The practical constraints of “voting power”

A few weeks ago, I was at a union conference for shop stewards in Oakland, CA. As you might imagine, the union was 100% committed to the election season. The union had long since endorsed Hillary Clinton and the Democratic slate nationally and statewide. The “hype lady” (is there a formal term for this in fundraising?) led a chant that I found very troubling, given what else I know about this union. It goes something like this:

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER?”
“Worker POWER!”

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER? Voting POWER!”
“Voting POWER!”

Things trundle off into the weeds at the end. It feels strange to ask a room to lead in a chant about voting, given that a significant portion of the stewards (and a huge number of regular members) are not citizens and cannot vote. Some are undocumented or otherwise not on a path to citizenship. On UC San Diego campus, meetings of the union are conducted entirely in Spanish, because the custodial staff are overwhelmingly Latina immigrants.

It taps into a larger issue I’ve had with political communication this cycle in general. It presupposes citizenship. It makes voting an essential part of political participation. It’s a manifestation of privilege- non-citizens cannot vote, much like people of color cannot expect the protection of law enforcement. People like me were handed the vote at birth post-dated eighteen years.

This might seem a bit petty, but modern American unions overwhelmingly focus on electoral politics and lobbying. Non-citizens can still work campaigns, but there is an inherent two-tier system that develops. The speaker was right though- unions have worker power. What that is, and what it is used for, depends on the vision and direction of the particular union. Social justice campaigns that center participants in being a member of a community, rather than citizen or non-citizen, allow workers to use their power in a context of equality. The broader the political vision, the more inclusive it will ultimately be, and the better served its membership.

Ten million reasons to vote for Jill Stein, M.D.

The Democratic National Convention has catalyzed a new, much stronger debate about voting Democrat or opting to support the Green presidential nominee, Jill Stein. Dan Savage produced perhaps the “To Be or Not to Be” of misguided anti-Stein arguments a few days ago. The response by Green national co-chair Andrea Mérida Cuéllar was a comprehensive defense of the Green Party ideology and strategy, also highlighting how Savage is against bullying unless the victim is a third-party politician:

We Greens are also well acquainted with Savage’s rhetoric of entitlement regarding Democratic candidacies—for example his violent remarks aimed at Green Pennsylvania congressional candidate Carl Romanelli in 2006, who was challenging Rick Santorum and Bob Casey.  At that time, Savage said about Romanelli, “The idiot Green? . . . Carl Romanelli should be dragged behind a pickup truck until there’s nothing left but the rope.”

Perhaps not the greatest imagery given the murder of James Byrd Jr.

Bernie campaign people are evaluating what to do next, with many not wanting to play the spoiler.

But here’s a secret that isn’t mentioned in many of your friends’s Facebook monologues about unity and the lesser evil: most American voters can’t play the spoiler. The US doesn’t use a national popular vote like many other countries. Only four states in 2012 were within five percentage points. In my home state of California, being the 3,000,000th insurance vote for Clinton isn’t terribly useful.

People like Savage, who profess interest in real opposition to the two major parties, know nothing of how the presidential race can create opportunities for change. Ballot access is essential for providing real choice. And Stein doesn’t need to win to move the cause forward. I don’t mean this in the abstract “changing the conversation” sense. Getting 5% of the national vote gives a party access to funding for the next presidential cycle. This means over $10 million in cold, hard cash in 2020:

5% of the vote nationally is another important threshold. If the Stein campaign reached it, the Green Party would qualify for general election public funding in 2020 that will be worth over $10 million. The public funding for minor parties that qualify (5% to 25% in the previous election) is based on the ratio of the percentage received by the minor party to the average percentage received by the major parties.

Since the Greens contest offices at all levels, a few thousand dollars scattered around here and there could mean Green city council members, mayors, and even state representatives. For Sanders supporters looking to continue his “political revolution”, a vote for Stein is a meaningful step in the right direction.

The pre-democratic American Constitution

american-constitution

 

Discussions about the American political system often seem too…exact. The foundation of law and source of political norms in the United States is portrayed as entrenched, and the Constitution set up as laying out the politics of today in detail.

For instance, the statement “America is a two-party system”. Most facts about the modern American political system are codification through improvisation. It’s because the United States has a pre-modern, pre-democratic Constitution.

Sitting at the core of American law is an archaic foundation, that we spend a lot of time pretending isn’t a dead albatross that we have to drag around. One school of legal thought is that because the Constitution is so short and vague, it can evolve with the times. Whether this is because it is a living document, or that the wisdom of the Framers is seen as a matter of political opinion. Yet the Constitution has not aged well. Modern America is held together with legal gaffer tape.

So, what is the Constitution not equipped to handle? Competitive elections (so, democracy as we know it today). Political parties. Interest groups. Money in politics. A society in which people other than white landowners had value. The welfare state. Modern monetary policy. Economic integration. Cultural shifts on civil rights based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual choice. The Industrial Revolution. Multilateral treaties and international cooperation.

The vagueness has often not been a benefit at all. There is nothing in the text that says women are allowed to vote, but it took a constitutional amendment to specifically make that a right. The Constitution is not adaptable if its general principles must be updated by legally binding alteration.

In practice, the Constitution is dragged into each new era by common law. But this means that the decisions of a small, homogeneous judicial clique decides what are new rights. And there’s nothing to have reversals that go in the opposite direction of progress. Judges essentially create a substantial portion of the law from whole cloth- given the vague nature of their source material, rather than giving a yes/no decision, they have to create new standards.

Now a constitution need not be updated every year, but basically no other constitution in the world predates the basic norms of how democracies govern.

This is hardly an original view. There has been one substantial effort to reconcile the 18th century worldview with principles recognizable in 2016. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights was proposed as a way to deal with one of the most fundamental shifts in American society- that is, economic rights that aren’t directly related to property. The proposal was nothing left than a complete revolution in the role of government. Most of the ideas in the Second Bill of Rights have never been implemented and may never will.

Besides economic rights, no procedures are supplied for how American democracy should work. The Framers willfully refused to regulate party politics, so when partisanship erupted, the rules were improvised. But the well is even drier here, because instead of vague principles, there’s just…nothing. America is a two-party state in practice, but it’s a zero party state in fundamental law.

It is frustrating that many all but worship the Constitution, while ignoring the problems caused by its continued existence. It feels like we’re playing blackjack, but using rules from a book about bridge.

Obstruction by design

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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.

Principle Five: An invitation for radical economic democracy

I’ll be out of the state for 2 1/2 weeks starting Sunday, so full posts will be rare or non-existent. Since I’ll be headed to a scenic part of the world, I’ll take nice pictures and write as much poetry as I can.

I’ll be giving the guest sermon at my local Unitarian Universalist congregation in mid-September. Part of it is already written, there is still quite a bit of research to be done, primarily religious history reading. There are a lot of parts to tie together, which is encouraging. Ideas are not a problem, it’s just a matter of number and order.

At its core, this is a meditation on the fifth principle of Unitarian Universalism, where we triumph “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” In particular, the last five words, “in society at large” are of deep interest to me.

That is an incredibly radical statement, far more than is acknowledged. If UUs are to promote democracy in society at large, it goes far beyond traditional electoral government. In terms of time invested over a lifetime, the economic system is far more present than all the campaigns, referendums, and voting days combined. There is no way to deny that the American economic system, capitalism of a vast size and scale, is a critical part of society. In 2014, it is also undemocratic. Large firms are highly resistant to public opinion, and voting power is decided by investment- which scales with wealth. If you own stock, you have a stake in a publicly-traded company. If we are honest, everyone has a different kind of stake in the actions of these companies. Their pollution, their political donations, their treatment of workers and communities. We are socially taxed with representation.

As written, principle five is calling out for economic democracy. Meaning a system where the workers and the decision-makers were the same people. Such a shift would go beyond reform, it would ditch the economic structure and start from scratch. Not that this is unheard of- America like many other countries has a tradition of co-ops and collectives, just not on the national and international scale. The nice things about UUism is the built-in radical instinct.

The UU congregations and fellowships are aggressive with their external pressures, as divestment from fossil fuels was passed at the General Assembly this year. Boycotts have been used in the past and should continue against anti-LGBT and anti-union organizations. Social change often requires economic change- in the case of the Civil Rights Movement desegregation applied not only to public schools, but the private enterprise of Southern society.

The core structure of a traditional enterprise is oligarchical, where the board that regulates the executive often share members. I’m trying to dig down into the religious history of opposing economic elites and keeping certain things beyond the reach of money. Driving the money changers out of the Temple and driving the insurance companies away from healthcare are moving on the same axis. Part of true democracy is keeping the political, electoral democracy strong and robust.

So it’s interesting working through the whole issue. What is the democratic process? Different countries have different methods of voting and different political cultures. What is society at large? What does that exclude? Individual conscience and collective will are often in conflict, that is another dicey subject.

This is the beauty and the madness of the seven principles. Each covers a vast swath of belief and conviction. The madness is the vagueness, but the beauty is that you can get lost in each one and test the limits of your mind and soul. When I give my sermon in two months there will be those that accept my definitions and implications, and those that don’t. Our parish minister has to deal with that with every sermon she makes.

Never before have such a project been put before me. Public speaking is one matter, a matter I’m comfortable with. Context is important, though. This is like a final project presentation, but instead of competing for points I’m searching for engagement and understanding. I’m excited, and hope it will be a chance for personal growth and contribute to the growth of the congregation at large.

EU elections – the nature of democratic fatigue

In march I wrote a lengthy piece on voter turnout in developed nations, particularly ones with low corruption. My ultimate explanation for the phenomenon of declining voter turnout was what I dubbed democratic fatigue. Google shows that I’m not the first writer to come up with this phrase, but I’m one of very few. It’s a good definition of the problem, so I will continue to use it. Perhaps it will catch on.

The European Union elections concluded last week, one of the largest democratic events on Earth. Ever since direct elections to a European Parliament started, turnout has decreased significantly. Good news in 2014 came not from a positive growth in participation but a stagnation. It was basically the same as it was the last time around in 2009.

Found at http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/turnout.html
Found at http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/turnout.html

What this figure means is an open question. It could mean that 43%, on aggregate, is the bottom. What may be more likely is that there was an increase in interest from far-right and Eurosceptic parties, which propped up an otherwise shrinking electorate. Certainly this may explain some results in countries like France – it’s not just a big shift from other parties, but rather that the National Front electorate is just more interested in these elections. Looking at a party like UKIP, which won the UK elections, one has to see their history of success with EU elections alongside their zero Members of Parliament.

That’s an interesting modifier when looking at democratic fatigue – belief that the election results will change power relations. This applies locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. The perception is that the European Parliament is basically powerless, so voting is more an intellectual (or anti-intellectual) exercise. I find the whole process interesting as an outsider from a two-party country, but it’s quite different from the inside. There’s a thirty point difference between this year’s European elections and the 2010 general election in the United Kingdom. The split between presidential and midterm elections in the United States is well-known. It’s clear that it’s a continuum – people view the President as a clear power player, Congress as a lesser and more nebulous institution, and it goes down the line. The European Parliament at this point has more in common with the UN General Assembly; it is adjacent to power in several directions but is clearly not the group in charge of things.

How to make the EU more engaging and increase participation (an article with some of that conversation is here) is not sure- the disillusion with the elections is nearly total in Slovakia, for instance, while turnout in other countries is robust and healthy. The current state of things seems to be sliding towards a negative election, where people vote for anti-EU parties in increasing numbers, rather than groups that want to build the EU into something larger and better. This isn’t a majority of the vote but it’s headed that way. In my original post I talked about how turnout declines when things are working more or less okay; the Eurozone crisis perked some people up a bit, going against the prevailing feeling that the EU elections are pointless.

There are lessons with last week’s elections all over Europe that can apply on the local and national level. What the European Parliament lacks in power and reach may apply to other governments, and turnout may be lower because of those same issues. Overall turnout for these elections was about the same as for Egypt’s election of their new military general-turned-politician, despite an opposition boycott. Perhaps everyone has found a reason to not show up.

Political tea leaves

In 2008, one of the best posts in the time around the November election was by Ed from Gin and Tacos, a whip smart blog that I link here from time to time. It’s about the idea of constructed explanations, or what is created by the public and the media from events where there is inadequate data for a more objective explanation.

In the context of elections it’s very apt. Think about it this way. Modern society is feedback-driven, whether it’s a form asking you how your hotel experience was, or a text box that opens up when you ask to unsubscribe from an email list. It’s easier than ever to tell a business what you thought about whatever it is that they do. Far beyond the era of hotlines, it’s something you have to avoid these days.

So it seems odd that a ballot, despite being part of an immensely important process, has nothing to provide context to what is marked. Why did this person vote for Proposition 23 but not 25? Wouldn’t they want both? Don’t know. They might as well be cryptic runes from a thousand years ago.

What emerges then, is a guessing game about a huge, complex event. There is a ton of potential data to collect, but very little is; it remains in the mind of each individual voter. Exit polls are notoriously inaccurate and don’t take a representative sample. In any recent United States presidential election, you would have a pretty decent idea of what Ohio or Florida voters did – including important data like their key issues and what influenced their vote.

The hundred million plus who live in safe states? Not likely to meet a data collector. If you’re trying to create a large-scale political narrative, the map looks like a crappy cellular network. Key places are covered, but most is a black hole. When it comes to voters in states like California or Oklahoma, media explanations fall on stereotypes more than anything.

In the 21st century the only other major post-vote data source are online polls, which measure the most politically engaged slice of the electorate. Voters who keep to themselves are a question mark. When the numbers come in, the contours of the results may lie with them and the subtle, small reasons many of them showed up to vote, and what they ultimately voted for.

With the EU elections going on, and the US midterms approaching in a few months, narratives will be constructed well in advance, then paired with polling. If they line up well with the results, they are accepted as gospel. This is problematic, because there are many reasons a party wins or doesn’t win. Is the narrative that X Party won, or is it that they only won by that amount? In a context like the EU elections, where are supporters moving among the various parties? Did turnout bolster certain parties, and should it be considered high, low, or normal given the circumstances?

2012. Mitt Romney wasn’t a good communicator. It was a bad year to be a Republican. The Tea Party dragged the ticket down. Obama’s campaign was run very well. Or maybe just better than Romney’s. Or maybe they cocked things up and got lucky with a weak candidate. These are all estimations because you’re looking at numbers and assigning agency and motives to them. But just like the Man in the Moon isn’t a real face, just something that resembles a face, sometimes numbers resemble a narrative.

The advantage for the media is that it’s hard to call bullshit. And as any detour into cable news can show you, the narrative factory – the myth-making, if you will, goes beyond being a part of the business.

It is the business, now.