year, vote for the candidate you prefer. Don't just look at the Democrat and the Republican. There are lots of other parties. They're not all on the ballot in every state. Most are not even on the ballot in enough states to win the presidency as long as the Electoral College exists. Because of that, don't expect your candidate to win. What you will be doing is contributing to the need for change to a better system. You will be demonstrating that people want more choices that the two guaranteed by the existing system. Doing that may just have a greater effect on the distant future than deciding between the two main candidates now. When it comes to things they can actually control, their difference is small (especially on a historical scale) compared to the wide range of candidates that will be available once the system effectively allows for more than two. This year, throw your vote away. You weren't going to make anything better with it anyway. In the long run, the country may be better for your sacrifice.

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