'Hey, gang, let's put on a government!'
We think we hate the government, but in fact we hate the corporate fat cats and billionaires who own and operate the government – using our tax dollars as their personal bank account. It’s time to recreate our democracy in our true image via direct representation. The Internet makes a directly representative democracy more feasible.
Let’s start by acknowledging two facts: First, U.S. residents identify the government as the biggest problem we face. Second, the government is the property of the Fortune 500 and their progeny, the Fortunate Filthy Rich. No one else matters to politicians.
Backing up the first fact is a recent Gallup poll that asked Americans to identify the biggest problem facing the country. As Chad Merda reports in a January 4, 2016, post on Sun National, government was the most frequent response for the second year in a row (16 percent in 2015, 18 percent in 2014), followed by the economy both years (13 percent and 17 percent, respectively), and by unemployment and immigration in 2015 (8 percent each), and by unemployment (15 percent) and healthcare (10 percent) in 2014.
Backing up the second fact is research conducted by Princeton University Professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Professor Benjamin Page (pdf) that concluded “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” (Breitbart’s Wynton Hall writes about the study in an August 12, 2014, article.)
Is Americans’ hatred for their government a form of self-loathing in a country “of the people, by the people, and for the people”? No, because we are no longer a country of, by, and for the people. We are now a country for profit. All that matters is business – unfettered capitalism rules over the land of the fleeced and the home of the irate.
Tracing political distrust back to states’ rights
In a June 6, 2015, post on Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Nancy LeTourneau traces the roots of our disenchantment with government to a shift in strategy by the Republican Party in the 1970s. The GOP’s Southern Strategy played up states’ rights as a way to undermine the authority of the federal government. The distrust of the feds reached new heights with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 on a platform that “the government is not the solution, but the problem.”
The current mindset of the Republicans in Congress is to obstruct and disrupt in an attempt to “sabotag[e] the reputation of an institution of the government.” This promotes their goal of being perceived as anti-government. The strategy “plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media,” according to former Republican apparatchik Mike Lofgren in his “Goodbye to all that” essay from September 2011.
“Low-information” voters simply conclude “they’re all crooks,” according to Lofgren, without understanding that they have been conned. The voters’ failure to research the candidates and their positions plays into the hands of the party-loyal politicians – and the deep-pockets contributors who own both parties and nearly all office holders.
The media, meanwhile, report only on crises, because that’s what generates ratings, and ratings generate revenue. So the media make mountains out of molehill matters, such as the failure of the healthcare.gov rollout and problems with the Veterans Administration. Income inequality and the collapse of the middle class – two crises that are caused by and benefit media’s corporate sponsors – are all but ignored by the press.
We’re more polarized in our political beliefs than ever
I recall hearing once that politics is the art of compromise. Compromise works only when there’s mutual respect. Each side has to trust that the other side is motivated by a desire to do right by all parties, not just the people they agree with. Today, the two parties disrespect and distrust each other at levels unprecedented in our country’s history. In a January 30, 2014, article in the Washington Post, two political science professors, Marc Hetherington of Vanderbilt University and Thomas Rudolph of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, write that it’s the politicians who are polarized, not the people they claim to represent.
In the 1970s, when Democrats and Republicans were asked to rate the other party on a scale from 0 (really hate) to 100 (really love), the scores tended to be in the 40s. In the 1990s, each party rated the other in the 30s, aggregately speaking. In the survey conducted in late 2011, each of the two parties was rated at 18 by the other. This is far lower than members of each party rated the groups most associated with the opposing party: Republicans rated “feminists” at 48, “labor unions” at 40, and “atheists” at 35; while Democrats rated “big business” at 51, “Christian fundamentalists” at 50, and “tea party” at 35.
It really comes down to spite: Neither party will cooperate with the other, not because the animosity is in the best interests of their constituencies, or even what their constituencies want, but because each party resents the other wielding political power it wants all for itself. (The study authors note that the Republicans have taken this bitter refusal to cooperate with the Obama Administration to unprecedented low levels.)
The researchers conclude that while voters don’t share their elected representatives’ complete distrust for the other party, they reinforce it by failing to “encourage polarized politicians to rise above their basest instincts.”
It’s time to shine a light on the ‘shadow government’
Recently I attempted to engage a Donald Trump supporter to find out why the person believes Trump is the best choice as our next President. The supporter waved me off with a laugh, saying, “He’ll show ‘em.” His is a protest vote, which is his right, although I’m not sure the vote will be an effective way to approach the problem of government dysfunction.
It’s sad when someone believes their vote no longer matters, but at the same time, it’s difficult to argue against that belief. In his new book, “The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government,” Lofgren writes that top U.S. officials are at the mercy of the “wealthy elites” who have hijacked our government: a handful of powerful government agencies and courts; Wall Street; and the tech industry.
Topping the list of the shadow government are the military industrial complex (including the “homeland security apparatus,” as Lofgren refers to it), along with the Department of the Treasury, the Justice Department, and a handful of courts that include the southern district of Manhattan, the eastern district of Virginia, and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts. The big Wall Street firms are so enmeshed in the federal agencies created to monitor them that you can’t tell where the firms end and the government begins. Silicon Valley serves both as participant – providing the technology that makes the shadow government’s control possible – and as benefactor – receiving unprecedented intellectual property and other protections that guarantee its unfettered profitability.
Lofgren points to the contradictions we’ve all come to live with: We tout our freedom while living as economic slaves in a surveillance state. We claim to love peace but find ourselves in a state of perpetual war (somebody page George Orwell). Lofgren concludes that ultimately, the United States will either collapse, a la the Soviet Union, or it will turn to “fascism with a populist camouflage,” a la Donald Trump.
I like to think there’s a third alternative that could not only save us but usher in an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity.
The time has come for a direct democracy
Are we ready for a government that’s truly “by the people”? The Internet makes it possible, if we have the will, and if we are willing to do the hard work of running things ourselves. The Co-Intelligence Institute defines direct democracy as “citizens making policy and law decisions in person, without going through representatives and legislatures.” It relies on “public wisdom” gleaned by convening “citizen deliberative councils” comprised of people chosen at random from the community.
Another enabling technology for a truly participatory democracy is blockchain, which relies on the masses rather than any third-party authority to confirm the veracity of information and validity of transactions. Imagine two parties being able to enter into and enforce contracts without the need for lawyers, or to transfer property without requiring a bank or other financial intermediary. These are some of the potential uses of blockchain’s ledger technology, as explained by MIT Media Lab’s Brian Forde and Michael Casey in a January 5, 2016, article in Wired.
(The December 17, 2015, Weekly described the long-term potential of blockchain, and pointed out that the technology’s impact won’t be felt for many years to come.)
It has been said that in our current political state, our only recourse if we don’t like the way things are going is to protest. Technology will ultimately make it much easier for us to participate directly in the political discussion. (As I pointed out above and in the December 22, 2015, legal shorts, the opinions of the average American have zero impact on politicians.)
Turning things around starts by citizens demanding transparency in all government operations. The Sunlight Foundation’s Open Data Policy Guidelines serve as a blueprint for individuals and groups looking to liberate public data that the government either cannot or will not release. Step one is to convince local, state, and federal agencies to make open data the default setting for all the information they generate. This precludes the need for citizens to request the data, particularly when they may not know in advance what to ask for and who to ask for it.
Once the data is public, its fruitful use is limited only by the imagination of the citizenry equipped with the tools that let them convert the data into intelligence. We need to make noise, and to make it clear to the people in power that if they don’t start listening to us and letting us in on the policymaking, we’ll take their jobs. Call it the Uberization of government, if you will.