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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Is Our Nation Going in the Wrong Direction?

Unfortunately, many polls that ask that question leave it up to the ones being polled to define “wrong direction” for themselves when they answer.  That means, at the very least, that we cannot know just what direction those answers entail.  The wrong direction could be a leftist tilt or a tilt to the right; or even a strong pull to the far left or far right.  However, ‘wrong direction’ could also be an economic matter centering around jobs and wages, or a social issues concern centering around views of abortion, contraception and Planned Parenthood.  In other words, that question and the answers can be used to bolster either side of the political equation, depending on one’s preferences.  The validity of the answers is therefore questionable.

“Going in the wrong direction” answers involve personal bias based on many things: geography, economic status, political party, education, religion, and ideology.  Therefore, any inquiry into what might constitute a wrong direction must be based on something other than personal bias.  It must be judged against something that is fundamental; something that speaks to the human condition; something that speaks of a broad purpose and something that, at the very least, is agreed to be essential to the human condition across a variety of cultures.

Let us switch our focus a bit and explore what may be considered the right direction.  In my last post are listed some of the basic inalienable and lawful rights within our own founding documents and within the Declaration of Human Rights under the umbrella of the United Nations.  Perhaps a “right direction” for government would be the undaunted and uninterrupted pursuit of those rights and freedoms on behalf of its people.   They include:

Inalienable (or ‘natural’) rights: (“cannot be surrendered, sold or transferred to someone else”)
--life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (U.S. Declaration of Independence)

UN Declaration on Human Rights (just a few of which are):
--right to life, liberty and security of person
--No one shall be held in slavery or servitude
--No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
--Entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law
--No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
(proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations.)

Legal rights (can be modified, repealed, and restrained by human laws).  Among these are:
--Free speech, free press, right to assemble and to a redress of grievances
--Freedom of religion
--Right to bear arms
--Right to a speedy trial
--Right to vote

We should not be able to say we are going in the ‘right direction’ if government at any level is involved in passing legislation that essentially abrogates or diminishes any such rights and freedoms.  Indeed, the Australian government took a look at its laws recently to determine what kinds of encroachments were being made upon such rights by their actions.  If the Aussies can do it, why can’t we?  And maybe that’s a clue to our real problem, and perhaps to our direction at the moment. 

It appears that we have become mired in the extremes of Left and Right ideology, but more particularly, we have allowed the two major Parties to define for us the parameters of debate and discussion, and what’s more, to define the subjects, the issues, and the solutions.  The whole of our debating and discussion is now captive to the wiles and whims of these factions and their Leaders.  We have lost the ability to discern our real problems, to gather relevant and useful information about them, to debate them honestly, and then to produce bi-partisan creative solutions to pursue based on preserving and defending cherished rights and freedoms.

So, I would venture to say that YES, we are going in a wrong direction because we have allowed ourselves to fall into a trap about which many of the Founding Fathers spoke.  That trap, known as “factionalism” was to be completely avoided according to many of them.  In fact, our Founders were enough concerned about this trap, that they made sure that political parties were nowhere mentioned in our Constitution (even though some of those same Founders – Jefferson and Adams among them -- later allowed themselves to become associated with a type of political party).

Notwithstanding, here are some of their words and warnings that address the spirit of faction and animosity characterizing a radically polarized two-party system. Note especially George Washington’s “solemn warning” against this great danger to our individual and national happiness (any marks of emphasis are mine).

John Adams
“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.
~ John Adams, Letter to Jonathan Jackson (October 2, 1780).  In: Charles Francis Adams (ed.), The Works of John Adams, Vol. 9, Boston, 1854.  pp. 510-11.

George Washington
Let me … warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party.
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.
“[The spirit of party] serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another.
“[The spirit of party] opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.

“All combinations and associations…designed to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities... serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community.
“…they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.
~ George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796.

Thomas Jefferson
“I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever…where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.”
(Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Francis Hopkinson (March 13, 1789).  In: Merrill D. Peterson (ed.), Letters of Thomas Jefferson, New York, 1984, pp. 940-42)
“You will soon find that so inveterate is the rancor of party spirit among us, that nothing ought to be credited but what we hear with our own ears.  (Thomas Jefferson, To James Monroe, March 1808)

James Madison
“So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”
(James Madison, The Federalist #10, November 22, 1787)

I don’t believe I have experienced any greater passion in the writings of the Founding Fathers than in these words applied to factions and parties!  Their warnings and cautions about the effects of such factions are nearly clairvoyant if one applies them to the present day political scene.  In this light, we might fairly say that unfettered political party ideology, rules and principles (or lack thereof) may well be the strongest catalytic agent leading us toward fractured governmental process and administration and a fundamental disunity.   The indictments of the Founding Fathers are entirely applicable to the current parties and their leaders; in particular to the campaign of Donald J. Trump:
  • Opposition to each other to a point of obstruction of legislation; false criminal charges made against each other 
  • An abuse of words, developed to an art by Republicans who have invented a whole new language to symbolize the inadequacy and criminality of the Democrats; falsifying statistics and events has been an integral part of this abuse of meanings 
  • A spirit of revenge has seemed to become more pronounced lately, especially as each Party attempts to wrest power from the other, and as Mr. Trump attempts to destroy all competitors and critics 
  • In the cogent and highly applicable words of George Washington:  factions or parties “distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration… agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another.”  We are currently enmeshed in each of these actions by our parties, especially by the Trump Campaign. 
  • Of late, both Houses of Congress, under Republican control, have demonstrated for us the worst aspects of factionalism by stifling open debate, holding numerous and meaningless hearings, taking ‘show votes’ (largely to placate the voters where a negative outcome is foreordained), inventing crises and scandals, steering clear of real problems needing solution, and putting the ideology and the will of their Party in place of the mind of the People and the general welfare of the public.  (Take a look at what Sen. Ted Cruz had to say about some of the results of the Republican leadership at:”  
  • Finally, the leadership of the Republican Party in particular has used the very processes that are meant to move debate and action along, to actually undermine and destroy the ability of the Congress to legislate in a meaningful way.  The most obvious, of course, is the use of the filibuster and cloture vote to raise the number of votes needed to pass major legislation.  However, plenty of examples exist of leadership preventing votes, using one-time manufactured rules, and delaying votes, especially on presidential appointments. 
  • Let me add that too often Republican leadership and legislators offer amendments that have nothing to do with the original bill; undermine the purpose of the bill; or, change the whole nature of the bill -- all allowed and often planned – by the leadership.

So, here we are going in a fundamentally wrong direction.   Because parties and lobbying groups have taken over or undermined the process of a government that is supposed to spend its time gathering information and input from constituents, solving society’s problems through relevant and effective legislation, and overseeing the execution and management of laws already passed –all to the purpose of serving the people, protecting their rights and freedoms and seeing to it that their General Welfare is a prime consideration.  As the Founding Fathers warned, Political Parties and Factions are more likely to be our enemies than our friends in preserving the nature and function of our government.

What can we do about this fundamental threat to our democracy?  Let me give you some quick responses without a lot of detail:
1)      We will never rid ourselves completely of parties and factions; political organizations and agencies.  Nor should we attempt to do so, for human interaction and involvement in such organizations is a significant grounding for grass-roots democracy.  What is needed is some common-sense requirements of those entities.  For instance, we need to restrict political parties from receiving any gifts or money in any mode from special interests.  Because, at the very center of political parties, there is a distortion of the democratic process as money speaks the loudest, influencing elections and legislation, and buying more access, than ordinary constituents can muster.
2)      Third Party challenges to the major parties are one possible way to control major Party actions, especially if third parties manage to receive enough votes to overturn an election.
3)      More people registering as non-partisan independents will tend to make the major parties listen more carefully to what may be a more centralized group interested in just making government work well.
4)      We must seek changes in the way that Congress conducts its business.  It is currently a mish-mash of rules and procedures that are largely defined by a cabal of leaders who make it almost impossible to govern effectively.  Unfortunately, the ability of each House to make their own rules continues without a check or balance in sight. 
5)      So, my major suggestion is to go after the process of legislating itself.  Propose bill after bill to change the process, along the lines that follow:

-- Hearings must be held only to gather information on matters of legislation, established law, or oversight of implementation (including regulations).
-- The detailed purpose and goals of every piece of legislation must appear as a Preamble to the accompanying bill. In every instance, the problem or issue being addressed must be thoroughly diagnosed, explained and documented.
-- Title I of every bill should be required to spell out the relation of the legislation to its purpose, and should explain how the protection and enhancement of specific rights and freedoms of the People will be addressed.  Any benchmarks by which the bill’s goals will be measured should also be enumerated.
--The Title of the Bill must match the intended purpose and goals of the Bill and all amendments offered must meet the same standard, including explanatory clauses that document that relationship.
-- In the Senate, the filibuster rules must be changed so that cloture can only be used to close debate and a simple majority vote shall be the standard for passing all bills, except those that involve approval of treaties.

Over the past 20 years, Republicans have held 57% of the control of our federal government – 68% if you add in the Supreme Court – that's a 68/32 split in favor of the Republicans.  Among the states, the Republican Party holds complete control (legislature and governor) of nearly half the states (23) - more than three times as many as the Democrats. It turns out that America is overwhelmingly republican-controlled.  If we are moving in the wrong direction, we do have a particular Party that must share at least 57% of the blame. 

But that is not our main point.  The main point is that both parties have allowed way too much slippage in defending and enhancing the rights, freedoms and opportunities for all of the American people.   Republicans mainly (some Democrats as well) have put Party above country; ideology above principle.  And Donald Trump has carried such disruptive behavior to its zenith.  He has replaced debate with rancor, insults, and prejudice; leadership with bombast and false toughness; bi-partisan pragmatic legislating and governing with “I am the only one who can fix it!”  He has replaced common-sense with nonsense and substituted erratic and meaningless speech and phrases for substantive, documented and accurate discourse. 

The question of right or wrong direction is a sham.  It allows us to place blame in all the wrong places and enables us to escape dealing with the underlying causes of whatever it is that is identified as the wrong direction.  For some presently, the wrong direction is equated with whatever the Obama administration is attempting to do. The underlying causes for that conclusion may be racial bigotry, aversion to liberal ideology or simply opposition to government intervention into the health care arena.  Whatever the complaint, it is clear we are the prisoners of political ideologies that bolster our political parties, but that also distort and overturn the will of the People.

It is time to return to basics; to fundamentals as represented in our founding documents and history, and to return our legislative process to defense of freedoms, rights and opportunities while also reducing and reforming the tendency of parties and factions to disrupt, rather than to enhance, our democratic principles and ideals.