It’s good to see Bernie Sanders go beyond the liberal Congressional ideas about reducing loan rates and providing tax credits, calling for free tuition that would end the United States’ status as a dinosaur in college affordability and availability.
The group I’m a part of, Students for Free Tuition, is about real solutions in education. These planks of free education aren’t even radical- it’s just an attempt to get back to higher education of yesteryear, when it was more affordable, and government assistance came from grants and not loans.
There’s a frame of thinking that voting and political participation is low because people are stupid or duped. I think it’s more so that the tepid, halfway solutions proposed won’t work, and most people know that. Free tuition makes all the sense in the world.
The 2014 midterm elections were boring. They fit into a long historical trend of midterms going against the president’s party, and one only needs to look at the distorted ratio of Democratic seats in the Senate that needed defending to Republican ones. Gerrymandering makes the House increasingly predictable and dull- any interesting results occur months earlier in primaries.
Something was learned. Something about nothing. Because nothing was the Democratic Party’s platform going into the elections.
Their economic policy plank was insubstantial. Little effort was dedicated to big-picture ideas, the sort that might override voter cynicism and record-low approval ratings for Congress. Broadly speaking, the Democrats had a reactionary campaign. Rather than defending the president’s agenda or the liberalism that will always be tied to the party, they ran away and tried to find shelter, either with local issues or populist conservatism.
In the end, moving yet further to the right is not going to win elections. If people wish to vote for a conservative candidate, that’s what the Republican Party is there for. Polls show that the public wants economic justice and ending elite privilege. But that’s ignored, so the plan instead is to ignore empirical evidence and go with pundit wisdom. 2014 shouldn’t be thought of as the voters choosing R’s over D’s, but rather a mass of people that saw nothing worth voting for.
As someone outside the two-party mindset, I have no anticipation that the Democratic Party will see the error of its ways and become some great progressive engine worth supporting. But even in the limited spectrum in the United States, it’s clear that there’s no winning scenario at the end of all this. The Republican Party has coalesced around a selection of bold, simple, and terrible ideas. They have an agenda worth hating. There is substance. Democratic Senate candidates fled substance, and often latched onto GOP ideas in the absence of anything else.
Personally I’m glad that Proposition 47 passed in my home state of California. It is a great step towards ending prison overcrowding and the mass incarceration culture. It’s also the sort of sensible policy that isn’t getting passed in Congress anytime soon. A bit of direct democracy is the only respite from gridlock.
Every so often someone, somewhere proposes a constitutional amendment requiring laws to be as simple as possible, and as short as possible. It’s part of the long tradition of suspicion towards bureaucracy. Why is the budget the size of three phone books? Why can’t Congress just get down to the core of it? Tea Party groups and other small-government conservatives often take hardline stances towards making government more common sense, often by taking a howitzer to the various agencies that seem to make stuff complicated. Each Republican presidential primary is a smorgasbord of tax plans, each aimed at hacking the IRS down to a skeleton crew.
The issue is that government of any size is incredibly complex. Any large institution is- look at the metric tons of paperwork produced by a sizable corporation. Large bills like the Affordable Care Act are not the norm, but they are common. Over three hundred million people live in the United States, who then interact with everyone else on Earth. Even the simplest ideas, those common sense two page proposals, will gain weight as it is connected into the legal system.
Ultimately the task state and federal governments have is not to make their laws briefer or in much simpler language, but making the scope and purpose of a law coherent. Most of a long bill’s paperwork, or tax regulation, is the legal machine code created by a dedicated battalion of lawyers. The specifics of those U.S. code alterations are not important, rather the public needs to grasp what their practical effect will be, and what principle is guiding their use. Doing the paper stunt, where politicians show how giant a given bill can be, is just that- a stunt.
Many ideologies attempt to simplify society, but society refuses easy guidelines. It is monstrously complicated because people are different in a million tiny little ways. I expect solutions to societal problems will be complicated. They just need to be sufficiently graspable.
One of the great tropes of American politics is the ineptitude of Congress. In particular, great amounts of journalistic ink have been devoted to gridlock in the U.S. Senate. The headline is always correct- the Senate is dysfunctional and no expertise is needed to see that. But I think there are some poor assumptions made when people talk about the Senate. Here are two:
Senate legislative gridlock is new. It’s really not. Important legislation has passed the House only to die in the Senate since the birth of the Republic. In particular, the first half of the 19th century went from crisis to crisis, as while the South had a much lower population than the North, they were given an equal number of senators.
Senate rejection of treaties is new. The US has signed many treaties but often does not ratify them. UN treaties are some of the most well-known, such as the Kyoto Protocol and more recently the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which failed two years ago. This predates the UN, as the United States, who proposed the League of Nations but did not become a member due to Senate opposition.
Both segue into my main point- the Senate is an inherently obstructive institution. That is why it exists. Its flaws are not borne of modern political culture but just the latest decoration. Not only is the Senate by nature obstructive, I would say that almost all upper houses in parliaments and congresses are obstructive. By nature the elections for the upper body are not rooted in proportionality- many bodies like the German Budesrat have an artificially small gap between tiny regions and huge ones. In cases like the United Kingdom’s House of Lords, the members aren’t elected at all, and their modern power is purely to delay and obstruct legislation.
The deification of the Founding Fathers, and the subsequent Framers, needs an injection of the political reality they crafted. The Connecticut Compromise gets applause as a brilliant piece of union-saving policy work, but it dictated a system where the rights of the minority could hold up nearly every vital government function. This ‘minority’ is often abstract, usually given a very virtuous portrait. Currently that minority is often a group of small-minded politicians, who by virtue of the Senate system do not need to explain their actions or defend their conduct. In the past that minority was representatives of slave power, who killed actions to limit the spread of slavery using the power given to them, even when they were strongly outnumbered by free-state residents.
Media outlets and individuals bemoan terrible Congressional approval ratings, and how little is done in the Senate in particular. This should not be surprising. American government is a blueprint for obstruction.